What the media call a ‘science story’ is actually a strange animal. On the one hand, the word, science, suggests an empirically tested truth to modern readers. But the other word, story, might get their antennae up. How much of this truth is in the telling? Who is telling whom and why? And, crucial in the case of ‘scientific’ research, who is paying? Besides, some of these stories are fun to Tweet or post on Facebook — and then, just as easy to forget. So, when the world is told one morning that “Testicle size may indicate men’s childcare aptitude”, then nobody really mistakes such a finding for a major new revelation about the relationship between male gonadic glory and quality of fatherhood. Smaller testicles, says the study, mean lower levels of male hormone, which mean more caring fathers, less distracted by the urge to mate. “I’ve got a huge set of plums and I always change nappies,” protests a man who calls himself Reggie on the BBC website. Most of the comments — part of the fun of reading these stories — are in this frivolous-sceptical vein. It does not take much cleverness to notice that the test was done on just 70 men, all from the Atlanta area in the United States of America. More scrupulous reports do point out that the story presents correlations rather than causes — that is, smaller testes are linked to, but need not cause, more involved fathering. Some reports make vague noises about the need to take into account cultural differences before jumping to conclusions. But somewhere along the assembly line of story-making, 70 Atlanta men begin to stand for manhood in general in the popular mind. This must be the flip side of the worldwideness of the web, leading to the dissemination of science and the globalization of news.
Most of this is innocuous and amusing. But sometimes, the generalizations begin to sound dodgy, especially when they come with a dash of feel-good. Recently, there was news about a study on what inspires male generosity. The researchers had found that men become nicer and kinder and more giving when daughters are born to them, or when they have grown up with lots of sisters. Legislators with daughters vote more liberally, as do male voters with daughters, especially in referendums and policy choices about reproductive rights. This was, of course, an American study, and the legislators and voters cited in it were all British and American men of wealth. Now change the context, and think about how the birth of a baby girl, or proliferation of sisters, would affect the kindness and generosity of, say, an Indian man living below the poverty line? Then compare the number of men sampled in the study with the number of such men in India. This is when that bit of small print about cultural difference suddenly begins to make the findings of science a little more difficult to report as truth.