How a study of sex similarities got spun into a story of sex differences


Scientific research is from Earth, “scientific” journalism is from Uranus.


There is a need for science journalism, and much of it is very well done.

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Seems to me the problem is with stories of sameness being interesting enough to sell washing powder.

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I’ve found there are very little functional differences between men and women. Saying a woman can’t or a man can’t based on cultural conditioning doesn’t make a lot evolutionary sense in my mind, so why bother with that narrative to begin with? That being said, the few differences that there are, do seem to lend themselves to understanding that we do need both genders to survive and thrive as a species. But that still leads to all sorts of relationship structures that are both healthy and maladapting (remember: bodies/minds are permissions based touch operating systems … No means no).

I guess I’m just a contrarian by nature, but it strikes me as so odd that people would think differences were more interesting than similarities when the prevailing cultural attitude is that there are differences. Finding out something that supports what you already believe is comfortable, but I’d never use the word “interesting.”

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Biologically speaking, the main difference is that women bear children (which, thanks to modern medicine, isn’t nearly as much of a crippling disadvantage as it used to be), and men tend to be a bit stronger and more aggressive.
Other than that… yeah, it’s almost all cultural.
The “Women are frail creatures who are dominated by their emotions and can’t do math”-brigade, especially, is full of shit.


I’m not even sure that applies. Maybe given permission culturally to act in an physically aggressive manner within certain circumstances but I’m not sure I’d use the word more (see also: “girl gangs”, “controlling women” and “girl gamers”).

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I think it was on BoingBoing (but I could be wrong) that I read about a study of supposedly sex-linked traits that showed that while one sex may be more X than the other using some kind of average, if you pick random members of the population of each sex and compare them one on one, it is so close to a coin flip that as to be functionally indistinguishable. They tested a variety of physical and personality traits.

E.g., we know that men can run faster than women, but if you pick a man and a woman at random the odds of the man winning a footrace are very, very close to 50%.

But as a society I think we tend to look at the extremes - men’s world record sprints are quite a bit faster than women’s - rather than the normal case. The fact that the gold medal women’s sprinter is faster than all but a tiny handful of men doesn’t seem to enter into people’s heads.


It’s true. Extremes are seemingly held in esteem or ignored (see also: fame verses money).

What I think you’re addressing is the concepts of training. What happens when an individual of either gender is given the opportunity to meet and/or exceed a set of metrics that so-called average people cannot meet (without training). While the robustness of the metrics may differ between the genders, that may only be a false metric rather than showing the capabilities of the individuals involved.

Is running a marathon recreationally better than walking long distances to transport water out of necessity (looking at it in those terms)?

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I love you.

True, I have higher expectations for it, so when it does miss the mark it rankles. I probably don’t notice the journalism nearly as much when it conveys the true sense of the research.

At the 2012 Olympics, the women’s gold medalist for the 100m sprint had a time of 10.75 seconds. 51 males beat that time. In the world’s population, sure, that’s a tiny handful, but it’s still quite a gap at the high end.

When I get people telling me that men and women are different and have different roles and I need to accept that I ask them to tell me one thing that is true for all men and no women and vice versa. Never had a good answer yet.


They miss the toilet when they pee?

I kid, I kid!


cough Girls can do that too. I know I managed it. Now I’m going to go over to that corner and pretend I never said that.


Absolutely it’s a big gap, and I recognize that gap. But people completely improperly extrapolate that gap and imagine that it somehow means that if you pick a man and woman off the street the man will run the 100m 1.12 seconds faster. I’m sure it’s not quite that literal in their minds, but I’ve known average guys who had never boxed seriously who thought they would be able to take on the world champions of women’s boxing because men are stronger. I read a biography of the second best women’s pool player (from some year) who made a living playing pool for money against men. She didn’t have to set up a con, she could just tell them she came in second that year and they’d still think they could win - often they’d want to play again to try to get their money back.

People think that the graphs look like the top ones, when in reality they look like the second ones, or, for all we know, like the third ones. But if you only look at the very top end, you can’t even tell the second and the third apart (I mean, obviously you can the way I actually drew them with my off hand (my doctor says it will help me avoid tendonitis (not that I’d draw them accurately with my right hand, but still (I know I could find images of normal curves pretty easily online, but Paint doesn’t have any features that would let me overlay them easily without the whitespace covering one of them)))).

I think (emphasis on I think) men tend to beat women in the upper tiers of most human-made metrics because men are more obsessive than women, more than any other trait they have. Or, at the very least, obsessiveness is distributed like graph 3 above. It just seems like if I make up a metric for scoring something, somewhere in the world you’ll find a man who is willing to give up his whole life to just maximize that one number.

I’ve met quite a few highly competitive women. Set the mark and they will do whatever they can to make that goal (from foodstuffs to sports to highest politician in the land). There has been some recent talk about the “baby penalty” when it comes to professional women (I’ll include all women here, wherein the cultural norm is to be “baby maker” vs. actual potential of the individuals involved). If an individual, female or male, decides to put the effort into changing their body/mind to be elite, I really don’t see a reason why they shouldn’t. Now, there are biological sacrifices that are made (I’m thinking specifically of body builders here) to reaching those objectives, and the social costs of dedicating ones life in pursuit of a fixed goal are numerous and well documented, but it shows it can be done. And fairly easily, given the right economic conditions.

We can observe and measure physical performance objectively. Stating that the best male runners are faster than the best female runners as measured in time to finish is a demonstrable, objective fact.

Extrapolating that fact to be a significant input for how we run our society is a different matter.

Stating that men are more obsessive than women is as valid as stating that women don’t know how to take a joke, or assigning any other emotion based value to a specific sex.

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I don’t disagree with this at all. But if you watch people speedrunning video games, or going to Mechano trade shows its overwhelmingly men despite the fact that, unlike in olympic 100m dashing, there is absolutely no physical explanation for that. I see a lot more men excelling at the kind of things that most people would say don’t matter.

Well, it may or it may not be. Schizophrenia occurs 1.4 times as often in men as it does in women (I believe this is not culturally specific). Depression is twice as common in women (this may be western).

Obsessiveness may be more common in men than in women or it may be the other way or it may be equal. I emphasized that this was just something I thought for a reason. I don’t have a study to show it one way or another. I also said that I didn’t think it was graph 2 more than I thought it was graph 3 - maybe it’s just that the extremes are more extreme but the averages are the same. It’s supposition, largely based on my own observations of people I know, the fact that stalkers are men four-to-one, the above-mentioned video game speedrunners, and various other bits of information that are probably all confirmation bias.