Because Science Says So

Vagina Week continues! With this post by Adam Turner on Naomi Wolf’s use of Science! in her new book, Vagina: A Biography.

Naomi Wolf uses a whole lot of science in her new book, Vagina: A Biography (perhaps more accurately called an autobiography). She lectures at length about the nervous system, stress responses, brain chemistry, and how all of these things seem to have their center in powerful mind-altering (heterosexual, vaginal) sex. Taking her personal experiences as a jumping-off point (itself a dubious scientific technique), Wolf references a wide variety of studies to make her argument that the vagina, broadly defined, is a driving force in women’s lives, and is responsible for their happiness, successful relationships, creativity, and existential health.

There is a great deal I could say about the problems with her argument itself and what it suggests about women, men, and everyone else, but happily other fabulous Nursing Clio authors will tackle some of those issues. I’m here to talk about Naomi Wolf’s use of science in a more general sense.

Now, I’m a historian of science and medicine, and not a scientist myself, so I won’t be commenting on her actual understanding of science — this is done very nicely in a post by Maia Szalavitz. Instead I’ll take a brief look at the way Wolf uses science as an instrument (or bludgeon) for making her argument.

I should say at the outset that I absolutely love science. I think it’s wonderful and fascinating and if I wasn’t a historian, I’d have been a physicist. I chose history, but really the divide between the two is largely false. One is not more “true” than the other, they just deal with complexity in different ways. Describing science as “what is” is just as overly simple as describing history as “what happened.” Science — like history, literature, psychology, sociology, you name it — is as much, or more, about the process as it is about the results: the end results are often revised, or even thrown out, as new work is produced..

Via xkcd: Science Montage
Science Montage Meme. (©xkcd)

But this is not how Naomi Wolf approaches science. Wolf instead follows the unfortunately common tendency, particularly common outside the sciences, to confuse theory, hypothesis, and personal experience with proven facts. Put another way: Wolf, time and again, takes hypotheses that the scientists who conducted the studies would more than likely describe as preliminary at best and runs with them. Outside of the generally insular world of researchers and doctors, it’s easy to forget that most people aren’t familiar with the way scientists communicate. One study, one hypothesis, even with a few additional experiments that suggest the same findings, do only that: they suggest that findings might be true.

As a society we still place a lot of trust in science. Unfortunately, this means that we tend to give great credence to claims that seem to be backed up by scientific studies even without understanding how those claims came about. If we’re going to put faith in science we need to do a better job of understanding where it comes from, how it can be easily incorrect, and how our cultural understandings and assumptions have a surprisingly powerful effect on it. Here’s a little story from the 1920s as an example:

In the fall of 1920, a tired, 51 year old man traveled to Berlin, Germany, in hopes of ridding himself of the pain and exhaustion that had been keeping him from work. He complained of symptoms ranging from “unbearable [back] pains, … difficulty breathing, especially on slight exertion, … weakness of memory, congestions of the head and attacks of vertigo, as well as mental depression,” and a fifteen-year decline in sexual activity.[1] In Berlin, he met with Dr. Peter Schmidt, who diagnosed him with premature agedness (“senium praecox”) and male menopause (“climacterum virile”). On October 16, 1920, the man underwent surgery. Schmidt performed a unilateral vasoligation to sever one side of the man’s vas deferens, the vessel that carries sperm cells from the testicles through the prostate and penis.

On January 5, 1921, the man wrote to tell Schmidt that “all his complaints had disappeared; he felt generally well, had gained weight, and had noticed a distinct improvement in his sight.” Then, nearly six months later, he again saw Schmidt for a follow-up examination. Schmidt recorded that, “He looked surprisingly youthful, carrying himself more erect, and was entirely free of any complaints.” Just two weeks later, the man wrote again to report that things were getting even better. In the letter, the patient wrote (we can assume happily) that “The so far unnoticed increase of sexual activity has suddenly since about a week appeared in extraordinary strength. … I wish to state my report is exceedingly conservative.”

Before and after shot of a “rejuvenated” rat.

This man’s story was recorded in a case study by a doctor named Harry Benjamin, who went on to be a pioneer in hormone research, and was one of many examples of successful “rejuvenation” by way of partial sterilization in men (vasoligation). While the American Medical Association didn’t approve of this procedure, it was widely reported to be successful. Years later researchers determined that these outcomes had more to do with patients expecting success and therefore eating better, exercising more, having more motivation, etc. The results were real, but the cause was not what they supposed. The same, I would suggest, is likely true of Naomi Wolf’s findings. I don’t deny that some of the things she suggests — people being more attentive and taking their time when being sexually intimate, for example — could have a positive influence on one’s relationship, outlook on life, happiness, and, yes, maybe even creativity (it’s easier to create when you’re not stressed about your relationship, I suppose). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the science she runs with — about “right” orgasms controlling female brains with neurotransmitter cocktails of happiness and transcendence — suggests what she wants it to.

For every significant discovery in just the past 100 years, there were at least as many mistaken understandings that have had damaging consequences on people’s bodies and their lives. We often dismiss things like rejuvenation, eugenics, and racial science as “pseudoscience” and relegate them to the past. I think this is a mistake because it forgets the fact that many people — often leaders in their fields — understood them as true. They’re only “fake” science with the benefit of hindsight. It gives us a “pass” that we haven’t earned if we pretend we’re so much wiser today.

Excerpt from Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 16, 1924.

In the not-so-recent past, the belief that people of primarily African descent were intellectually inferior to people descended from Europe, and that things like criminality or thriftiness were biologically inherited, were widely accepted as scientific fact. And not by crackpots or conspiring, villainous doctors; these things were accepted as fact by leading figures in science and medicine and by everyday people like you or me. These understandings were even taken as fact by people you wouldn’t expect.  African-American newspapers in Virginia decried “race suicide” and claimed that it resulted from too few “well- born” African Americans having children, which mirrored the same arguments made in white newspapers.

We run the risk of making similar, as yet unknown mistakes today if we dismiss these as merely the products of ignorant people in the past: as if we today are so much more enlightened that we could never make such mistakes. This just isn’t true. As long as we rush to broad conclusions based on scientific hypotheses and give the weight of truth to what are admittedly preliminary theories, we risk making similar mistakes today — mistakes that, 100 years from today, we might just as likely dismiss as “pseudoscience.”


1. This case taken from: Harry Benjamin, “Preliminary Communication Regarding Steinach’s Method of Rejuvenation,” New York Medical Journal 114 (December 21, 1921): 687–692.

2. Algernon B. Jackson, “Halt! Read!! Reflect!!!” Norfolk Journal and Guide, February 16, 1924.

(Image courtesy: Dieter Brandner and Ginger Withers, “Rat hippocampal neurons,” The Cell: An Image Library, CIL: 8735.)

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This post by Adam Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Adam Turner has a Master's degree in history from the University of Oregon and works as a web developer with a love of clean, standards-based markup and accessible, user-centered design.