Tuesday, August 16, 2005

An Abject Apology

Some readers may recall my exceedingly peevish post about Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd's theory on the female orgasm.

I recently got a polite but firm reply from Dr. Lloyd, who took issue with my characterization of her as a pseudoscientific charlatan...a characterization that irked her all the more given that she's in basic agreement with the concerns I raised in my post, and had apparently taken great pains to address them in The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, a book that she correctly surmised I hadn't bothered to read.

Quite honestly, I'm utterly without excuse. One of my regular themes here is the misrepresentation of science in the popular press. That being the case, it's rather ludicrous that I relied on a popularized article about Dr. Lloyd in order to attack her.

Another thing I often discuss here is ethics. Thus, I look even more foolish for launching an attack that was clearly unethical, given my lazy unwillingness to acquaint myself with the facts of the matter.

I can take a stab at an explanation, so long as no one sees it as an attempt - on any level - to weasel out of taking full responsibility for what I write here. In the first place, there's a constant temptation on political blogs to foment cheap outrage, especially when it's simply a matter of expanding on something someone else said. Posts like those are very easy to write...too easy, I'm afraid. Despite being aware of this mechanism, and often trying consciously to avoid it, I failed to consider whether I was falling prey to it before writing my post on Dr. Lloyd.

Most readers are aware that there are certain people who interpret evolutionary theory in a way that tends to validate sexual or racial oppression. This is an area of science - and ours is a political climate - in which it's extremely easy to assume the worst, and that's precisely what I did here. The media representation of Dr. Lloyd's views fit a stereotype I already had of evolutionary psychology at its most irresponsible.

However, as Dr. Lloyd points out, I was under no compulsion to accept that representation. If anything, I was obliged to take greater care with my response, given my first-hand knowledge of my own prejudices. Dr. Lloyd says:

[I]t's very alarming that anything I said could be misused. In fact, I'm quite shocked that it has been misused and misinterpreted. But all that misuse relies on MISREPRESENTATION. My real views are not in any way damaging to women, which you would know, if you looked at the book. You actively contributed to the problem, by not finding out more about my work before you wrote about
it. It would have been easy to do.

[snip]

Still, I do see now why so many women and feminists have been alarmed-- through the media treatment of the book. The media have emphasized the one conclusion: that female orgasm is an evolutionary byproduct -- while downplaying my other findings. In particular, my findings that the evolutionists, through their sexism, have distorted and ignored real women's sexuality, and through assuming that orgasm is an adaptation, have forced women's sexuality into a reproductive functional model that doesn't reflect women's range of sexual experience and pleasure. Just as with Freud, an evolutionary adaptive or "usefulness" approach to female orgasm has never been an ally of women's sexual expression.
Just to make it clear how off-base I was, I'd like to reproduce a couple of my original points, with Dr. Lloyd's rebuttals. My remarks are in italics.
In any case, there's a huge difference between describing how the parts of our body should function, and ordaining how we should function, socially and sexually.

You make an excellent point, and it's actually a point I make quite firmly in my book. Since you make the point, though, why didn't you follow your own advice? That is, if I'm saying that women's orgasm has no evolutionary function, this has no consequence whatsoever on how we should value it socially and sexually. We take the general point for granted: reading and writing and operating a computer are hugely important in our culture, yet none of these traits are adaptations, they're all evolutionary byproducts. But we don't think they're any less culturally important on that account. In other words, we don't assign cultural importance according to whether a trait is an evolutionary adaptation, and we shouldn't. Period. That goes for female orgasm as much as it goes for reading.

Since recorded history began, the dominant scientific, sociological, religious, and legal approaches to sexuality in general - and female sexuality in particular - have been vicious, ignorant, and oppressive....

You're right. And I make a point of further documenting this in the book, showing that many of the evolutionists I examine have been exactly as you say. I support your feminist point, and provide further, scholarly documentation for your feminist conclusion.
If anyone needs further evidence that my original post grotesquely misrepresented Dr. Lloyd's position - to say nothing of her integrity and intellect - I can provide more of her remarkably patient and even-tempered rebuttals. But I think the point is made, for now. I've already apologized to Dr. Lloyd privately, but I also want to apologize publicly. The journalistic sloppiness I displayed on this occasion can be put down to a combination of prejudice, suspicion, overwork, groupthink, and general ill temper...these are things to which all of us fall prey now and again. What's far more disturbing to me is the moral dimension of my critique; a couple of the things I said about Dr. Lloyd were inexcusably mean-spirited and stupid, and I regret them a great deal. In fact, I would certainly have deleted the post if Dr. Lloyd hadn't specifically asked me to leave it as it was.

In any case, this has been a valuable lesson to me, and I'm grateful to Dr. Lloyd for setting me straight far more gently than I deserved!

18 comments:

Green said...

Phila, you are a beautiful credit to the species, and this post is a prime example of why I read you consistently.

Charles said...

You what?!! Apologized? Retracted? Corrected?!!!

That's it. Your blogging privileges are hereby revoked until you drop the ethical BS. What are you trying to do, ruin it for everyone?

