Last Monday, the academic journal Biological Conservation published a “controversial” study about cats.
It didn’t last a week.
The journal quietly took the paper offline after it was buried in a heap of scorn and hysteria from that fount of good vibes, Twitter.
People whose profiles are appended with tags like “she/her” and “he/him” outlined why the paper is “problematic,” providing an afternoon’s worth of fresh outrage for the grievance enthusiasts.
The study, by a research team from China’s Nanjing University, has two main conclusions: The more women living on a college campus, the more stray and feral cats live there too. Additionally, the team surveyed men and women about their interactions with strays — with responses indicating women are more likely to care for them — and followed a handful of men and women to watch their interactions with cats.
Is it ground-breaking science? No. Do the results prove women are better caretakers of cats than men? Nope. Did the authors perhaps overextend themselves by mixing up correlation and causation? Probably.
But it’s still research, and studies should not be buried or banished from peer-reviewed journals because a handful of malcontents on Twitter cry sexism. Some aspects of the paper, like the small sample of observed interactions, are thin. But the authors did look at 30 universities, a healthy sample size as far as institutions go.
If follow-up studies indicate that women are indeed more likely to care for cats, so what?
Is reality sexist? Do we need to protect people from even the most mildly controversial things?
As a man who loves cats, I don’t doubt that most caretakers are women. I see the anecdotal proof among the ranks of rescue volunteers. I see it in my readership here — aside from the Extraordinary League of Cat Dads, some 85 percent of this blog’s readers are female.
And that’s perfectly fine!
I would like to see more men warm to the idea of adopting and caring for cats, but the fact that women in general seem to have more empathy for them isn’t sexist. It doesn’t mean every woman loves cats any more than it means all men don’t.
Some readers know I have a background in journalism and spent almost 15 years of my career as a reporter and editor. One thing that appalls me as a journalist is the routine practice of quoting tweets in lieu of speaking to people face to face or picking up the phone and asking questions.
Platforms like Twitter thrive on negativity. Whether 140 or 280 characters, Twitter’s bite-size messages may be good for people who have the attention span of gnats, but they don’t exactly foster productive or nuanced discussion. Perhaps most important of all, people are more likely to say negative things online than they are in a human-to-human conversation, and too often handfuls of loudly-complaining people are mistaken for a majority.
Studies show negative tweets are far more likely to spread than positive or neutral messages, which skews public perception. They also show Twitter opinions are not representative of the general public, in part because most of Twitter’s power users come from similar backgrounds and share world views.
To put it bluntly, Twitter is full of roving bands of grievance artists constantly on the lookout for new things to shit on, and we should stop assigning so much importance to what we think are the prevailing sentiments on social media platforms.
Academic journals are peer-reviewed. Taking the vetting responsibility away from experts and giving it to a few unhappy people on social media is not a smart way to present research.
The study authors’ peers will poke holes in their work if the holes indeed exist, and that’s part of what peer review is for. Not to bury research, but to encourage scientists to rethink it, refine it and try again.