Women in Scientific Studies

I have mentioned that there are two ways our knowledge improves through science. The first is that we learn something about the part of our world we are studying. That’s the kind of knowledge that ends up in textbooks and in science articles. The second kind of knowledge is that we often learn how to do better science.

Science is hard. Even very clever, highly educated, well-intentioned experts sometimes do it wrong. For example, we don’t get to start out knowing the right way to run a rat through a maze. We can only get that knowledge through science: we must seek out the limits of our understanding of how rats run through mazes.

Slate draws our attention to a recent example of this phenomenon: Women are underrepresented in scientific studies.

Last month, Woodruff co-authored one of three related editorials in Nature illuminating the now decades-long sex bias in biomedicine, which leads doctors to preferentially study diseases and test drugs in males. It’s a practice that not only puts women at risk, Woodruff argues, but also limits the scope of our scientific knowledge.

The cost of doing science poorly is that it casts doubt on all of the previous results. Suppose there is a treatment for a disease that does not work well on women. If there were enough men involved in the study, this effect could be missed and doctors would assume that the treatment should work on women just as well as men.

The only way to know if this has happened is to go back and check previous results using better science and see if they still hold up. Of course, in the future one hopes that the scientists take this bias seriously. As a community, scientists did not do a good job of paying attention to the quality of their rats-in-mazes science. Hopefully they do a better job of paying attention to their gender biases.

Perhaps by considering sex differences earlier on, some of these disappointments could be avoided. But this kind of change requires scientists to do more than just meet sex quotas in studies and trials—researchers must begin to frame questions in ways that consider the possibility of sex differences, just as they are now starting to do for other individual differences. As Faden says, scientists need to realize that “women are not men without penises.”

Well put!


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