A few days ago, an article came out that excited some people who identify as skeptics. Brain scans had finally revealed what these people had always known: Men’s brains and women’s brains were fundamentally different! As one tweeter put it, “Damned science and facts, always getting in the way of SOCIAL JUSTICE!”
Were gender-essentialist skeptical types the only people to jump on this reporting? No, of course not. However, they are the people who should know that situations like these are exactly the ones in which to exercise a bit of skeptical caution. After all, there are two stances here in which they have a serious emotional investment–that gender roles are dictated by fundamental differences between the (two, discrete, dichotomous) sexes and that we social-justicey, feminist types are completely divorced from science and skepticism. That’s a rather large source of potential bias to be confirmed, so care should be taken.
What kind of care?
- They should be aware of media biases on the reporting of science that has to do with sex differences. If they need a refresher, I’d recommend Rebecca’s talk from last year’s Skepticon.
- They should be generally aware of the difference between the popular conceptions of the scientific record on sex differences and the actual record, as well as some of the scientific battlegrounds. For a good background, I’d recommend Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Carol Tavris’s The Mismeasure of Woman. Or they could ask a neuroscientist like Indre Viskontas.
- They should understand the concept of science by press release and realize that, when they are looking at an article that contains quotes only from the authors of the study, they should wait for other experts to read the paper and weigh in if they are not experts themselves.
Happily, in this case, two experts have done just that. Christian Jarrett of Wired‘s Brain Watch blog is a science writer who was formally a cognitive neuroscientist. This is his beat. And he’s not thrilled with this coverage.
Make no mistake, the technical wizardry involved in creating a brain wiring diagram – researchers call it a “connectome” – is awesome. I’m sure Leonardo Da Vinci, who used hot wax to create a cast of the brain’s ventricles (the fluid-filled hollows), would have been mightily impressed. But unfortunately, this wiring study and the subsequent press coverage has got a lot of things in a tangle. First of all, the differences in brain wiring between the sexes were not as noteworthy as the researchers imply. They say they are “fundamental,” but other experts have crunched the numbers and they state that although the differences are statistically significant, they are actually not substantive. And remember, these are average differences with a lot of overlap. It’s possible that my male brain is wired more like an average female brain than yours, even if you’re a woman.
A second key thing to bear in mind is that the new paper did not in fact look at behavioural differences between the sexes – things like intuitive thinking and multi-tasking. The researchers are only guessing about how any wiring differences might be related to behavioral differences between the sexes. They have published past research that tested the same sample on various tasks, but as Cordelia Fine points out, the sex differences they found were “trivially small” and they didn’t look at the kind of activities being cited in the media, such as map-reading.
That’s not all. It’s not even close. Go read the whole thing.
Then go read Cordelia Fine’s take on the study, the coverage, and the behavior of the scientists involved. It covers a similar set of issues as Jarrett’s post, but it also discusses general problems in this type of research and the ethics of reporting on this topic.
In the latest issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, co-authors Rebecca Jordan-Young, Anelis Kaiser and Gina Rippon and I argued that scientists investigating sex differences have a responsibility to realise “how social assumptions influence their research and, indeed, public understanding of it.” We then called on scientists working in this area to:
recognise that there are important and exciting opportunities to change these social assumptions through rigorous, reflective scientific inquiry and debate.
The continuing importance of this message is only reinforced by this latest case study in how easily scientific “neurosexism” can, with a little stereotype-inspired imagination, contribute to inaccurate and harmful lay misunderstanding of what neuroscience tells us about the sexes.
It isn’t any more flattering to the press or the authors, but it does help us understand how scientists, the press, and now, self-identified “skeptics” keep getting this wrong.