Major science journals issue science journalists with press releases about papers that they think will make a splash and give them embargoed advance copies of the articles so that journalists can research them and write their articles with the understanding that the articles won’t be published until the journal is released.
I have learned to be a little wary of news stories that either flatly contradict established knowledge or support common prejudices. Very often these are tentative and speculative results that in the original papers are hedged with caveats (small sample sizes, limited range, lack of proper controls) but those are stripped away in the news reports and the press releases that accompany them.
For this reason, I was a little cautious about a new paper that found that the brains of men and women were wired differently, with men’s brains wired more in the front-to-back direction while the women’s were wired more between the left and right hemispheres. From the abstract:
In all supratentorial regions, males had greater within-hemispheric connectivity, as well as enhanced modularity and transitivity, whereas between-hemispheric connectivity and cross-module participation predominated in females… Overall, the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.
This is undoubtedly intriguing. But is it a real effect or a product of some other unmeasured and unaccounted for factor? But that lack of knowledge did not prevent people from indulging in all manner of speculations.
Ragini Verma, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said the greatest surprise was how much the findings supported old stereotypes, with men’s brains apparently wired more for perception and co-ordinated actions, and women’s for social skills and memory, making them better equipped for multitasking.
“If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there’s a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better,” Verma said. “Women are better at intuitive thinking. Women are better at remembering things. When you talk, women are more emotionally involved – they will listen more.”
She added: “I was surprised that it matched a lot of the stereotypes that we think we have in our heads. If I wanted to go to a chef or a hairstylist, they are mainly men.”
This kind of extrapolation makes me uneasy. So I waited a bit to see if there were more mundane possibilities. Neuroskeptic came up with two alternative hypotheses other than brain wiring that could explain the data: head motion and brain size, neither of which were controlled for in the original study.
This is not to criticize the original study. Initial investigations are necessarily limited and incomplete. It is just meant to warn people to not take too seriously the speculations in the media about new scientific discoveries. In science, it takes a while for all avenues to be explored and for a consensus to emerge.