As social scientists, we were concerned about the academic and scientific violations involved in the recent Pere Sihtkapital survey scandal and the implications it would have for research in Estonia. But we also need to recognize and continually challenge conservative ideas being potently promoted in our society and ensure that they cannot masquerade as science, write Benjamin Klasche, lecturer of Politics and International Relations and Birgit Poopuu, associate professor of International Relations at Tallinn University (TLÜ).
We spent our weekend reading and thinking about the academic scandal involving Pere Sihtkapital — a population think tank/foundation backed by the political party Isamaa — and the University of Tartu.
As social scientists, we were initially very concerned about the academic and scientific malpractice here. It demonstrated a complete violation of research ethics — and, frankly, treated women as baby-making machines rather than human beings — and had us concerned about how it will reflect on Estonian research practices. These infringements are horrible in and of themselves, but we are now also worried that conservatives have abused science to push a conservative agenda while disguising it as academic research or "neutral" surveys — and this not for the first time.
In this short piece, we, therefore, want to draw attention to two aspects. Firstly, the gross scientific misconduct, and how it was used to strengthen radical conservative ideas under the aegis of science in Estonian society.
Secondly, we want to warn that these ideas follow the patriarchal logic peddled by conservative voices — especially powerful ones — in Estonia and abroad. This logic is dangerous, because rather than being sociologically curious when dealing with societal problems, it lays the fault on women and thus continually distracts us from addressing issues related to e.g. growing inequality in society, therefore posing a great danger not only to women's rights but also the freedom and well-being of all of us.
The scandal, in short: it starts with the assumption of conservative voices that declining Estonian birth rates are putting the country at risk, and that the causes behind declining birth rates have to do first and foremost with women and their choices. Thus, they were looking to produce evidence that backed their ideological beliefs that the problem is rooted in the demise of heteronormative family values, women's independence and sexual education.
To show this, the foundation sent surveys to "childless women" in Estonia and inquired about the reasons behind their lack of children by asking about their sexual and political preferences, the number of sexual partners they have had, and their religions affiliations and worldviews.
To reach these women, they turned to the University of Tartu (TÜ) to gain access to Estonia's population register, which was granted by then-dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences Raul Eamets — TÜ has let him go, and with his reaction he demonstrates once more that he does not understand the gravity of the situation; we need a serious discussion about the complicity of other actors and institutions now too — before being put before the Research Ethics Committee of the University of Tartu.
While the university's ethics committee decision was pending — it will only be discussed next week — the survey was already sent out to thousands of women. The study is now halted, but it showed that dangerous conservative ideas are present within the leadership of many public institutions.
TÜ Center for Ethics director Margit Sutrop has made a great start [link in Estonian] at drawing our attention to the need to follow compulsory ethics procedures that scientists have established, but here we want to emphasize that this is just one step in the ethical requirements for doing research.
Ethics begins with how the study is designed and conducted in the first place, and we argue that ignoring these aspects constitutes the broader systemic abuse of science that happened in the context of this scandal.
In this sense, what we're seeing is the abuse of science instead of the rigorous scientific research that we as scientists do daily to make life better. Research ethics also involves questions such as what constitutes a research problem, and how do we go about researching it? The way the study in question approached both of these matters demonstrates that not scientific but ideologically-driven agendas, masquerading as "neutral," were at the forefront.
It is critical to understand — and this demands longer discussion — that science is not neutral, but rigorous, reflexive, critical and transparent. In that sense, every scientific approach comes with its own assumptions about how the world works and can be understood. If we were to make Pere Sihtkapital's assumptions about the world clear, we could say that, in their opinion, women are at fault for declining birth rates, and that solving this means treating women as baby-making machines — bodies — without agency or voice in the service of the state — reflecting a particular, not neutral, understanding of gender and society.
Thus, the whole premise on which the study is built is highly problematic and clearly demonstrates the utter disregard for scientific debates, findings and ethical considerations.
Scientists compete for the right to study something; before their projects receive funding, they are thoroughly reviewed by fellow scientists. This study did not undergo all these scientific procedures, and instead originated from a group of conservative actors backed by conservative money.
Radical conservative forces at the center of our society
As journalist Vilja Kiisler very aptly illustrates [link in Estonian], zooming in on the scandal helps us understand the various ethical questions at stake in this case.
The supervisory board of Pere Sihtkapital, the foundation conducting the study, includes the aforementioned Raul Eamets, Parvel Pruunsild, Bigbank co-owner and Isamaa's biggest donor, Allan Puur, professor of demography at Tallinn University (TLÜ), and Tarmo Soomere, president of the Estonian Academy of Science (ETA). All of whom share the responsibility for creating this study in the first place, and for the unethical practices by which it was designed and conducted. One can see the possibility of corrupt behavior from miles away.
Furthermore, the key stakeholders in this scandal were white, old, powerful men. Even more notably, all of them consider themselves well positioned to interfere with the lives of women and tell them how to live. It's sad to see that not only Pere Sihtkapital or TÜ deserves blame, but also that leading figures from TLÜ and the ETA were involved as well.
It is shocking to see that these persons are in leading positions in public education, where they can easily spread and bolster these ideas in society. The study is suspended — for now — but the conservative forces are not silenced or removed; they remain at the center of our society.
Tarmo Soomere, the president of the ETA, claims that the end justifies the means, and thus seems to instruct scientists to commit unethical research when "Estonia's survival is at stake."
"If we want the Estonian state to survive, as is stated in the preamble of the Constitution, based on the concept of the survival of our people, culture and language, we need to know where the obstacles that could stand in the way of that survival lie," Soomere said. "And sometimes we need to know the answers to some very painful questions."
Particularly abroad, Estonia has been branded as a bastion of liberalism at the border of Europe. Not just in the context of the support of Ukraine in fighting against Russian aggression, but also in the context of its recent legislative change that will allow same-sex marriage.
However, extremely conservative ideas out of a biopolitics nightmare [link in Estonian] are — and have for the longest time been — pushed with conservative money to the forefront in Estonia. Soomere's statement illustrates this even more clearly than past remarks by Eamets, where he conceded that "In the longer term, it is in the direct (budgetary) interest of the state that a mother does not return to the labor market before the birth of her third child."
Soomere's very strong words suggest that the state should not only encourage women to have more children, but might consider taking over control of their reproductive systems to ensure the survival of the state. These convictions and understandings of Estonian society are not neutral or scientific; they represent a particular group's understanding of gender, Estonian society and women's roles therein.
This is not too dissimilar to developments we've seen in the United States or Poland, where conservative forces have reintroduced legislation that prohibits abortions — directly interfering with women's control over their bodies. Furthermore, many states in the U.S. have seen legislative changes that strongly restrict sexual and health education to the extent that it will negatively impact children's health and development.
We might not be there yet in Estonia, but we need to understand that these ideas are potently pushed in our society too, and we need to keep challenging them, as they openly attack women's and LGBT+ rights. And we need to ensure that conservative ideas in the name of the patriarchy cannot masquerade as science.
Editor: Aili Vahtla