I recently had two articles come out in Sapiens revolving around the theme of sexism in sports. The first article tackles some of the myths and misconceptions regarding sex differences in athletic performance. The second article takes a look at how sexism is still prevalent in the Olympic Games with a particular focus on natural testosterone level policing among some women athletes and briefly touches on trans-athlete inclusion.
Both of these articles were born out of my experience researching and teaching exercise physiology and the anthropology of sports. And both of these articles attracted some less than pleasant and incredibly misinformed responses.
Responses to the sex differences articles ranged from genuine curiosity and a place from wanting to learn to outright calling me a liar. Many struggle to accept that testosterone is not the end all be all of sports performance. Others cannot fathom that women may potentially have an athletic advantage in some sports. I think what frustrates me the most with these responses is that many of these folks seem to have not fully read the article nor attempt to read the extensive supporting information provided in text.
Furthermore, one of the critical points of this article was that women are woefully underrepresented in exercise physiology research both as research participants and researchers. I state clearly that everything we currently know about women’s athletic performance could be wrong as the current research just isn’t there to make many solid claims . Pushing the physiological work aside for a moment, it is also incredibly difficult to determine if the advantages men do have are actually due to better performance capability or just better opportunity, training, and exposure at a young age – a topic I did not have time to go into with this article.
As for the second article, current responses seem to come from those who are anti-trans inclusion in sports. They claim that it is unfair for trans athletes (particularly trans women) to compete with cis-gendered athletes. One individual responded to my article by linking to this twitter post claiming that Laurel Hubbard (trans-woman athletes competing in Olympic Weightlifting for New Zealand) knocked Nini Manumua out from Olympic competition. However, if this commenter had scrolled just a little further down that thread, she would have seen a strong argument that Manumua would have struggled to qualify regardless of Hubbard’s success. This is equivalent of saying “If the other team didn’t score so many points, we would have one!”
These and other anti-trans athlete arguments are false alarms. You can read why in my article linked above. Or here. Or listen to it here. The idea that trans-gender women are going to dominate sports is not based in reality, it is based in fear and bias.
I also highly recommend a couple of films for folks who may not want to read some of the articles but would like to hear from the trans-athlete perspective: Transformer and Changing the Game.
Misinformation is not new. Deception, whether intentional or unintentional is not even unique to humans (see, for example, Nature’s Cheats).
However, the landscape of how we create, curate, and disseminate information has drastically changed in the past few decades. Highly accessible internet access, engaging social media platforms, and few-to-no checks on information accuracy have not only increased the amount of misinformation, but have also substantially increased the speed and distance with which misinformation can spread.
The vast amount of information at our fingertips is an incredibly powerful tool, but can also be an incredibly powerful weapon. In the age of COVID-19, we have seen how dangerous misinformation can be (for example, the promotion of hydroxychloroquine despite the lack of evidence), which can lead to real harm (see here and the results of a recent study here).
Yes, we need to address the problematic claims. However, I think this only addresses the proximate and not the ultimate issue, which is that many, if not most, people struggle to reliably spot misinformation. There needs to be a more concerted effort to train people (friends, family, students) to be more discerning consumers of information.
There will always be people who want to intentionally spread false information, however, if we give people the tools to identify misinformation, we can limit that spread. Correcting misinformation is like giving a person a fish…they will correct, hopefully, that one falsehood. However, teaching someone to identify false claims will empower them to spot misinformation for life.
Throughout my career, I have placed greater and greater emphasis on teaching my students to always be skeptical, recognize bias (their own and that of others), assess the agenda of article authors, and to confirm or refute purported facts with additional research. And, semester after semester, it is these lessons that students point to as being the most important and most remembered.
How might the agenda of the media outlet bias the information in the article?
What is the date of publication?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation where new information becomes available almost every hour – often rendering yesterday’s news completely out of date.
If the article is more than a couple weeks old, do a search to see if there is new, updated information.
Who is the author?
Give the author a quick search to find out their background and credentials – especially those that relate to the claims they are making.
Might they have an agenda? If so, what is that agenda? What are they trying to make you think, feel, and do?
How is the information being presented?
How was the evidence gathered? Were links provided to original work?
Does the original work back up the author’s claim?
If only screen shots or simplified summaries of the original work are presented without links, BE EVEN MORE SKEPTICAL. The author is only showing you what the author wants you to see and not the whole story, and you will need to research more on your own.
If you do not have access to the original work, email the author! Scientists love sharing their articles to those who don’t have access. I mean it, we really do.
Does what you are reading confirm what you already believe?
If yes, BE CAREFUL. This could be confirmation bias, which is the tendency to only seek out and trust information you already agree with in order to confirm the beliefs you hold.
Another term for this is apophenia – the tendency to make connections or see patterns between unrelated and random things. This is often how conspiracy theories are generated and spread. This article does a great (albeit long) job of discussing this.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you are wrong in your thinking, but it does mean you need to do some extra research to determine if this is confirmation bias or not. Read articles (from quality sources, see media bias chart above) that promote opposing views. Once you have heard both sides of a story, try to objectively weigh the evidence and decide where your thoughts fall with this new information.
Does what you are reading elicit an emotional response?
If yes, BE EXTRA SKEPTICAL! The author of the article is likely trying to use emotion (and not well researched information) to sway your opinion.
The same advice applies here as it did above. If you find yourself reacting emotionally to something (especially if it is anger or fear), do additional research from quality sources to determine if the original post is misleading you.
Check out the website “About” and “Contact” pages
1. Do they have a list of reporters? If not, be VERY skeptical!
2. Is the “About” page comprehensive and give you a good idea of who they are and what their goals are (see #2,4,&5 above)? If not, be VERY skeptical!
9. Reach out to others!
1. Still don’t know if what you are reading is true? Start conversations with friends and family who may have more expertise in a particular subject. Make sure you and they are asking questions.
2. Seeks expert opinions, and get more than one if you can.
10. Be wary of video clip times! If you see a video clip that is only 5-10 seconds long or less DON’T BELIEVE IT! That clip was taken out of context! Do some searching to find a more complete video, and then make a judgement about the original shortened video’s goal and potential manipulation.
I was asked by the Notre Dame media folks to write up an OpEd on the recent World Anti-Doping Agency ruling against Russia. The Hill picked it up, and here it is, complete with a Rocky IV reference right off the bat. This likely won’t be a popular opinion, but I think it is a good conversation starter about the current sports culture both nationally and globally. It also hits on how much popular media shapes our views.