Saturday, February 5, 2011

TLS: Delusions of Gender

Delusions of Gender

From The Times Literary Supplement
January 26, 2011

The new neurosexism

Cordelia Fine has produced a witty and meticulously researched exposé
of the sloppy studies that pass for scientific evidence in so many of
today's bestselling books on sex differences

Carol Tavris

Wandering wombs, an anatomically conferred destiny of penis envy and
masochism, smaller brains, smaller frontal lobes, larger frontal
lobes, right-hemisphere dominance, cross-hemisphere interaction, too
much oestrogen, not enough testosterone – all have been invoked to
explain why women are intellectually inferior to men, more emotional,
less logical, better at asking for directions, worse at map reading,
hopeless at maths and science, and ever so much better suited to jobs
involving finger dexterity, nappies and dishes. Today we look back
with amusement at the efforts of nineteenth-century scientists to
weigh, cut, split or dissect brains in their pursuit of finding the
precise anatomical reason for female inferiority. How much more
scientific and unbiased we are today, we think, with our PET scans and
fMRIs and sophisticated measurements of hormone levels. Today's
scientists would never commit such a methodological faux pas as
failing to have a control group or knowing the sex of the brain they
are dissecting – would they? Brain scans don't lie – do they?

Well, yes, they would and they do. As Cordelia Fine documents in
Delusions of Gender, researchers change their focus, technology
marches on, but sexism is eternal. Its latest incarnation is what she
calls "neurosexism", sexist bias disguised in the "neuroscientific
finery" of claims about neurons, brains, hormones. Fine was spurred to
write her critique, she says, when she found her son's kindergarten
teacher reading a book that claimed a young boy's brain was incapable
of forging the connection between emotion and language. The result of
Fine's irritation is a witty and meticulously researched exposé of the
sloppy studies that pass for scientific evidence in so many of today's
bestselling books on sex differences, notably Louann Brizendine's The
Female Brain, Simon Baron-Cohen's The Essential Difference, Michael
Gurian's What Could He Be Thinking? and similar books published by his
Gurian Institute. Other popular books about leadership, marital
problems, parenting and education likewise claim that males and
females are hard-wired to misunderstand each other, to have different
interests and skills, to learn differently, and to differ in empathy,
logic and the ability to see forests or trees.

"We have been here before, so many times", writes Fine, with a sigh.
No one disputes that the sexes differ physiologically, in hormones and
anatomy, or that there are sex differences in the brain related to
men's and women's different reproductive processes. The eternal
question is, and has been, so what? What, if anything, do those
differences have to do with work, love, success, ambition, talent,
love of sports, and who does the housework? Perhaps they do, says
Fine, but "when we follow the trail of contemporary science we
discover a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies,
poor methodologies, and leaps of faith – as well as more than one echo
of the insalubrious past". Fine takes us with her along that trail as
she looks up studies reported by Brizendine and Baron-Cohen, among
other authors, showing us time and again how their claims go far
beyond the research they cite. For example, she tracked down every
single neuroscience study that Brizendine cited as evidence for
feminine superiority in empathy and "mind reading", the alleged reason
that wives know what their husbands are thinking before their husbands
do. (They do?) She found "the deployment of some rather misleading
practices", which proves to be an understatement. Brizendine claims
that the female brain has more mirror neurons (brain cells that fire
in mimicry when a person or animal observes others carrying out an
action) than the male brain, hence enabling greater female empathy.
Brizendine has five references for this assertion: one study,
published in Russian, of a postmortem dissection of frontal lobes, in
which mirror neurons could therefore not be observed in action; three
studies of mirror neurons, none of which compared males and females;
and one "personal communication" with a cognitive neuroscientist at
Harvard, who, when asked by Fine to confirm the finding, said that not
only had she never communicated with Brizendine; her own work had also
failed to find any sex differences in mirror neuron functioning.

Empathic skills are central to the female stereotype, and most people
will tell you that "women" in some vague generic way are better than
"men" at them. On self-report questionnaires, women are more likely
than men to describe themselves as being high in empathy. This
response reflects social desirability, wishful thinking and role
obligations, but is not to be taken as evidence that women actually
are more empathic, though Baron-Cohen, Brizendine, and many others do.
Unfortunately, what people say about themselves, on any trait or
behaviour from kindness and altruism to obedience and cruelty, is
almost entirely unrelated to how they actually behave in various
situations. Baron-Cohen's questionnaires to measure "Empathy Quotient"
and "Systemising Quotient" are prime examples of this flaw. According
to Baron-Cohen, a person high in affective empathy, seeing a woman in
pain, will "automatically feel concern, wince, and feel a desire to
run across and help alleviate her pain"; and it is women on average
who are "predominantly hard-wired" to do that wincing and alleviating.
What about men who wince and rush to alleviate the pain of a person
trapped in a mine or of their children who have taken a tumble? And
which women? Under what circumstances? Empathy towards whom? Are women
more empathic toward their enemies, familial or national, than men
are? Hardly. (Mirror neurons go to sleep when people are observing
members of an out-group.) Over and over, if you watch what people do
rather than what they say they would do, and vary the situations in
which they do it, gender differences fade to the vanishing point. As
Fine puts it, "Pick a gender difference, any difference. Now watch
very closely as – poof! – it's gone".

