Skeptical of the Skeptics: Questioning Conventional Wisdom

April 1, 2009

A few weeks ago, a new aquaintance told me that his wife had looked up my work on the Web. They had read my articles and columns, and were impressed by my investigations and research (or at least they politely faked it well). They liked the Bigfoot work, the ghost investigations, this and that—- but there was one exception, for his wife anyway. As he explained, "My wife says you don’t know anything about girls’ self-esteem."

He was referring to the research and articles I’d published about body image and self-esteem (many of them can be found at LiveScience.com and doing a quick Google search). I had concluded that the popular idea that many or most girls and young women have low self-esteem and body image problems because of the media was almost certainly not true, or greatly exaggerated at best. I wasn’t offended by the comment that I didn’t know anything about the topic, as it’s to be expected when you challenge a belief so widespread, something that so cuts against the grain of conventional wisdom. We hear it over and over in the media, that thin models and actresses are causing anorexia, and legions of women constantly struggle to be a size 2. When someone comes along and says it’s bullshit, who you gonna believe?

The problem is that my articles and columns were not opinion pieces; my facts, figures, and conclusions came from published, peer-reviewed medical studies, research—- and perhaps most importantly, surveys of girls themselves. The references are right there for all to see in most of the pieces; I’m simply reporting what experts in the field have reported. If my interpretation of the data is wrong, or my facts are off, I’m perfectly happy to have my errors pointed out to me. But to say that I don’t know anything about the topic because  the research I’m reporting on doesn’t jibe with the popular view strikes me as odd and raises interesting questions.

If I’m wrong, does that mean that the majority of the tens of thousands of surveyed girls and women are lying or mistaken when they say that they have good self-esteem, don’t see Barbie as a role model, and for the most part aren’t trying to lose weight? Perhaps the dozens of studies got it wrong, but it seems more likely a case of, "What you’re saying goes against what I’ve been told and my personal experience, so it must be wrong." Yet, hopefully as we all know, what we are told (especially by the media) is not always true, and our personal experiences are not a reliable guide to reality (ask any schizophrenic). Instead, scientists rely on well-controlled studies, research, and surveys to find out about the world.

Reality is not an opinion poll, and if an idea, claim, or assertion goes against the commonly accepted wisdom, it should not be dimissed out of hand but instead examined more closely. It is possible that the polls, surveys, studies, and research are wrong (or that I have gravely misinterpreted the data), and that I am wrong about the issue of body image and self-esteem despite many years of research on the topic. If so, then the truth will come from close, skeptical examination all the evidence—- not a summary dismissal. Unfortunately, few people take the time to closely examine their beliefs, instead relying on knee-jerk acceptance or rejection based largely on how well the new information fits their pre-existing beliefs. It’s not enough to simply say, "I don’t believe that," a skeptic should be able to say   why he or she doesn’t believe a claim. Otherwise, it’s not a debate about evidence, it’s an argument about beliefs.

 

Comments:

#1 MrMylesGuy (Guest) on Wednesday April 01, 2009 at 11:14am

I hope you didn’t offend your new acquaintances with this blog.  Of course, I realize you are using them as an example of the more general population that takes it hard to accept facts in the face of accepted beliefs.  I would further point out that whenever I challenge someone’s beliefs like that, I do often get a negative response at first, but given time, and provided your argument is based on reason and facts, for the most part the other party usually loosens up and comes to embrace the glass that holds water.

#2 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday April 01, 2009 at 11:22am

Hmmyes but…

“it’s to be expected when you challenge a belief so widespread, something that so cuts against the grain of conventional wisdom.”

I’m not sure it’s just because the belief is widespread and conventional that people are skeptical of the counter-claims. I think there’s more to it - not necessarily anything that’s more rational or justifiable, but just more.

I think it may be a kind of tangle of recursive thoughts about extrapolation from personal experience, and denial, and suspicion. That is I think we (women, I guess) may think we ourselves take in messages about body image more than we fully realize ourselves, and perhaps that other people do that more than we do, and that people may claim their self-esteem is higher than it really is, and so on. We may suspect that the whole subject is too fraught and too riddled with competing kinds of pressure (internal and external) - to be strong, to be sexy, to be self-determined, to be hot, to be skeptical about advertising and skinny models, to be healthy, etc etc etc - for opinion surveys to be completely reliable.

I have to admit (and it’s probably obvious anyway) that I suspect that myself. Lots of people just don’t want to admit, to themselves or others, that they do internalize images of skinny models - and many people know that - so people are perhaps sensibly skeptical about the research. It could be purely obstinate refusal to believe the results, but it could also be more complicated than that.

#3 Ben Radford on Wednesday April 01, 2009 at 7:30pm

MrMyles—If they see this, I don’t think they’ll be offended; I honestly didn’t take offense to being told that I knew nothing about a topic I’d spent years researching, so perhaps a bit of a thin skin will serve us both!

Ophelia—You raise an interesting point about the reliability of self-reports. But professional researchers spend a lot of time and effort trying to minimize such problems, and if self-reporting can’t be seen as reliable, what can? It may be true that lots of people just don’t want to admit, to themselves or others, that they do internalize images of skinny models, but for the results to be wrong, that suggests that the majority of respondents are consciously or unconsciously misleading researchers… I’m certainly not going to make that assertion!

