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Dec 05 2013

Um, About Those “Male”- and “Female”-Wired Brains

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.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    A Hermit

    Thanks for the links; I just ran into this on a forum I occasionally haunt and this is very helpful.

  2. 2
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I was on this in Pharyngula’s ThunderDome but couldn’t get past the paywall without going through my university library, which I couldn’t do from home without upgrading my computer’s vpn, and I was in the middle of a paper.

    I was so hoping someone around here would get to this promptly.

    Thanks so much for bringing more good info to FtB!

  3. 3
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    The problem – as it tends to be with these sorts – is that they think in terms of black and white. Insisting that this study is proof of gender essentialism is about as compelling as insisting that, since men tend to be physically stronger than women, all physically strong people are really ‘men’ and all physically weak people are really ‘women’. After all, strength is a male trait, right? So we can use strength to determine true gender! Since this is demonstrably not the case (unless you consider being told “You throw like a girl!” is evidence in the matter), perhaps a bit more thought is in order.

    Let’s also not forget to mention that we are using real life humans as test subjects here. Brains are plastic, and the ‘wiring’ under discussion is in fact created and modified by daily and life experience. Who is to say that the differences are not a result of living as a man or a woman in modern America? Are the proponents of gender essentialism so ignorant of neuroscience that they are insisting that thirty years of living as a woman in America couldn’t possibly have a different effect on the brain as thirty years as a man?

  4. 4
    MrFancyPants

    Heh. “As one tweeter put it”. Imagine my utter shock and surprise when I clicked that link and saw who was associated with it. /snark

  5. 5
    A. Noyd

    Stevarious (#3)

    Brains are plastic, and the ‘wiring’ under discussion is in fact created and modified by daily and life experience. Who is to say that the differences are not a result of living as a man or a woman in modern America?

    Yes, I’d be interested to know if this was looked into at all.

  6. 6
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Stevarious (#3)

    Brains are plastic, and the ‘wiring’ under discussion is in fact created and modified by daily and life experience. Who is to say that the differences are not a result of living as a man or a woman in modern America?

    That was my first thought as well.

  7. 7
    angharad

    I am sure the article I saw about this had a statement to the effect that these differences only became apparent around adolescence (before then they were much more similar), which strongly suggests to me they due to experience. I will try and dig up the link later when I am on a pc not a phone…

  8. 8
    Adamo

    It’s just not sexy enough to step back and take a long thoughtful look: media have to jump in all over the place with exaggerated assumptions. And anyone who follows politics can see how well they can be persuaded to take a position because some talking point got there firstest with the mostest, and as soon as everybody started repeating it, it became “fact”.

    I still recall my local news trumpeting how vasectomies increased by double a man’s chance of testicular cancer, with no context for knowing whether his chance was now 2 in 10,000,000 or 2 in 10. Ooooh, big scare, right?

    So thanks for another, cooler look. My female brain, however it’s connected, appreciates it. Let the media do what they do best: sell eyes and ears for their bottom lines.

  9. 9
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    So, they neither established a connection between their data and actual behaviour, second they didn’t establish that this was a result of “ingrained nature” and third they actually didn’t find the brain differences in children while we sure find the gendered behaviour in children.
    So, it’s like somebody hearing half of a sentence and then running around shouting it from the rooftops.

  10. 10
    Jacob Schmidt

    Was there no cross-cultural comparisons? That’s the first thing I think of. It’s kinda meaningless to say “there’s differences” with no baseline as to how those differences might affect behaviour.

  11. 11
    angharad

    Okay, I can’t remember where I first read about it, but here is a story which notes the lack of gender-based differences in children aged under 13 – right at the end of course.

  12. 12
    BecomingJulie

    It’s known that the whole process of growing up creates and changes the connections in the brain, so it would hardly be surprising to detect differences between groups from studying adult brains. Boys and girls are brought up in ways which are different enough to produce different brain wirings.

    You probably could discern diferences between cerebral and manual workers’ brains. Maybe even between cultures or groups with different ways of thinking; such as religious and non-religious people, or even Tories and Lefties.

