When Men and Boys Die:
Social Ideology as Science
July 5, 2020
by Sean Kullman
Update on June 2, 2021: GIBM has updated COVID Deaths disaggregated by age and sex since since the original article on July 5, 2020
As scientific communities continue to report the number, percentage, and rate of COVID-19 deaths, gender reporters and groups promoting themselves as social scientists continue to conflate gender, sex, ideology, and science in ways that minimizes the biological differences that lead to male COVID-19 deaths and the underfunding of programs that would support health issues pertinent to men and boys. Although there is an inter-play of factors, it’s clear being male is a greater risk factor of COVID-19 deaths. Men are the higher number of deaths, higher percentage of deaths, and higher rate of deaths according to the CDC, Global Health 50/50 and other world organizations.
The Harvard GenderSci Lab (HGSL), “a collaborative, interdisciplinary research lab dedicated to generating feminist concepts, methods, and theories for scientific research on sex and gender,” is not alone in its attempt to promote a specific ideology that marginalizes masculinity through gender norming and gender shaming. In other words, biology takes a back seat to ideology. Some gender lens ideologists are taking advantage of COVID-19 in unprecedented ways. Whether its Helen Lewis’s “Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism” or the Lancets focus on “unpaid care” and gender inequality of pay during COVID-19, the one solid truth we know about the pandemic is the disproportionate number of men and boys’ deaths.
The Importance of a Male Narrative in Media, Academia, and Government
The inability of the media, academia, and government to influence, prepare, and protect men fits the gender social-narrative we’ve seen for decades; including a lack of male institutions dedicated to male well-being. Even during the midst of a pandemic, issues pertaining to men and boys are an afterthought. The attention men do receive should be noted, but it is usually a minor part of reports. On May 27, NPR mentioned “the disease has been far deadlier for males than females. For age groups up to 75 years old, about twice as many men and boys have been killed by COVID-19 as have women and girls.” The majority of the article focuses on race, a poor health care system in the U.S., and obscure statistics that fits a prescriptive narrative that blends men of color with women. Not only is more detail needed specific to COVID-19’s impact on men and boys, but regular COVID-19 updates by sex and gender-demographics should be splashed on front pages of newspapers, magazines, and social media across the country with valid charts and graphs representing that data. The science often gets lost in the social narratives that blame male behavior. In other words, masculinity is the reason males are dying, not biology.
Social scientists attempting to push an ideological narrative must receive greater scrutiny as agendas focusing on risk-behaviors are confused as science. This realization does not mean we should ignore social conditions that increase risk, but not to the degree Harvard GenderSci Lab might suggest:
“A focus on biology may seriously underplay the contribution of gender-related factors to COVID-19 disparities, dangerously misdirecting public health efforts. Moreover, as social scientists have amply demonstrated, when people encounter statistics such as those reporting that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts men as a group of people, they are likely to attribute the cause to sex-linked biology, and perhaps assume that men’s greater vulnerability to dying from COVID-19 is inevitable.”
In the above paragraphs, HGSL links an article and a study to support its narrative, but clicking on the links reveals something more unsettling. HGSL uses a New York Times article it contributed to the Times to buffer its own argument: “biology may seriously underplay the contribution of gender-related factors.” HGSL continues to identify the ways they believe “social scientists…amply demonstrate” the real causes of COVID-19 deaths: Men don’t take care of themselves and society must now “ask that men alter their individual behavior to adhere more strictly to social distancing measures” . By placing a greater emphasis on "gender related factors" that contribute to COVID-19 deaths, HGSL blames male behavior and not the biology of the disease.
Clicking the second link leads to a 2002 study, The Correlates and Consequences of Newspaper Reports of Research on Sex Differences. The Harvard GenderSci Lab misinterprets or ignores perhaps the most important comment in the results section of the study and the ways political ideologies try to misrepresent science:
“The fact that politics may influence science reporting is somewhat unsettling. One might expect political ideology to infiltrate coverage of political candidates, editorial positions, or even coverage of certain topics. But one does not expect science reporting—which is supposed to be fact based and objective—to be comparably politicized. More to the point, when people read articles about science, their guard may be down precisely because they are reading about science. When people read newspaper explanations for sex differences, they may accept the explanations as objectively true rather than understand the explanations first and decide on their veracity later.”
It’s the Harvard GenderSci Lab’s notion that biological science “underplays” and social science “demonstrates” that pits biological science against the ideological narrative of HGSL to “generate feminist concepts.”
This type of narrative has been used for decades to subvert data for ideological objectives in physical and mental health, parenting, education, career advancement, and other aspects of life and well-being.
