Do women embrace “other ways of knowing” because they find math and science too hard?

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It is a sad fact that women are the biggest fans by far of contemporary charlatanism. It’s true for astrology and tarot cards, and equally true for health quackery like reiki and homeopathy.

In the paper The appeal of medical quackery: A rhetorical analysis, pharmacists Widder and Anderson note that believers in quackery are likely to be female, spiritual, with lower perceived health and a “holistic” view of health problems.

Why do so many women embrace quackery?

The currently favored explanation is because healthcare providers have been notoriously unsympathetic to women’s health issues. That explanation is advanced by everyone from quack defenders like Jennifer Block:

Belief in quackery has been RISING at the same time medicine has been taking women’s symptoms and suffering more seriously.

When we become empowered to learn more about our bodies, our instincts, our emotional landscapes and the connections therein, maybe we’ll begin to demand that our complex and (still!) mysterious physiologies are treated with respect, dignity, and humility in the realms of medicine and science.

to physicians fighting quackery like cardiac surgeon Nikki Stamp who wrote Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Goop Lab’ is horrible. The medical industry is partly to blame. in yesterday’s Washington Post.

…[M]edicine as a profession and a science has no doubt played a part in the genesis and growth of big wellness. For virtually the whole of its existence, medicine has disenfranchised women and, to varying degrees, continues to do so. Even as medicine has modernized with an emphasis on autonomy and resolving bias, it remains, at times, paternalistic and patriarchal.

But what if there’s another reason altogether? Perhaps women’s embrace of quackery is a direct results of their lack of education in math and science.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m NOT arguing that medicine is perfect. I’m well aware that there is a long and ugly history of medical paternalism in which women’s symptoms, pain and suffering have been ignored. But belief in quackery has been RISING in parallel to decreases in that paternalistic attitude.

Women now represent half of entering medical school classes and far more than half of physicians in fields like gynecology and pediatrics. Women are taking a greater role overall in the delivery of healthcare as a result of a rise in nurse practitioners and midwives. If belief in quackery were truly a response to practitioners who don’t understand and don’t care about women’s health concerns, it should be falling in the early 21st Century, not rising.

Perhaps women embrace healthcare quackery — and “other ways of knowing” — not because they are being ignored by mainstream providers, but because they don’t understand and therefore fear math and science.

Consider the issue of vaccinations. What do you need to know to understand the science around vaccines? In addition to education in immunology, you need a good grasp in three areas: the scientific method, statistics and logical thinking. Education and training in STEM (science, math, engineering and tech) provide students with a strong foundation in science, statistics and logical thinking and women are notoriously underrepresented in STEM

It’s no wonder then that women who lack grounding in science, statistics and basic logic imagine that the case for vaccines is nothing more than accepting the authority of experts. There is literally no way for them to apprehend the real arguments for the safety and efficacy of vaccines beyond taking someone else’s word for it. In truth, anti-vaxxers are more likely to be “sheeple” than the pro-vaxxers they criticize; they simply rely on favored quacks like Andrew Wakefield rather than legitimate scientists because they can’t tell the difference.

There’s another reason why women embrace healthcare quackery. Many healthcare quacks are women. Science is hard and quackery is easy. Scientific professions require rigor; quack professions require only credulousness. It’s hard to be a pharmacist; it’s easy to be an herbalist. It’s hard to be an orthopedic surgeon; it’s easy to be a chiropractor. It is much harder to become a physician than a nurse. It also a lot harder to be an obstetrician than to be a midwife. That’s reflected in the fact that physicians are far less likely than midwives and nurses to be taken in by and become purveyors of quack theories and remedies.

Maybe the solution to the current epidemic of belief in quackery is one that we should be pursuing in any case: encouraging and facilitating an increase of women in science, math, engineering and technology!

