Be skeptical of the neuroscience of gender


You expect me to believe that lineages that developed under two very different planetary challenges (frozen desert vs steamy oven) resulted in exact parallel evolution of the neural system? Preposterous!


Recent advances in neuroscience have left the press vulnerable to just about any crazy idea that contains the prefix, “neuro-.” This effect, I like to call neuro-credulity. Unfortunately, there are those who study the changes neuro-credulity makes to the brain and nothing will stop them from publishing their findings on neuro-neuro-credulity.


Studies in this area seem to reflect the ideology of the researcher at least as much as they are a reflection of reality. There is a remarkable amount of similarity between the sexes when compared with other species, but I don’t see how “results of comparative studies are problematic and there are other similarly problematic studies that suggest other conclusions, therefore stop looking” is warranted. If she’s just giving a plea for caution against over-credulity in the face of claims by neuroscientists, that seems very sensible.

This topic is a minefield. I advise my undergraduates to avoid it, or at a minimum to keep their mouth shut about what they think.


As in ‘Quantum’.
Quantum Neuro Credulity.


Oddly, this article debunking alleged defects of news stories about gender differences in the brain repeats one of the major features of such stories – a complete lack of anything but anecdotal reference to the actual study being discussed.

In December, a highly publicized study declared that distinctive wiring
in the brain explains different skill sets in men and women. After
scanning hundreds of participants’ brains, the researchers reported that
men have stronger connections within a given hemisphere, whereas women
have stronger connections between the two.

Paragraphs like this always remind me of cheap horror films where the protagonist has to consult The Professor at The University. I assume the author is referring to Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain, but why leave the reader in the dark? This is pretty much how the Daily Mail covered this study, only with the opposite “Mars/Venus” take.


An urge to bloviate and make pronouncements is hard-wired into some brains…

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My general rule is to remain skeptical of any scientific study or news article about a scientific study which makes claims that reinforce some aspect of inequality present in the status quo. It’s almost always the case the news report is a misrepresentation of the study or the study is seriously flawed.


Honestly, it seems to work both ways: if it’s a controversial topic, you’ll usually get a pretty clear picture one way or the other. In this case, those advocating an innate difference between the sexes usually look for a “hardwired” scientific basis for popular stereotypes (bonus points for evolutionary psychology!), those opposing it often rely on small-scale social science studies, usually those made on western university students.


How is Virginia Hughes qualified to pass judgement on someone else’s research? In the Popular Science article she says the study was riddled with errors both in methodology and in logic. I want to know why she thinks she is the right person to render such sweeping pronouncements, especially in light of the fact that in support of her own contentions that the research she castigates was flawed, she offers nothing but generalities about other studies, and not one example of a method or assumption in this study which she considers flawed. The lady has clearly and utterly failed in this PS article to put her money where her mouth is.

As witness the case of Ms. Hughes.

She is just following the advice of Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister:

Sir Humphrey: In stage two you go on to discredit the information you’re not publishing.
Jim Hacker: How, if you’re not publishing it?
Sir Humphrey: It’s much easier if it’s not published. You do it by press leaks. Say it leaves some important questions unanswered, that much of the evidence is inconclusive, that the figures are open to other interpretations, that certain findings are contradictory and that some of the main conclusions have been questioned.
Jim Hacker: Suppose they haven’t?
Sir Humphrey: Then question them. Then they have.
Jim Hacker: But to make accusations like that you’d have to go through it with a fine-toothed comb.
Sir Humphrey: Nonsense – you can say all that without reading it. There are always some questions unanswered.
Jim Hacker: Such as?
Sir Humphrey: The ones that weren’t asked.


“the science those pronouncements are based on is still deeply flawed.”

I took a science class once and they taught me that the first step in science is to observe something. Anybody can observe the differences between the two genders. Just because anything ‘neuro’ is hard to observe doesn’t mean the difference has been abolished.

Sure, anyone can observe that there are usual differences between people of different gender as expressed within one culture or another. For instance, men rarely feel the need to wear burkas even in places where women do.

Trying to determine what significant differences might exist beyond what culture imposes is a much harder question, as you might have learned in subsequent classes.


The lady?


What I see here is someone criticizing a study because it didn’t produce a result that they liked.

She isn’t “The Lady”. She’s a science journalist.


Sooooo, let me see if I understand. If there is scientific evidence that disputes your world view then we… deny it.

I know another such scientist, Ken Hamm I think is his name, that employs similar tactics.

This article completely ignores scientific literature from model organisms such as mice, songbirds, fruit flies, etc. There are many well-documented “hard-wired” differences between male and female brains such as cell number, neural projections and gene expression patterns in distinct brain regions. How these differences relate to behavior is an active field of study. Unfortunately, these facts make even some of my fellow researchers uncomfortable, as if identifying innate differences somehow justifies antiquated gender norms.

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