what i'm reading: delusions of gender: how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference

When I was in library school, much ink was spilled discussing a "crisis" of "boys not reading". Countless articles were written, studies were launched, hands were wrung. How do we get boys to read???

For a paper I was writing, I dug up the original study that launched this literacy catastrophe. Any guesses on what I learned?

The percentage of boys who self-reported not reading was only marginally larger than the percentage of girls who didn't read -- barely statistically significant. In other words, lots of girls also were not reading. But apparently this was not worth mentioning.

The coverage appeared to follow a predictable,  maddening pattern. First the data from the original study was cherry-picked and interpreted with a great deal of bias. Then educators and journalists read that badly-reported interpretation, never bothering with the study itself, and reported the researcher's biased conclusions.

I thought of this often as I read Cordelia Fine's persuasive, powerful, and often amusing Delusions of Gender. (The book has been published with two different subtitles.)

Neurosexism: a cottage industry

There are whole shelves of books that purport to explain that differences between men and women are innate, hard-wired, and immutable, rather than the result of upbringing, education, and social conditioning. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus is perhaps the most famous title of a subgenre that includes The Female Brain, The Essential Difference, Why Gender MattersWhat Could He Be Thinking?, and my personal favourite title, Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps. Seriously. This is the title of a published book.

These books claim to demonstrate the definitive resolution in the age-old nature/nurture debate -- which has not really been a debate in several decades, as it is widely acknowledged that human behaviour is affected by myriad influences, and that these two oversimplified, supposedly irreconcilable explanations actually engage in many complex, little-understood interactions. And, at least regarding gender, this supposed debate has been solved by... science! The neuroscience is there! We have the data to prove it!

Or not.

Cordelia Fine demonstrates how the studies cited in these books are:

-- tiny: five people here, seven people there; 

-- deeply flawed: based on false assumptions, grossly open to interpretation, not scientific in any way; and even still,

-- do not even demonstrate what authors claim they do.

These unscientific, flawed, and in many cases, fake studies are used in service of political ends, by people telling other people what they want to hear: that modernity is a scourge, and if we could just turn back the clock, we'd all be so much happier. 

Or by people who want to blame relationship issues on something immutable, thereby absolving them of the hard work of empathy, communication, and intimacy. 

And most often, it seems, this specious data is used by people who believe their privilege is threatened and don't want their dominant worldview challenged. 

Tl;dr: all the world's evils are caused by feminism.

Even the neurosexists can't keep their stories straight

Of course, people have long claimed that differences in gender -- that is, the mainstream differences seen in the dominant culture -- are innate. But the reasons have changed over time. 

For example, in the nineteenth century, when the seat of the intellect was thought to reside in the frontal lobes, careful observations of male and female brains revealed that this regional appeared both larger and more complexly structured in males, while the parietal lobes were better developed in women. Yet when scientific thought came to the opinion that it was instead the parietal lobes that furnished powers of abstract intellectual thought, subsequent observations revealed that the parietal lobes were move developed in the male, after all. 

. . . . Of course, there's nothing wrong with changing your mind in the light of new evidence about the sexes. But those who are tempted to play this game, by claiming that sex differences in the structure of the brain yield essentially different kinds of minds, should be aware that this sort of flipping seems to be a common part of the process. 

Beware of brain blobs

In the neurosexist world, it's common to show images of the brain, taken through PET scans or MRIs, as proof of the gendered brain. The thinking goes like this: this portion of the brain is responsible for x behaviour. When we give people task x, the portion that lights up in women's/men's brains is bigger/smaller that the portion that lights up in the other gender's brains, therefore men/women are better/worse at this behaviour.


Take, for example, a study that supposedly proves that males have a greater aptitude for mathematics than females.

First, the researcher posits a concept called "systemizing". Systemizing is loosely and vaguely defined. 

Next, we are told that systemizing is correlated with an aptitude for math. This is stated but unproved. 

Next, the researcher says that a certain task, such as how quickly one can group images into categories, is proof of good systemizing skills. This is also an unproven assumption.

And then we told that a brain scan (either fMRI or PET, both used to measure brain activity) shows a portion of the brain "lighting up" more in men than in women during this task proves that men are better at systemizing, and therefore, people with penises have a greater aptitude for math than people with vaginas.

Not only don't we really know what systemizing is, nor do we know how systemizing relates to mathematical aptitude, nor do we know that the ability to complete the assigned task is proof of a systemizing mind. It turns out that the colours shown in the scans don't prove anything! The colours do show brain activity, but what relationship that activity bears to the task at hand is mostly unknown.

This is because very little is understood about the relationship between the physical brain and the human mind. If there is a correlation between certain aptitudes, thoughts, or feelings and brain activity as shown in a scan, there is no clear interpretation of what that correlation is. As Fine writes:
There just isn't a simple one-to-one correspondence between brain regions and mental processes, which can make interpreting imaging data a difficult task. As Jonah Lehrer recently explained in the Boston Globe

One of the most common uses of brain scanners -- taking a complex psychological phenomenon and pinning it to a particular bit of cortex -- is now being criticized as a potentially serious oversimplification of how the brain works. . . . Critics stress the interconnectivity of the brain, noting that virtually every thought and feeling emerges from the crosstalk of different areas spread across the cortex.

. . . Then, there is the sad fact that, at its most precise, functional imaging technology averages over a few seconds the activity of literally millions of neurons that can fire up to a hundred impulses a second. (For PET the time-scale is even longer.) 'Using fMRI to spy on neurons is something like using Cold War-era satellites to spy on people: only large-scale acivity is visible,' says Science journalist Greg Miller. This severely limits the interpretations that can be made about brief psychological events.  

In fact, the "familiar spots of colour on brain activation maps" are so vague and misleading that that neurosexism skeptics have a name for it: blobology

So what does it all mean?

So what is known about the science behind differences in gender? An incomplete, confusing, ever-evolving jumble that true scientists are unable and unwilling to draw conclusions from. Which is a very flimsy foundation on which to build university admissions policies, hiring practices, social policy, or relationship advice. 

Because I read a lot of social history, I come across proclamations, made over the centuries, of what girls and women supposedly aren't capable of by virtue of their gender. Higher education. Running a business. Understanding politics. Driving. Performing surgery. Managing money. Enjoying sex. 

Then there are all the behaviours that men are supposedly incapable or barely capable of. Empathy. Nurturing. Nonviolence. Keeping an orderly home. Caring for children. 

These sexist assumptions were all supposedly based on science. 

Now the current interest in neuroscience has provided bigots with the perfect cover for their agenda. It's still the same old sexism, in a new, pseudo-scientific package.

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