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Jun 1, 2017

Guardian’s endometriosis ‘controversy’ anti-intellectual censorship

Academic research should not be decided by Twitter lynch mob, writes sports researcher and sociological academic Dr James Connor.

In academia we are used to the attacks of the right wing on our research as part of their ongoing culture war. The selective quoting of grant application titles and research findings in an attempt to belittle, discredit or otherwise mock the research undertaken in Australia appears to be a national sport, with the finals season around the time of Australian Research Council (ARC) grant announcements. Natasha Bita’s piece “Taxpayer dollars wasted on ‘absurd’ studies that do nothing to advance Australian research” is illustrative of this approach (but also see Ben Eltham’s take-down).

Sadly, The Guardian has now joined these attacks, including emulating the failure to get a comment or clarification from the researcher herself. At least our ABC did give the researcher a chance to defend herself. The outrage is that the researcher wants to look at the experiences of the male partners of endometriosis sufferers regarding sex. Perhaps if this was millions of dollars in funding a discussion would be warranted — the biases of and within science are well established when it comes to gender. However, this is a small study being undertaken by a master’s student — effectively just research training for her (but it is hoped with some outcomes that help).

The more disturbing aspect of the attack is the implications it has for research.

By the metric being applied here can researchers only ever look at the primary sufferer? Can we never investigate the impact a disease or problem has on those around them? A research project I was involved with focused on the carers of terminal cancer patients. We only looked at the carers’ experiences, not the cancer sufferers’, and our study gave voice to them and also contributed to better support services for carers – surely a good thing overall? Research that looks at the experiences of those around a patient can and does deliver real assistance. Yes, we need to research the disease, but we must also look at the social effects it has.

We academics are a little touchy when it comes to censoring research. In the mid-2000s, the then minister for higher education, Brendan Nelson, vetoed 11 ARC-approved research projects. The studies rejected had been rigorously reviewed for their worth by experts (with ARC success at around 20%) — yet they didn’t “fit” the world view of the government of the time. The last thing we need is trial by (social) media, emboldening further anti-knowledge interventions from non-experts. The absurdity of the attacks launched against scientists and institutions such as the CSIRO and NASA by some politicians illustrate this “post-truth” chicanery.

The research done by academics is scrutinised by colleagues, supervisors (in the case of master’s and PhD students), ethics committees, journal editors and reviewers, and subsequently by the research and practice community at large. Attempting to discredit work before there are any results, on the basis of the question being addressed, fits that anti-intellectualist pastime beloved of too many in Australia.

The fascinating thing in this imbroglio is the Twitter pile-on, matched by mainstream coverage, creating a storm utterly out of proportion to the supposed original “sin”. The Twitter pile is endemic of the knee-jerk tribal responses we now engage in, where a favourite or re-tweet is weaponised. There’s certainly an academic study in that — if social media land would allow it. 

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7 thoughts on “Guardian’s endometriosis ‘controversy’ anti-intellectual censorship

  1. Rachel Fitzpatrick

    I’m confused: how is criticism of a study’s premise on Twitter “censorship”? No one’s stopping the researcher from conducting it as far as I know.

    It’s also a bit ironic for whoever wrote the blurb at the top of an article decrying anti-intellectualism to resort to lazy hyperbole like “lynch mobs” (a few negative comments on mainstream or social media are in no way comparable to racially motivated murder and terrorism; they’re not even comparable to the vitriol many feminist writers get on a daily basis).

  2. mitch

    Emblematic rather than endemic…?

    1. AR

      You say covfefe, I say pubic sub editor (see previous snark at NYT in Media Files above).
      Most of the typos. & incorrect words these days are the Curse of SpellCheck.
      After decades of declining grammar & spelling ability few notice when their device changes a word and even fewer would feel confident to countermand the Machine.
      The same happened when calculators became so cheap & endemic (sic!) – most people have so little sense of arithmetic that they have no idea when an absurd result appears because they’ve hit the wrong key.
      … sighs and throws another text book on the fire, at least it’s still useful to keep warm.

  3. CML

    I am not an academic, but it seems to me that if people don’t understand something, then it is okay to rubbish it.
    Funny thing is, these same people don’t realise how dumb and uninformed they sound when engaging in such criticism.
    If tertiary study should teach you anything, it is critical thinking. It is difficult to reason with people who do not have that skill, but someone like Dunlevie should know better.
    Good article, James!

  4. Charlie Chaplin

    Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman and this is one of those times.
    ” A study about how endometriosis affects men’s sex lives? That’s enraging.”
    Well no, Imogen. It isn’t. Admittedly I’ve been single for awhile, but I seem to recall something along the lines of physical intimacy being an expression of love between a couple, a sort of relationship glue. I’d imagine anything that hinders that intimacy would be a source of pain and grief to both partners. Guilt, too, probably. Quite stressful. So the more we know about how it affects both, the better we can support the couple to support each other, with the woman at the centre. I’d call it holistic medicine.

    1. AR

      Are you suggesting the penile penetration is the sine qua non of intimacy? What about sympathy and a comforting cuddle?

  5. Ben.

    It was an opinion piece written by a sufferer of the condition – that the author of this piece doesn’t recognise that but instead sees it as a twitter pile on from the left speaks volumes about the issues within academia land.
    Instead of a defence pointing to research being done, or any sign of an understanding that it must be frustrating for those suffering not to have answers he just swings out at someone for daring to criticise – guess the chance to play Ray Hadley was too good to pass up.
    Maybe stop and take a deep breathe and try see where the other side is coming from before lumping everyone in one basket – it will help with winning your arguments, and at the very least, will give me a higher caliber of writing to read.

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