The program for the ESHS Annual Meeting in Lisbon, September 4–6, is online now. I will be presenting my research on the morning of the third conference day, session 58 I (Saturday, September 6, 9.00–11.00 am). Here is the abstract I proposed:
Contested Numbers: The Quest for Objective Validity in a Statistical Review of the “Kinsey Report”
The media response to A.C. Kinsey et al.’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) was massive and controversial. Kinsey’s funding institutions—the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Research Council’s Committee for Research in Problems of Sex—were particularly concerned about methodological criticisms and requested the American Statistical Association to assess the validity of Kinsey’s results.
During the years 1950–1952, World War II companions and mathematicians William C. Cochran, C. Frederick Mosteller and John W. Tukey served on this review committee. Drawing mostly on Tukey’s papers and the review group’s internal correspondence during the collaboration, this project traces the political and personal threads which made it impossible for the evaluators to live up to their initial claim that they would exclude all non-technical and non-expositional matters from their review.
Sexuality was a highly contested category during the McCarthy era. Diverse personal interests as well as concerns about political and public response further complicated communication between the review committee on the one hand, and Kinsey’s research group as well as his funding institutions on the other hand. As a result, continuous negotiations of partiality and diplomacy became an important part of the statisticians’ work. Upholding the view that sound data and proper methods could produce objective validity required a virtual enclosure of the review group: They developed statistical methods that they knew would never be used by Kinsey’s team, and formulated a devastating secret evaluation of Kinsey’s methods. The informal and sarcastic tone of their internal communication differed widely from the correspondence with Kinsey himself and his funding institutions on the one hand, and from the mild and appreciative published appraisal on the other hand. This incident sheds light on how scientists navigated their interests and (mis)communicated their true results in an early stage of the Cold War imbroglio.
In May, I was provided with incredible 90 minutes to present and discuss the same research project at the History of Science research colloquium at TU Berlin, thanks to the invitation of my M.A. thesis advisor Friedrich Steinle. It was a fun evening, especially because I gave the talk in English, but Q&A was bilingual. It was challenging to switch languages quickly, in particular because I had worked on this exclusively in English—and I wouldn’t have thought that I could lose familiarity with my own mother tongue so quickly. Anyway, please join me in Lisbon in September!
(Fun fact: except for Clara Kinsey, only men appear as the pursuers and objects of the research I will be talking about; yet, I will be joining the session on “Women and Science in Focus.”)