    It’s what Cordelia Fine called “Neurosexism” in “Delusions of Gender”.

  13. 13
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Becoming Julie
    Exactly! It’s like the lecturer in college who tells us that primary school favours girls because they demand things like writing legibly and boys develop fine motor skills later than girls.
    I was wondering how whoever got that data did it: Did they take 1000 “male” and 1000 “female” babies and raised them in controlled conditions or did they take kids who grow up in this world where little girls get things like beads and craft sets and paint sets and little boys get miniature work benches with hammers…
    Also notice how a perceived disadvantegment of boys is met with demands to change the system to their advantage…

  14. 14
    lostintime

    These studies generate a lot of overblown coverage, but they don’t do anything ultimately to change our understanding of equality, which is a moral stance of non-discrimination rather than one based on factual claims. Equality doesn’t mean that all groups of people are identical in every respect – so even if average differences are discovered between men and women, or any other group of people, it wouldn’t mean that they should receive unequal treatment.

  15. 15
    BecomingJulie

    Did they take 1000 “male” and 1000 “female” babies and raised them in controlled conditions or did they take kids who grow up in this world where little girls get things like beads and craft sets and paint sets and little boys get miniature work benches with hammers…

    Also notice how a perceived disadvantegment of boys is met with demands to change the system to their advantage…

    To be fair, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game; improving things for boys need not mean worsening things for girls. But I can see how the whole “different toys, opposite ends of the playground” thing might be disadvantaging boys, if they are being dissuaded from certain forms of play activity which happen to have beneficial developmental effects.

    I’d say it was crying out for a study …..

  16. 16
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    To be fair, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game; improving things for boys need not mean worsening things for girls.

    I don’t see it as that either.
    Girls can, on average, do with a bit more rough and tumble. Princess culture disgusts me. You should see the shoes many preschool girls wear: You can’t run, climb, jump or play football (soccer for the Americanilly inclined*) in them.
    And boys can do with a bit more fine motor skills and quiet play. Currently most crafts are off-limits for them because they’re deemed “girly.
    No, what struck me was this difference in what consequences are drawn. Unlike you and me those people believe that the differences are inate and linked to the biological sex and can’t be changed. If this produces a disadvantage for girls and women the reaction is “live with it. Females are just not cut out for STEM professions, there will never be equal representation”. But when it’s the boys who get into trouble in grade school because they still hold a pencil with their full fist and cannot work quietly, the reaction is to change the environment to better suit them.

    *Yes, I made that up

  17. 17
    BrainyOne

    This is a failure of peer review. Unfortunately, it happens. Then, it was made worse by getting the media involved.

    Please don’t think though that all neuroscientists who publish on sex differences believe that all such differences are innate or explain behavioral differences. (In fact, sometimes, this is stated explicitly in the paper.) Especially those of us who look at differences in children and see a large dependence on age.

  18. 18
    Tessa

    BecomingJulie:
    [blockquote]It’s known that the whole process of growing up creates and changes the connections in the brain, so it would hardly be surprising to detect differences between groups from studying adult brains. Boys and girls are brought up in ways which are different enough to produce different brain wirings.[/blockquote]

    Yeah, I think they got cause and effect mixed up. Experience has a lot to do with brain architecture. Look at the effect what languages we learn first have on how we perceive sound in general. And even in the article it says:
    [blockquote]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.[/blockquote]

  19. 19
    Sata

    There, you found a couple of “authoritative” comments that set your sociological theory failure fears at ease but theories can only hold themselves together with the backup of hard facts.

  20. 20
    doubtthat

    Along the same lines as A. Noyd in #5, does some sciencey type know if the data was sufficient to support other groupings?

    For example, if the category wasn’t sex but profession, would we find drastic brain type differences between engineers, doctors, lawyers, and basketball players?

    That doesn’t solve the “nature vs. nurture” element, but it would suggest that brain type follows practice. It certainly would be odd if it just happened to be the case that everyone with a certain brain structure magically ended up shuffled into a particular profession.

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