Gender studies and the hoax paper: Could it happen in nursing?

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With “fake news” virulently disseminated on the Internet, we should all be on the lookout for misleading or false information. In nursing, the doctrine of evidence‐based practice depends on the quality of evidence, and research findings or theoretical argument should not be accepted uncritically, just because they appear in trusted journals. I raise this following an embarrassing hoax in the field of gender studies (Boghossian & Lindsay, 2017). A bogus paper, written as a parody of sociological discourse from a radical feminist perspective, was published in a peer‐reviewed journal. As academic literature is intended to inform policy and practice, the question should be asked: could a similar trick be played on nursing?
As social animals, we follow norms and assumptions about our world. In the past, the heart was deemed the seat of emotion, until the workings of the brain and the nervous system were deciphered by pioneering neuroanatomists such as Thomas Willis. Yet while scientific method has superseded the philosophical musings and old wives’ tales of yore, empiricist enquiry has never sufficed as our means of knowledge. Those humours and passions of bygone medical textbooks were refuted by microscopic investigation, yet the immaterial mind has survived. The predictive laws of science are reductionist, and do not tell us what to eat for breakfast or which radio station to listen to. Each of us has our own thoughts and feelings, and free will.
Nursing is often described as a craft, merging art and science in a humanistic endeavour. While medicine is keenly orientated to the epistemology of the natural sciences, Barbara Carper (1978) gave equal prominence to four types of knowledge in nursing: empirics, aesthetics, ethics and personal knowing. Various models have been formulated to guide nursing practice, based less on scientific evidence than rational analysis of how nurses should respond to patients’ needs. Such overarching theories may not be fully tested, but this does not invalidate their use in planning and performing person‐centred care. Karl Popper famously qualified scientific theory by its falsifiability, but that is to take a narrow definition of theory as applied by the “hard” sciences. As I have argued elsewhere, there is a rationale for a broader theory‐based approach to nursing, with statistical and qualitative evidence supporting its development (McCrae, 2011).
Qualitative research is prominent in nursing literature, due to the perceived importance of lived experience alongside a priori outcome measurement. Our discipline has followed humanities and social science in the elevation of subjective truth, a trend begun by the wave of postmodernist critique in the 1960s. Ideological interpretations of scientific method as an instrument of male hegemony gained little foothold in medicine, where tremendous advances in treatment and life expectancy have resulted from objective, empirical enquiry, and it would insult the great number of female medical researchers to suggest that they are contributing to a patriarchal power complex. However, such thinking gained momentum in social sciences, with the emergence of departments focusing on gender and racial inequalities. Emancipatory ideals are laudable, but arguably scientific rigour has fallen by the wayside in pursuit of social goals. Journals in disciplines that overtly pursue redistributive social justice lack diversity of ideas, as scholars and their students mostly sing from the same hymn sheet (Shermer, 2016).
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