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


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!