In a recent New York Times article, the Times quotes Robert Anderson, who runs the mortality statistics branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, “Everything is so politically charged, people are looking for excuses to question the data.” The questioning of data is rarely a concern until men are the primary victims and social scientists look to blame masculinity in some form. And in case we missed the point of the GenderSci Lab blog, they provide the important “take homes” for us in a bulleted list that suggests there is more fluidity between the sexes than biological differences. (I’ve underlined some of the rhetoric that conflates science, gender, sex, and ideology):
“Use precise terms: “Sex” and “gender” are not synonyms, nor are they as independent of one another as people tend to believe. You can use the term “gender/sex” to emphasize the continuous and dynamic relationships between biology, behavior, and social structures.
Question the binary: Intersex, trans, non-binary, genderqueer, and other gender-diverse individuals live their lives beyond the binary. Profile their experiences and point out that COVID-19 data refers to people categorized as female and male.
Ask questions about how social variables interact with gender/sex: There are many socially-relevant variables that may influence the sex distribution of COVID-19 outcomes, such as age, disability, race/ethnicity, indigeneity, migration status, geographic location, occupation, and social class. Investigate these and explain them to your audience.
Report age- and population-adjusted statistics and relative, not absolute mortality: Raw counts are not sufficient. Always contextualize COVID-19 gender/sex disparities within existing gendered and sexed patterns of disease, aging, and mortality.
The "take home" list serves as a reminder to focus on habits and other factors not related to biology. Groups like Harvard GenderSci Lab caution us from jumping to conclusions when it comes to looking at biological data and COVID-19. But when we really get down to the science of it all and present charts (visual representations), we see a clear pattern. A closer look at Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data retrieved on June 29, 2020 reveals a true picture.
Even though the average percentage of deaths puts males at approximately 54% of confirmed COVID-19 deaths and women at 46% in the U.S., a more detailed presentation reveals something much more telling and unsettling. Men in the following age groups ranging from 5-years-of-age to 74-years-of-age are 61.9% to 71.3% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. where Sex was available for 99,0224 (99%) deaths (Table 1).
When we look at the CDC % of COVID-19 Deaths in the U.S., we see a troubling sex pattern. Male and female population is nearly identical until approximately age 65 according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, and there is no reason to believe there has been a dramatic shift in age demographic data in the past 10 years. Males are dying at significantly higher percentages in every age category except one, where women account for 64.8% to 70.7% of the population. The reality of the disease seems more rooted in biology than behavior.
The one age group where women make up the majority of COVID-19 deaths is women 85 and older; they account for 60.4% of COVID-19 deaths. However, women 85+ also account for 64.8% to 70.7% of the population in that age group. Men on the other hand account for 39.6% of the COVID-19 Deaths in the 85+ age group and only account for only 35.2% of the population (Table 2).
Total mortality does offer up some observations, and as Harvard GenderSci Lab suggests, total mortality is not the only indicator. More defined demographic data-sets offer clearer understandings of scientific data. More often, we tend to present data related to males in ways that do not show a clear picture. Race and gender data is a particular problem.
The CDC Demographic Trends of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US reported to CDC do offer demographic trends by race, but those trends are not broken down by sex. Race is a specific category that combines male and female sexes so we do not get a gender representation of male deaths and female deaths by each race. Although it is possible the CDC is collecting such data and may have such data, the standard practice should include gender demographic-data specific to each race as well as total sex demographic-data. Such information would likely compound what we know about men and boys, COVID-19, and the way we under support men's health in government, media, and academia.
Those arguing that men are more reckless with their life choices must reconcile that notion with a study by the Men’s Health Network in partnership with Chattam Inc. The survey shows 90% of men in the U.S. want to take care of their own health, but this is much harder when there is not an Office of Men’s Health but there is an Office of Women’s Health to rightly advance the medical causes, concerns, reporting, funding, and issues pertinent to girls and women. No such option exists for men and boys despite the efforts of groups like the Men’s Health Network, Coalition to Create a White House Council on Boys and Men, and the Global Initiative for Boys and Men to actualize an Office of Men’s Health.
To be fair to Harvard GenderSci Lab, they are attempting to look at life-style choices but may be doing so in a way that promotes their ideological narrative and discounts sex, particularly male sex. There is no Harvard GenderSci Lab dedicated to generating male concepts, methods, and theories for scientific research on sex and gender. Such a lab would suggest equality and equity and would need to be led by people well recognized in the community of researchers who promote boys and men’s concerns. If Harvard is interested, we have some names.
Bolds in article are for emphasis.
Table 1 data created by GIBM and retrieved from CDC on June 29, 2020.
Table 2 data created by GIBM and retrieved from U.S. Census Bureau on June 29, 2020