All right, so it's not mirror neurons; it's brain lateralization! Here
the view is that male brains are lateralized for certain functions,
such as verbal skills, whereas women have a larger corpus callosum,
the bundle of fibres connecting the two brain hemispheres, and process
the same skills on both sides of the brain. These physiological
differences allegedly make women better at communicating across their
own brains and to other people. Scientists have been trying valiantly
to drive a stake through the heart of this unsupported idea for forty
years. I took a stab at it in 1992; but it is like the kudzu vine,
growing and strangling everything in its path. Fine summarizes thus:
"Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralization, mediated by
nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely
believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills".
The bottom line: even when brain scans have shown that some males and
females have different patterns of brain activity while they are
performing a task, their actual performance on that task has not
differed. Yet a difference in performance is presumably the thing to
be explained.

So maybe the difference isn't in mirror neurons or brain
lateralization; it's hormones! "Without testosterone interfering, your
daughter develops not only female genitalia but a decidedly female
brain", says It's a Baby Girl!, another of the Gurian Institute books
that promote the "hard-wired differences" argument: "It is your
daughter's girl brain that will direct her female approach to the
world". But what is a "female approach to the world" – one unaffected
by a woman's religion, culture, social class, age and generation,
occupation, nationality, geographic location? For Baron-Cohen, the
surge of foetal testosterone explains why no woman has won the Fields
Medal in maths; for Brizendine, it explains why girls are better at
"communication, observation, and processing of information". Yet
again, when Fine goes to the studies that are cited in support of the
foetal testosterone argument, she finds oversimplification at best and
disconfirmation of the prediction at worst. For example, Baron-Cohen
and his colleagues hypothesized that pregnant women who had higher
levels of amniotic testosterone should have children (of either sex)
with lower levels of empathizing skills, as measured by frequency of
eye contact at age one year with a parent during play, quality of
social relationships at age four years, and scores on the child
version of his Empathy Quotient measure. But the findings – which Fine
describes in detail in her notes, for readers interested in the data
and their analysis – did not support the hypothesis in any clear way.
"Higher foetal testosterone in nonclinical populations", she
concludes, "has not been convincingly linked with better mental
rotation ability, systemising ability, mathematical ability,
scientific ability or worse mind reading". Fine finds no strong link
between "a clear hormonal beginning, a neat neural middle, and a
convincing behavioural end", though endocrinologists have spent
decades trying to find it. The link eludes them, as it eludes everyone
in the hard-wired-differences camp, because social experiences and the
environment muddy the path between hormones and behaviour, as between
brain structure and behaviour, and even between genetic
predispositions and behaviour. These are not one-way streets. Culture,
experience, the environment and our behaviour in everyday life are
constantly influencing and shaping our brains, hormones and the
expression of genes.

Fine's romp through the fields of neurosexism is sandwiched between
two other sections; in the first, she explores the unsexy, low-tech,
but primary causes of gender differences in achievement: the
persistence of discrimination, subtle and blatant, that convey the
message to women – "You don't belong here", and the institutional
rules, explicit and implicit, that impede advancement – or make it
possible; after all, the international rise of women in law, medicine,
science, bartending and the military did not occur because their
brains became less lateralized. The final section examines the
socialization of children and the phenomenon that draws so many
parents to the notion that sex differences are innate: the
sex-stereotyped play choices and behaviours of their toddlers. Parents
aren't wrong in what they observe. They are wrong only in assuming
that their child's preferences at the age of three, four or five has
anything at all to do with what that child will grow up to become.
"Three- to six-year-olds are the Gender Police", says the sociologist
John Gagnon, their little minds busy sorting out what it means to be
male or female. (After dinner at an Italian restaurant, a
four-year-old in one study told his parents that he'd got the answer:
"Men eat pizza and women don't".) As Fine explains, this is a
cognitive phase, and as children's cognitive flexibility matures,
stereotypes soften. She reviews the extensive interdisciplinary
research on the influences on children's gender development, showing
how the cognitive rigidities of early childhood are outgrown. But she
fears that the belief that sex differences are hard-wired in the brain
is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy among parents and educators.
That's why Harry won't listen to me; his poor deficient brain deafens
him. That's why Sally isn't doing well at maths; her brain isn't wired
for it. That's why men are so bad at housework; the poor guys don't
have enough oxytocin, a nurturing hormone. That's why my child has
such rigid play preferences; sexism is innate.

Perhaps the most succinct rebuttal to the current epidemic of books on
hard-wired sex differences is the quote that Fine found from Margaret
Thatcher, who said, in 1971, "I don't think that in my lifetime there
will be a woman Prime Minister". Can we stop talking about brains now?
Those who can't, and anyone else who would like to know what today's
best science reveals about gender differences – and similarities –
could not do better than read this book.

Cordelia Fine DELUSIONS OF GENDER The real science behind sex differences
338pp. Icon Books. £14.99.
978 1 84831 163 3

Carol Tavris, a social psychologist, is the co-author of The Longest
War: Sex differences in perspective, 1977, and the author of The
Mismeasure of Woman: Why women are not the better sex, the inferior
sex, or the opposite sex, 1992.