Space for sociological factors when looking at scientific research

I ran into this blog post discussing a recent study published in Hormones and Behavior titled “Maternal tendencies in women are associated with estrogen levels and facial femininity.” This particular blogger at Scientific American starts out by suggesting she doesn’t like the results:

Friend of the blog Cackle of Rad was the first person to send me this paper, and when I first tried to read it, I got…pretty angry. Being a rather obsessively logical person, I know why I felt angry about this paper, and I worked very hard to step back from it and approach it in a thoroughly scientific manner.

It didn’t work, I called in Kate. That helped a little.

In the end, it’s not a bad paper. The data are the data, as my graduate advisor always says. But data need to be interpreted, and interpretations require context. And I think what’s missing from this paper is not data or adequate methods. It’s context.

In the end, the blogger suggests the “context” needed really are a number of sociological factors that might influence perceptions:

So I wonder if the authors should make more effort to look into sociological factors. How does the intense pressure on women to become wives and mothers change as a function of how feminine the girl looks? I think you can’t separate any of this from this whole “women with higher estrogen want to be mothers” idea. This is why papers like this bug me, because they try to sell this as a evolutionary thing, without really acknowledging how much sociological pressure goes in to making women want to be mothers. And of course now I read them and I instantly get bristly, because what I see is people making assumptions about what I want, and what I must feel like, based on a few aspects of my physiology. It can be of value scientifically…but I don’t want it to apply to ME. I know it might be science, but I also find it more than a bit insulting.

I don’t know this area of research so I don’t have much room to dispute the results of the original study. However, how this blogger goes about this argument for adding sociological factors is interesting. Here are two possible options for making this argument:

1. Argument #1: the study actually could benefit from sociological factors. Definitions of femininity are wrapped up in cultural assumptions and patterns. There is a lot of research to back this up and perhaps we can point to specific parts of this study that would be altered if context was taken into account. But this doesn’t seem to be conclusion of this blog post.

2. Argument #2: there must be some sociological factors involved here because I don’t like these results. On one hand, perhaps it is admirable to admit one doesn’t like these research results. This can often be true about scientific results: it challenges our personal understandings of the world. So why end the post by again emphasizing that the blogger doesn’t like the results? Does this simply reduce sociology to the backup science that one only calls in to suggest that everything is cultural or relative or socially conditioned?

Perhaps I am simply reading too much into this. I don’t know how much natural science research could be improved by including sociological factors, whether it is often considered, or whether this is simply an unusual blog post. Argument #1 is the stronger scientific argument and is the one that should be emphasized more here.

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