Delusions of Gender: neurosexism

[This is the 6th of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine – finally getting around to finishing off the series!]

In part 2 of the book, Cordelia Fine critiques the neuroscience of sex differences. I didn’t find the neuroscience part as interesting and understandable as the earlier psychology and social science-based discussions, but it deserves a blog post for completeness’ sake – so here is a pretty brief summary, based around quotations from the book. Her criticisms of the science include the following points:

  • A simple consequence of statistical sampling is “that even if males and females, overall, respond the same way on a task, five percent of studies investigating this question will throw up a ‘significant’ difference between the sexes by chance.” And, of course, studies that show a difference that seems to correspond to some popular, stereotyped notions are much more likely to be published than those that show the boring result of no sex difference at all.
  • “…there’s plenty of scope for spurious findings of sex differences in neuroimaging research. … because imaging is so expensive, a small number of participants is the rule rather than the exception, and small neuroimaging studies may be especially unreliable, because nuisance variables (like breathing rate and caffeine intake, or even menstrual cycle in women) can dramatically change the imaging signal without having any effect on behaviour.”
  • “… neuroimagers are now finding that reported sex differences in brain activation haven’t been put to adequate statistical testing, or can come and go depending on how the analysis is done, or can fail to generalise to a distinct but similar task within a second group of men and women, or that the kind of analyses used to establish sex differences in brain activation can also ‘discover’ brain activation differences between randomly created groups (matched on sex, performance and obvious demographic characteristics). For all these reasons, it’s critical not to place too much faith in a single study that shows sex differences”
  • Dodgy science used in a waffly, hand-waving manner to back up popular stereotypes is an even worse distortion of the truth: “why stick to language and visuospatial skills when, as certain academics have shown us, any gender stereotype can be pinned to sex differences in hemisphere use, in impressively scientific-sounding fashion? For instance, what began as women’s supposedly more bilateral language skills quickly transformed into the basis of womanly intuition and multitasking skills while, as John Gray explains in Why Mars and Venus Collide, men’s more localised brain activity even explains their propensity to forget to buy milk.”
  • There is a “problem with interpreting sex differences in the brain: what do they actually mean for differences in the mind? … the obscurity of the relationship between brain structure and psychological function means that just-so stories can be all too easily written and rewritten.”
  • Brain functions are continually influenced and shaped by culture and other aspects of the environment. This is a kind of feedback loop whereby our brains influence the environment and the environments influences our brains right back, and this “seems to strip the word ‘hardwiring’ of much useful meaning.”

The overall picture of gender science is one of continual, embarrassingly reluctant, revision:

“… speculating about sex differences from the frontiers of science is not a job for the faint-hearted who hate to get it wrong. So far, the items on that list of brain differences that are thought to explain the gender status quo have always, in the end, been crossed off. But before this happens, speculation becomes elevated to the status of fact, especially in the hands of some popular writers. Once in the public domain these supposed facts about male and female brains become part of the culture, often lingering on well past their best-by dates. Here, they reinforce and legitimate the gender stereotypes that interact with our minds, helping to create the very gender inequalities that the neuroscientific claims seek to explain.”

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