Junk Science: The Modern Version of Misguiding Old Wives Tales

If American Representative Todd Akin and his ilk wrote anatomy books, the female reproductive system would be labeled like this:

 

 Yes ladies, if you haven’t already heard, this man recently went on American television to talk about how female body parts can shut down and prevent a woman from getting pregnant when she is being “legitimately raped”. In other words, every woman who does get pregnant as a result of rape, welcomed the sexual assault, and therefore does not deserve the rights to an abortion. He even claimed to have evidence for this, which Jodi Jacobson, editor of Reality Check later traced it to John Wilke, a founder of the “Pro-Life” Movement. This extremely maddening and thoughtless comment from Akin was met with enthusiastic criticism from all feminist quarters.

But what is truly scary here is the rise of junk science: a new and more dangerous avatar of old wives tales. Unlike stigmatizing myths, which are based on religious dogma, junk science latches on to “studies,” and come with endorsements from “doctors” and “scientists.” As the world tries to wrestle away from dogma, and find reason in science, anti-choice activists somehow find it amusing to spread their old lies using these “scientific” theories.

Yes, it is amusing, and I am totally in support of circulating funny blogs and images, and laugh at the likes of Akin. At the same time, I am proud of the feminist community for standing up, and refusing to take this misogynist view of sexual assault. In fact, as Soraya Chemaly writes in her article for the Huffington Post, “this is not a war on women, it is a war on critical thinking and democracy.”

With the explosion of social media and blogging, junk science is not just a concern for the U.S., but for the whole world. As Inna wrote in her blog earlier this week, or as Prabha Nagaraj of TARSHI wrote for us, men and women in Asia are increasingly looking online for information on sex, sexuality and other reproductive health issues, like contraception, pregnancy and abortion. Many of these people live in countries where they cannot discuss sex openly, and so could be easily deceived by theories that claim to be based on sound science. While Todd Akin’s statement will strike most people as a stretch, websites on abstinence education, withdrawal before ejaculation etc. spread seemingly plausible tales on safe sex. Such information could be extremely dangerous and result in several unwanted pregnancies. Just as scary is junk science on abortions whether they are meant to make a woman feel guilty (like Akin’s tale on legitimate rape), or meant to scare a woman (like websites falsely claiming that even safe abortions lead to complications).

Another obvious problem with junk science is that is aims to legitimizes extremely misogynist statements, and seeks to validate traditional notions of gender roles. The ticking biological clock, which is supposed to make every woman want to have babies is one such claim.Also, junk science seems to embolden politicians, and seems to make them think that a liberal audience will now support their restrictive legislations.

As the American Philosopher of Science, Thomas Kuhn wrote even real scientific theories have a shelf life. Any theory has to be contextualized and understood as being accurate only until a more appropriate theory replaces it. So, it is very important to teach young people worldwide that what matters is not what people think our bodies were intended to do, but what we intend to do with them. The right kind of information therefore should empower young people, and help them make safe choices– not restrict them, scare them or block their access to health services.

In fact, one outraged tweeter responded to Akin very accurately:

The whole abortion/rape debate is not about babies. It is about controlling women’s bodies, opportunities, and career options.

It is also about men terrified of women’s sexuality, and the control they can now exert over their own bodies and hence lives!

As junk science rears its ugly head, it is important to begin disseminating accurate information with equal vigor. Increasing access to accurate information, and dispelling false notions about our bodies, our basic biology, and our identities is the most important means of securing our reproductive rights.

About Shweta Krishnan

Shweta Krishnan is the Communication and Networking Officer For the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership. She is a feminist writer with a background in medicine, and has a strong commitment to promoting sexual and reproductive rights for all.
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