Dec 5, 2013

Extra, Extra! Scientists misunderstand own research!

Look below the line on any newspaper article dealing with women’s equality, and you’re guaranteed to come across at least a couple of comments condescendingly reminding you that there are differences between men and women. Sometimes it’s accompanied by the wink-wink-nudge-nudge “apart from the obvious, haha!”, sometimes it’s a sort of exasperated superiority at the author’s sheer silliness. Often, it will appeal to scientific authority along the lines of “research has repeatedly have shown”, or my personal favourite, “it’s proven by science”.

And frankly, you can’t really blame people, can you? Quite apart from the success of books (and the myths they engender) like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” and “TheEssential Difference”, which one could say simply capitalize on a pre-existing thirst to have gender stereotypes bolstered by the borrowed authenticity of science, when actual new research does come out, it’s invariably reported in the press in ways that hysterically emphasize the parts of the findings that fit with prevailing notions about the difference between men and women, and usually utterly ignore the rest.

The reason this week’s neurobabble scoop is worthy of notice though is not that the newspapers trumpeted it as the final proof that men are better at reading maps (and should therefore presumably continue to dominate the higher echelons of politics and business, not that I’ve ever seen the connection, personally), but that in doing so they did not misrepresent the researchers’ own conclusions.

Which is quite remarkable, considering that the work actually didn’t turn up the results the scientists say it turned up.

Two excellent pieces written by people who have the patience to trawl though the newsprint babble point out two key ways in which this research did no, in fact, demonstrate that behavioural differences between men and women are explained by difference in the brain.

This piece, by Cordelia Fine, brings to light the interesting fact that the data set these researchers used doesn't show any measurable behavioural differences:

To give a sense of the huge overlap in behaviour between males and females, of the twenty-six possible comparisons, eleven sex differences were either non-existent, or so small that if you were to select a boy and girl at random and compare their scores on a task, the “right” sex would be superior less than 53% of the time.
 Even the much-vaunted female advantage in social cognition, and male advantage in spatial processing, was so modest that a randomly chosen boy would outscore a randomly chosen girl on social cognition – and the girl would outscore the boy on spatial processing – over 40% of the time.
 As for map-reading and remembering conversations, these weren’t measured at all.

And this one, by my friend Paul Harper-Scott, winkles out the hidden detail that they didn’t find any structural brain differences in children, either:

Male and female brains showed few differences in connectivity up to the age of 13, but became more differentiated in 14- to 17-year-olds. That really is very interesting, to anyone willing to pause for thought. Let us allow that the observed differences in adult brains are significant, and that brain science is capable of communicating details of value (though there is considerable scientific scepticism on this point). Those differences are not manifested until the age of 14–17. It follows that the assumption that girls and boys below that age are ‘essentially’ different, ‘because their brains are wired differently’ is unsupported by the evidence. It is wrong to suggest that boys and girls have a ‘natural’ difference, which can be traced to brain design, because the study does not support such a claim. On the contrary, if we think that gendered difference is explicable only by brain design, we ought to conclude from this study that there should be no difference, at least no difference occasioned by brain design, between boys and girls.

In other words, this new and exciting research, reported to “finally prove” why men and women behave differently because of their different brains, didn’t prove either that 

a) men and women behave differently, 
b) they have innately different brains, 
c) that there’s even a connection between the two.

And yet not only the gullible science journalists and credulous public, but even the people looking at the data themselves, interpreted these non-findings in a way that reinforces the dominant stereotypes about men and women in a post-industrial liberal democracy.

It’s hard not to feel like the world has gone just a little bit delusional; like we’re arguing with someone about the colour of the sky, pointing to it and going “but look, look at it, it’s right there!” only to have them give us a pitying glance and say “yes, it is indeed yellow, like we told you. Your problem?”

It’s not up to science to prove or disprove the stereotypes about the sexes and gendered patterns of behaviour, in other words, because as long ago as the 90's, people like Stephen Jay Gould wrote about the persistent under-reporting of brain research studies whose findings showed little or no structural or operational difference between the sexes (over 90% of all such studies, if I recall the quotation correctly). This stuff is not new, and we can't leave it to the assumed objectivity of scientists to debunk decades (centuries!) of bunk. It’s up to feminists to get it through these people’s thick lab coats that there are no differences worth speaking of, and make them get down to the more interesting work of trying to explain why we so persistently believe there are. Because ingrained attitudes manufacture their own brand of "evidence", in spite of and in the face of everything that we can justifiably advance as fact.