That also brings up the validity of related research and polls, such as those that find that most people are not dieting. The popular “Bridget Jones” myth is that most women are on calorie-restricting diets much of the time, trying desperately to trim down to look like skinny models. Yet polls and research consistently show that while many people are dieting (as well they should; two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese), the majority are not dieting, and do not stick to diets….

#4 MrMylesGuy on Wednesday April 01, 2009 at 9:03pm

I find I often question the reliability of some polls myself, and it’s only natural to do so as a skeptic, but Ben is right not to assume to know more than professional research shows (professional being the key term).  We may “feel” a particular way individually, and it’s natural to project and make presumptions about how others might feel, but studies provide bigger pictures that often pop our bubbles.  It’s one thing to question an idea as a skeptic, it’s another to question the answers based on your own feelings.

Although now that I think about it, I would like to see the results of a study that observed another study on women and men answering questions of weight and body image.

#5 MrMylesGuy on Wednesday April 01, 2009 at 9:18pm

Ben says: “Yet, hopefully as we all know, what we are told (especially by the media) is not always true, and our personal experiences are not a reliable guide to reality (ask any schizophrenic).”

I would say that perhaps being told by the media over and over again, enforcing ideas and then reinforcing its own ideas, plays a very big part in what we believe.  When every story is “breaking news” followed by 30 seconds of hard hitting ads followed by 30 more seconds of in your face ads, it’s hard, even for a skeptic, to stop, think and research what they just heard.

I would also like to say, I have a brother who is schizophrenic, and he would not be the one to ask if what he just told me was reliable. In fact, I got yelled at for doing just that last weekend.

#6 Ben Radford on Wednesday April 01, 2009 at 9:36pm

“I would say that perhaps being told by the media over and over again, enforcing ideas and then reinforcing its own ideas, plays a very big part in what we believe.”

I wrote about this in my book Media Mythmakers… there’s some truth to that, depending on what type of beliefs you’re talking about.

But the media’s influence (esp. in advertising & pop culture) has in general been greatly exaggerated. Hundreds of millions of American women see thin models and actresses every day in the media (and supposedly believe they should look like them), yet the vast majority of American women are overweight. Car companies have tried desperately to sell big trucks to consumers over the past six months, yet sales have dropped like a rock. Millions of dollars were spent on those “Got Milk?” commercials everyone sees—yet milk consumption has not increased….

#7 MrMylesGuy on Wednesday April 01, 2009 at 10:24pm

I feel embarrassed admitting it, but you totally just blew my mind.  I have just put your book in my Amazon.com wish list for future purchase (I’m new to the humanist world, so I’m making my way through a round of books right now).

It is very odd when you think about it like that.  You assume so many people have particular ideas but they in fact live as if they are completely oblivious to them.  Perhaps we internalize these ideas as being common among “other people,” and occasionally attempt to relate to them, but in the end we are just making our own decisions.  I’m tired, I hope that makes sense.

#8 Ben Radford on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 7:21am

Yes, it’s interesting… we have many myths that our culture takes as true, without anyone really examining them closely. The news media and advertisers have a vested interest in telling the world how important, persuasive, and powerful they are, but often when you look closely you see that the emperor has no clothes!

#9 Ophelia Benson on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 12:36pm

“It may be true that lots of people just don’t want to admit, to themselves or others, that they do internalize images of skinny models, but for the results to be wrong, that suggests that the majority of respondents are consciously or unconsciously misleading researchers… I’m certainly not going to make that assertion!”

No, neither am I, but I wasn’t making that assertion, I was just suggesting that skepticism about the research may not be purely a matter of conventional wisdom or widespread belief. The skepticism could be mistaken but still not automatic or irrational.

“if self-reporting can’t be seen as reliable, what can?”

Lots of things. Isn’t it well known that self-reporting often is unreliable? Aren’t there all kinds of biases that make it unreliable?

#10 Ben Radford on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 12:56pm

I agree that skepticism about the research may not be purely a matter of sticking to conventional wisdom, but it should be based on something, some reason or evidence other than “I just don’t think that’s true.” Had my friendly critic offered any proof or argument or evidence, that would have been a different matter.

You are correct that self-reporting can be unreliable: people claim to go to church far more often that they actually do, and when using hidden cameras, dieters are proven to eat far more than the dieters claim to.

But self-reports are taken at face value all the time, especially in areas that are difficult or impossible to measure, like self-esteem or pain or depression. If a friend tells us she has a headache, should we doubt that self-report? If she tells us she’s feeling pretty that day, should we doubt that? Why or why not? Yes, there are biases in self-reports, but researchers work to control them, and usually accept self-reports unless there is some observable reason to doubt them.

#11 Ophelia Benson on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 2:27pm

All fair points!

As is probably obvious, I’m to some extent talking about my own bias here. I have an immediate ‘Really? Can that be right?’ reaction to the findings - then I cast about for reasons for that reaction - which may be valid reasons, but also may be rationalizations.

On the other hand, it is a very common response from various industries to say ‘Yes there is all this advertising but people are free to ignore it’ - which has a certain bias built into it.

#12 Ben Radford on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 2:40pm

True enough!

#13 Nathan (Guest) on Friday April 03, 2009 at 6:50am

It would seem the unstated major premise is actually that you don’t know anything about girls’ self esteem because you are a man. I have heard this particular argument a hundred times, and it is dredged up whenever a man opines on a subject dealing specifically with women.
The argument goes that only a woman can do research on such issues, as if the genitalia of the researcher somehow played a part in the data analysis.

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