  • EMT2014

    I went to a girls’ prep school, one of the best in the country, which placed a very strong emphasis on STEM (we had the first standalone building dedicated to girls’ elementary-level science education!) along with everything else–this was definitely not a high-society debutante finishing school…and one of my classmates ended up starting her own woo-adjacent medical practice after graduating summa cum laude from one of the best medical schools in the country. I think it might be part of the issue, but not the entire explanation.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    It is not just a paternalistic attitude on the part of physicians that contributes to women (and others) feeling alienated by the medical system. It’s the fact that our system itself—regardless of the providers within it—is set up to prioritize profit over people (I’m sure this is not exactly a hot take here.) Access to an experience that is thorough and feels respectful and sensitive is a privilege in this country, one that many people do not have. Because, as easy and fun as it can be to take potshots at the Goop crowd (I do it too) a lot of the women who get into alternative medicine and quackery are poor.

    I am a clinical social worker who provides therapy at a rape crisis center that offers free services. Which means that most of my clients are a)women b)with gendered trauma histories c) who don’t have good insurance and sometimes none at all. I regularly hear stories about their experiences in the medical system, things that I don’t experience in with my cushy PPO—or, at least, things that I don’t have to experience for very long because I don’t have to stick around. I have other options. Some of the things I hear can be blamed on the doctor’s behavior but by no means all. I suspect a lot of these providers who are trying to serve the legions of underserved are stretched to thin, burnt out, or just not working under conditions that even allow them to provide the kind of care and attention they’d like to give their patients. But the effect is still degrading and a lot of my clients get into BS alternative therapies—yes, poor people do too. Quacks do a good business with a lot of my clients population, who are thrilled just to be able to see someone who gives them time and facile sympathy. (And then there are the wellness MLMs, which are ruinous in more ways than one…)

    I am loudly pro-vax to anyone who will listen and not a fan of alternative medicine and wellness crap in general and I have managed to be so without being a STEM professional. This is good news because as a policy recommendation to combat pseudoscience belief among women, “Women should just all get highly specialized education that allows them to intricately understand the science of vaccination” has…weaknesses. I don’t need to be a literal expert on vaccination. Experts on anything are always a small part of the population. I’ve done just fine, just with having had good science teachers at a good public high school, the science gen eds I took in college as a part of my non-STEM undergraduate degree and the one stat course I was required to take for my MSW. That’s all I’ve got and it’s been enough to protect me from the siren song of anti-vaxxers and quacks. But what I’ve also had that is probably even more important is the life-long privilege of access to good healthcare experiences. That hasn’t been foolproof—I’ve had my own nightmare experiences here or there. But the system works as well for me as it does for any woman, whatever you want to make of that.

    So maybe that should be our focus, not implying that, to not be wooed by woo, you need to obtain a highly specialized STEM education (though not a nursing education, apparently, because nurses are apparently credulous lightweights? Never mind that nurses have more STEM education than most of the population, including most of the well-educated population.) And if we want a more STEM-literate female population, how about just good, well-funded K-12 education and a challenge to the attitudes that convince girls that they can’t do math when they are still many years away from being able to consider an MD or Ph.D.

    When systems are set up to actually work for most people, people tend to trust them more. Years of post-graduate eduction not required. As a bonus, less preventable illness, misery, and death!

    • demodocus

      These days start with pre-k, because the rules from on high are treating kindergarten more like my 1st grade. I heard a fair number of complaints from kindy teachers when I was subbing 20 years ago and I gather it’s still pretty similar, though fewer remember the change.

  • The Kids Aren’t AltRight

    In defense of women, in my experience, men are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

    I think that women embrace woo because women, and especially mothers, are likely to be shut out of careers that can provide a sense of knowledge and accomplishment, and instead turn to woo to feel smart and powerful. Academic and business institutions can be unforgiving if you take several years off to raise your kids and don’t keep up with developments in your field and they often deny flexible schedules and part time work, but woo doesn’t! You don’t have to stay on top of new findings, you can just make them up! And you can get involved in woo around your children’s schedules and from home.