Phila said...

Charles, you're absolutely right. What was I thinking?

Never back down, never apologize! That's my motto from here on out! Bouphonia...love it or leave it!

USA! USA! USA! USA!

JLo said...

Admirable response, Phila. You've modeled what a great blogger and a great human being should be: not right all the time, but generous in acknowledging our occasional stumbles. Thank you.

GrrlScientist said...

Wow, Phila, both you and Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd are to be commended for your mature and sensitive handling of the topic. Whenever I have said something stupid, I am (1) soundly attacked, (2) an apology is demanded (and given, of course), (3) the offended person apparently interprets my apology as a sign of weakness and makes an ad hominum attack upon me and then (4) spends the next year or so publically discrediting me to as many of my colleagues as possible. Then, after I have been sufficiently humiliated for a long enough period of time, the offended person decides to be friend me again.

It's nice to know that not everyone out there behaves like this!

GrrlScientist

Matt said...

This post demonstrates why I love Bouphonia. And well, the nudibranches are pretty cool, too.

Phila said...

Wow...I'm gonna have to act like a insufferable, ignorant jerk more often! I'll be the most popular boy in town!

roger said...

bravo, phila. and brava, dr. lloyd.

don't overdo this attack/apologize thing tho. it's only good in small doses.

Cervantes said...

Well Phila, don't feel too bad. Blogging is a significant commitment when you take it seriously. There's that feeling that you have to get something up every day, you don't have an editor or a fact checker, and you seldom have as much time as you would like to thoroughly research an issue.

I don't think I ever attacked someone without foundation, but I did once criticize someone by name for writing an erroneous NCI press release, who turned out to be a student intern. She wrote to me, obviously hurt. She attends a school of public health in Boston where Cervantes' identity is known, so she even addressed me as "Dear Dr. X." I felt just awful.

It was mostly the fault of the National Cancer Institute for putting a student in that position, but it was my fault too. A real reporter would have called her for comment before writing anything, and found out who she was. But it's very difficult for us to exercise that sort of discipline. Live and learn is all I can say.

Maybe we should have a blog of bloggers to talk about meta-issues . . .

Speechless said...

I was away when you did the original. Looking back at the comments you got on the first article though, I had to chuckle that except the good Janeboatler, all the commenters were of the male persusion.

What is more baffling as the physical and psychological feelings of another person? Only the phyical and psychological feelings of a person of the opposite sex!

Of course, I opine as a lay person, not as a scientist. Also Phila, as others have already said, I found the depth, breadth and forthright undefended quality of your mea culpa was most refreshing.

Phila said...

Cervantes,

Blogging is a significant commitment when you take it seriously. There's that feeling that you have to get something up every day, you don't have an editor or a fact checker, and you seldom have as much time as you would like to thoroughly research an issue.

Excellent point. And it's also true - at least in my case - that you think of yourself as being in something of a vacuum, for lack of a better word. There's a sort of unreality about blogging that's hard to define...but it's very easy to treat people as abstractions, or as symbols of ideas you don't like. And overeagerness to post something - anything - definitely seems to increase that risk...

You're right, though. Time for a panel on blogger ethics, as Atrios would say....

Anonymous said...

Have you in fact ever HAD an orgasm?
just wondering.....

Phila said...

Personally, Anon, I have one every time an anonymous troll posts something stupid on this site.

Was it good for you?

mandt said...

Phila This post is eloquent testimony to why we read your thoughts with anticipation daily. Your journalistic integrity is obvious and very refreshing. We all make mistakes. Once on the diaries I quoted Thomas Jefferson and got accused of plagerism by a rightwing author who claimed the priviledge. Mostly blogtopia is not concerned with academic writing and meticulous sourcing, but I do think most of us desire to follow ethical standards and do the best we can. Keep up the good work. We appreciate you. M

And oh, isn't anon. just a synomym for moron? lol

Thersites said...

Thank God I've never made a vicious unfounded attack on someone who didn't deserve it!

Oh wait, yes I did. I was in grad school, after all...

Dr. Lloyd reads blogs? Cool.

Matt said...

And it's also true - at least in my case - that you think of yourself as being in something of a vacuum, for lack of a better word. There's a sort of unreality about blogging that's hard to define...but it's very easy to treat people as abstractions, or as symbols of ideas you don't like. And overeagerness to post something - anything - definitely seems to increase that risk...

Totally. A few months ago, I saw an article about diabetes and the ice age in the NY Times. I wrote up a post ridiculing the scientist quoted in it, and explaining why I thought it was a load of horseshit.

I still believe that it was, and I've yet to hear from the scientist (actually, I think the person in question was more of a historian of science). But I've noticed that the post comes up near the top when that person's name is googled, and I feel pretty badly about that -- I wouldn't want to affect his or her career or anything...

On the other hand, it's important for bloggers to be forthright with their opinions, and to not hold back. That means calling bullshit when we see it. But it also means -- as you have demonstrated in this post -- that we have to be equally forthright when people call bullshit on us.

Being willing to admit when we are wrong is an important step towards gaining credibility for blogging.

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