I am thinking of those too-perfect cases that illustrate what we want students to know but which turn out to be overblown or plain wrong. My case is Maines’ (2001) The Technology of Orgasm, which used to be a central example in a lecture I delivered in intoxication, technology and sexuality. It presented a beautifully written account of the origin of the vibrator in Victorian doctors simultaneous suspicion of and need to intervene in the female body. It melds two histories, psychiatry and medical technology. The book recounts the Victorian obsession with the female malady, hysteria. Lots of middle class women were reporting an array of dissatisfactions which it turned out could be treated by bringing them to orgasm. That was called ‘achieving hysterical paroxysm’ in the parlance – oh you sweet talkin’ physician!
The treatment was very popular, and doctors very bored with carrying it out. A class of medical instruments was invented which did it for them – the vibrator. A lovely tale of medicine failing to grasp the nettle but coming up with the goods nonetheless, placing doctors’ tired hands above female desire and wholly misunderstanding female sexuality. Only it turns out not be be true, according to a paper by Lieberman and Schatzberg (2018), as described in this Atlantic article. There is no evidence that hysteria was treated by inducing orgasm nor of doctors using vibrators to do so, still less of this being the main driver for the perfection of the vibrator. I kept the case but switched it to a different class on research design where it now comes up as an illustration of problems of presentism in historical research and the institutional ways academia resists correction of the record.
Academia does not let go of good cases so all of these persist way past the point they were debunked. You still see Milgram’s experiments in obedience, the Stanford Prison experiment and the Pseudopatients study quoted in introductory sociology and social psychology texts. Kuhnian paradigms are used to understand developments in scientific knowledge. Then there is the Blank Slate assumption, which is so much a baseline of sociological thinking it is barely recognised as such. Blank Slatism is the claim that individuals come into the world as similar sets of capacities which are entirely then shaped by socialisation. It appears in sociology as a set of assumptions that other claims have been debunked, for example in relation to IQ or sex differences, when they have not. The reason we cling so much to these cases is that they confirm baseline claims about the world and human nature that are dominant in sociology, and they provide nice just-so stories to give to students and each other about how things really work. People conform to groups and to authority to the extent of abandoning all moral norms. Psychiatry is sexist quackery. Inequality derives from social and economic organisation. We would rather continue using debunked cases than accept our worldview might be faulty, or rewrite those tedious powerpoint slides. On a more mundane level, changing tried and true teaching techniques is hard and there is no institutional reward for doing so. I know students love these cases so give ’em what they want! Student satisfaction is everything, and truth nothing. Why not stick with the untrue but entertaining over the true but challenging? But we are leading them on a journey, through falsity to truth.