    Woo also offers a form of power that won’t inconvenience your husband or threaten the status of any other man.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      And woo is ostensibly about providing care and nurturance to others as well as to self and, gosh, which gender tends to get tasked with doing that? Woo also freely conflates health with beauty and thinness and, gosh, which gender is constantly told to obsessively strive for those things in order to have any worth? And yes, I think there’s a lot to the idea that woo provides a way for a lot of women to develop a type of seeming expertise that isn’t tethered to professional institutions that are hostile to them and to the needs of family life. This also fills a void for women who are in subcultures that don’t encourage women to have goals separate from their families. Woo is pretty big among conservative Christian women, for example.

      There‘s a whole lot going on here besides “Women are chumps because they’re not all trained statisticians.”

  • fiftyfifty1

    The most woo-filled doc I know graduated from elite universities (top 5 in US) for both undergrad and med school. So for some, I don’t think it’s that they can’t do math and science so much as they actually believe in “other ways of knowing.”

    • mabelcruet

      I’ve mentioned this before I think, but I had a couple of medical students who were doing their special study module in pathology a few months back. They had done their obstetrics and gynaecology clinical attachment, and some paediatrics, so they were very interested in some of the cases we had that week-we had stillbirths, an intrapartum stillbirth, neonatal collapse and a cot death, so we covered a fair amount.

      I was telling them about neonatal hypernatraemia and how exclusive breast feeding is the single biggest factor in re-admission, and it turns out that their sessions on breast feeding were taught by a lactation consultant, not even a midwife, a lactation consultant. They’d been told about the backwash saliva crap, given all sorts of nonsense stats about how every woman could breast feed, even those following mastectomy. These were 4th year students (1 year before qualification) and they were very bright, both of them had asked lots of intelligent questions and were obviously really interested, and both of them were concerned about the teaching they’d had. They had been told the lies about the size of the newborn stomach, and given that they’d just seen a newborn stomach physically in front of them, they knew full well they’d been given a load of hooey. But in their exam, if they got a question about lactation, would they have to regurgitate the crap to pass, or provide genuine science based accurate answers? And another problem that one of them raised was that some of their group had swallowed all this nonsense wholesale, and were talking to expectant mothers perpetuating the lies. I suggested very strongly that they might want to raise concerns about the standard of teaching with the medical school, but I suspect that would end up with them getting into behind the scenes medical politics. When I was a student, we did have some sessions taught by non-medics, but these were sessions from physiotherapists, speech therapy, audiology etc-proper scientific paramedical specialties. My two students might have been scarily bright (they knew about Williams syndrome, which I certainly didn’t when I was at their level!) or be appropriately robust and questioning when assessing their teaching, but I suspect that other students may just take it as read and end up believing the woo.

      • EMT2014

        I thought the “saliva backwash crap” had been clinically studied and proven, although perhaps not to the extent that the woo-makers are touting it. An old friend from college who’s a research chemist said he’d read about it and thought it was very interesting, and he’s likely to have looked at some pretty high-level sources.

        • mabelcruet

          No, at the moment there is no proof whatsoever. It’s an idea that has been floated but never proven, and unfortunately has made it into the mainstream media with no supporting evidence. There’s currently no peer-reviewed evidence published in a scientific journal, its all on well baby blogs and the like.

          There’s work looking at the interaction of breast milk and neonatal saliva in microbiological inhibition and establishing a healthy infant oral microbiome (the combination of breast milk and infant saliva releases hydrogen peroxide which has anti-microbial qualities, and this may be one of the reasons that the microbiome is different in infants who breast feed and those who tube feed or formula feed. What we don’t know yet is if that difference has any significance for the infant’s long term health).

          The idea that infant saliva somehow gets sucked up or absorbed into the breast ducts is interesting, but unproven. Infant suckling does not create a vaccum in the breast ducts, so there is no real mechanism for how any secretion can get back up there, and given that during suckling the milk is flowing the other direction that would sweep it all out-the ducts aren’t a sterile environment, we know that there are bacterial organisms in them which then get into the milk, and this helps to establish the infant microbiome, but again, we don’t know whether this is significant in terms of life long health.

