Falsifiability is a key aspect of any scientific theory. If you are going to put forward a testable proposition then you have to be able to answer the question: What evidence would prove this proposition wrong? If you cannot think of anything, then you have a problem.
Sociological theories are often unfalsifiable, particularly when interpreted by amateur sociologists drawing on these theories in the pursuit of other goals. For instance, the concept of ‘patriarchy’ can be used to explain any and all evidence about gender disparities. When women are disadvantaged then this can be explained by the patriarchy working to oppress women, but when men are disadvantaged, this can also be explained by the patriarchy and, specifically, the role of toxic masculinity and its deleterious effect on men.
I was struck by this when listening to a podcast from the BBC about the enduring problem of boys’ educational underachievement.
I have been interested in this issue for my whole career. As a trainee teacher, I was asked to write a couple of extended literature reviews. One was to be specific to the subject I taught and the other was to be more general. So I wrote about girls’ under-representation in the sciences, particular physical sciences and maths, as well as boys’ underachievement across the board. Writing about both topics enabled me to draw an interesting contrast. Many were quick to blame societal factors and discrimination for girls’ under-representation in science, even though a closer reading suggested it was more complex, and yet they did not do this when considering boys’ achievement.
The BBC podcast is interesting because David Grossman, the journalist, takes a refreshingly naive and open approach to the issues. His stance is that he is a father of boys and he just wants to figure out what is going on. He quickly determines that key differences between boys and girls emerge early, prior to school, and so schools are unlikely to cause these differences.
However, after exploring arguments about the relative roles that biology and the environment play in early boy/girl differences – for instance, does testosterone in the womb have an effect on boys? – he expresses surprise that so many of the academics he contacted for the programme did not want to discuss this aspect.
This is not surprising to those who are more accustomed to this debate. The average achievement of boys compared to girls is likely to be related to a complex mix of biological and environmental factors which, as Grossman eventually establishes, is ultimately irrelevant to the question of what works best to address this difference. However, anyone with an understanding of the academy in 2019 will be aware of the consensus that gendered behaviour is entirely socially constructed as a response to the environment (e.g. the patriarchy causes toxic masculinity). One academic that Grossman interviews suggests this may be an overcorrection of past errors made by ‘biological determinists’ who sought to simplistically attribute behavioural traits to biological differences in a manner that reinforced negative stereotypes and prejudices. This is plausible.
I still think these are interesting issues. However, I have noticed through the course of my career that the conversation around boys’ underachievement has become more muted. Even if it can be explained by toxic masculinity and therefore does not threaten sociological theories, it perhaps focuses on the wrong subjects. Maybe boys are not a fashionable group to be concerned about. If I am right, this represents a major problem, because boys’ underachievement is not going away and its consequences for all members of society are potentially dire.