          Infectious organisms are much more likely to be entering the mother’s body simply as a result of a shared space, in the same way that any group of people living in a shared space usually end up all coming down with the same bug. Most respiratory type viruses-the typical snuffly nose type bugs that all children get-are passed on by droplet transmission, in fluid droplets when you sneeze or cough, or by physical contact (which is why you should regularly wash your hands when you have a cold). If your baby has a virus, and you’re breast feeding, your faces are going to be very close together, you will end up getting the same infection, and your body will make antibodies which your child may benefit from.

  • Jet Kin

    I work in a STEM field with both men and women who embrace quackery. I don’t think the two are linked at all. Frankly I find your premise offensive to women. There are lots of guys who know nothing about science or medicine either, and they don’t necessarily go for pseudoscience (but that may because they’re too busy being red-pillers).
    I think embrace of quackery and pseudoscience is caused by the same inherent qualities of humans as religion. Humans like to “know” the answers to things. It’s very comforting to think you have all the answers. Unfortunately, science and medicine don’t always have all the answers. To be an honest scientist, you need to accept uncertainty as your premise. You need to be able to say “I don’t know”.
    I don’t exactly know how abiogenesis or the big bang occurred, but that doesn’t mean “because god”. Just like the doctor doesn’t always know why I’m tired or have a solution for me.
    But for most people, “I don’t know” is too difficult. It’s much more comforting to think of god and heaven than to think of just ceasing to exist while your body becomes part of the soil. Just like it’s much easier to go to a quack who promises you all the answers rather than see the oncologist who isn’t entirely sure she’ll be able to put you in remission, or whether you’re likely to stay there.

    • FormerPhysicist

      Plenty of men go for woo. Jeez, look at all the “exercise supplements”.

    • But Dr. Tuteur isn’t saying that women are incapable of understanding math and science; her post a few days ago surely shows that. I think what she’s saying is that girls are discouraged from receiving enough STEM education to overcome the fear that math and science can inspire.

      Men certainly are susceptible to woo, but it seems to me that women are more so–which is problematic since they’re often the ones who decide what care their children will receive.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        This stuff is marketed to women because they are the ones who decide what care their children will receive.

    • AnnaPDE

      I agree about the refusal to live with “I don’t know”. I think the difference is though that the accepted and expected ways of getting around that are very different for men and women.

      For men, openly embracing the irrational is considered to be as out of line — you’re supposed to be know something else instead and be good at it. To go full-on woo, you need quite a bit of self confidence.
      On the other hand, touchy-feely woo BS is seen as completely acceptable for women. In fact it’s being pushed as a way of empowerment by a quasi-mainstream narrative, which is happily supported by self-professed feminists from some traditionally authority-critical corners of the humanities: “Women think differently”, “women lead differently”, “women are so much better at X by using their empathy and intuition”… *barf*

      Getting this kind of pass for pretending to be stupid does women and equality a massive disservice. But it’s being practised everyday.
      My newest example is from yesterday: The PE teacher at my son’s new high school, in their very first lesson, was extra strict with the boys on the rules of the game they played for warm-up, while pointedly not applying them at all to the girls. Some of the boys complained that this was unfair and sexist. The teacher replied that the boys can just try harder, and that he’s being lenient with the girls to “encourage them so they enjoy sports”. (We’re talking about a very selective school for high achievers, with a STEM focus…) The girls understandably were pretty insulted by this, and asked the teacher to stop it, but he didn’t get why they weren’t grateful for his “support”.
      Hooray for equality, right?

      • The Kids Aren’t AltRight

        The whole thing where we tell women bullshit lies as empowerment is so depressing.

  • AnnaPDE

    I think you’re on to something here.
    Understanding maths and science to a decent level requires work, regardless of gender. And there’s the discomfort of not knowing and having to either work for knowledge, or just putting up with this discomfort.

    As a man, you’re sort of expected to put in the required work for basic practical science literacy, and if you really don’t want to, there’s still a range of somewhat easier fields that are still recognised as useful and worthy while being pretty firmly based in observed reality — from building things to fixing cars. And a lot of these fields are very clearly coded as “manly”.

    In contrast, as a woman there’s a constant subtle societal message of “this science and tech stuff is not really for you”, which very effectively makes the efforts to get girls to like STEM look like cheap and helpless propaganda. Worse yet, there’s this wonderful excuse for what to do when the going gets tough in the icky not-girly science: Just call it all a big scam of the patriarchy, embrace the “other ways of knowing”, and enjoy the friendship and mutial admiration of your fellow science illiterates. Better yet, you are rewarded with an illusion of control over your surroundings.

    What’s not to like, at least until you really need proper medical help?

    • fiftyfifty1

      “friendship and mutual admiration”–I agree that is a huge factor.

  • mabelcruet

    I think a large part of belief in quackery is fear of uncertainty. We deal with issues that we can’t pin down at times, such as ‘How long have I got?’ ‘What is my risk of complications?’ Patients don’t like to hear ‘we can’t say precisely, but on average patients with your condition have a 5 year survival of 30%’ They want absolute certainty and that’s why you end up with stupid headlines as ‘the doctors told me I’d be dead in 3 months and I’m still here’ even though the doctor said nothing of the sort and gave them standard 1 year and 5 year survival times. Quacks are far more likely to give definite answers-the answers are basically a load of hooey, but they are definite. Yes, you have subluxed facet joints and your pelvis is unbalanced, but a course of 50 chiropractic sessions will cure you. Yes, you have total body Candida and your liver is only functioning at 5%, but drink this apple vinegar and milkwort extract and you will be cured. Conventional medicine gives people probabilities, possibilities, statistics, population based answers, whereas quacks will ignore the uncertainty and invent ‘facts’ for their patient, and ‘facts’ are more reassuring than uncertainty. When people are scared, someone offering them facts about their cure is far more appealing.

  • Leading Zero

    I think it has far less to do with education in science and math, and more to do with the reasons people believe in conspiracy theories.

    “Most people who believe global warming is real or that vaccines are safe don’t do so because they understand the science. Rather, they trust the experts. ”
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-apes/201801/why-do-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories

    • fiftyfifty1

      I agree that some people just seem to have brains that are prone to conspiracy theories and woo. And what woo they happen to latch onto is influenced by gender. For example, in our society, healthcare choices for the family are women’s work, so women who have woo-prone brains get invested in medical quackery. In our society, stereo systems are a man’s thing, so men who have woo-prone brains get invested in bogus theories about stereo systems and what sounds better and you can do all the blind listening tests you want to prove they can’t tell the difference and still they insist they need to spend another $20,000 on some stereo gadget. And woo-medicine has a subculture and women in the subculture can amass status with each other. And same with men and stereos (or moon landings or climate deniers etc.)

  • demodocus

    If I understand correctly, back in the day when Astronomy wasn’t a thing, astrologers were actually pretty good with a lot of aspects of STEM. They had to figure out all the maths and where stars and planets were for various “reasons”. Their answers were bunk, of course, but their charts weren’t half bad.

    • And alchemy gave us chemistry, too. Medicine and magic used to be more or less the same discipline.

  • rational thinker

    I have personally noticed acceptance of quackery seems to tie into social status. Just like organic food, those who have money to spare waste it on homeopathic items and they are more likely to use a chiropractor too. Mainly in my area its the housewives that have husbands that make a lot of money. It seems to be another way of climbing the social ladder and simply just showing off. These women usually have gone to some kind of college too.

  • AA

    OT: ProPublica and Vox are looking for experiences of parents who have had or attempted a planned out of hospital birth, whether a homebirth or out of hospital birth center.

    https://www.vox.com/2020/2/10/21131161/home-birth-insurance-finances

  • My mother’s innumeracy and my brother’s fifty years of incompetence in the kitchen have fear at their roots. Nearly anyone can do basic math and science, if people take enough trouble with them; my dad loved teaching math to people who were afraid of it, and showing them that numbers really scary.

    • Christine O’Hare

      Yes! While there is a great deal of effort put into literacy of all types, numeracy seems to be left behind, yet is just as critical for understanding and participating fully in many aspects of daily life.