Why the Media’s Patriarchy Fueled Boner About ‘Hard-Wired Gender’ is Bullshit

brain

Men are from Mars! Women are from Venus! Isn’t gender whacky?

In a world where many mainstream media outlets may espouse a certain kind of feminism-lite, it’s surprising to see them eagerly pick up on a story that says, in essence, that I’m a rational man and you’re a hysterical woman. It’s science!

Except the stories are bullshit, made possible by cherry-picking the study’s finding. The recent study, by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was picked up by outlets like the LA Times, which proclaimed “Brains of men and women show strong hard-wired differences.” But the study actually concluded that this “hard-wiring” developed later in life.

The LA Times, like most other outlets, completely omitted that bit of information when it wrote:

Their maps of the brain’s so-called connectome, published online Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, matched observed behavioral differences between the sexes. Women did better at tests of attention, word and face memory and cognition. Men did better on spatial processing, motor skills and sensorimotor speed.

The results lend weight to growing evidence that humans have formed strong adaptive complementarity, suggesting that biological evolution predisposes the species to divide gender roles.  That implication is sure to fuel debate over the roles of nature versus nurture and the interplay of function and structure within the human brain. But they also could inform treatment of neurological disorders known to vary by age and sex, such as autism and schizophrenia

Of course, not mentioned is the growing body of evidence that one’s environment can alter brain chemistry (social stress, for instance). Also omitted is the large corpus of studies on “stereotype threats,” where negative stereotypes about a group’s performance have been shown to lower performance by affected groups, like women and people of color. In other words, women who are told “girls are bad at math,” will perform worse than those who are not. Researchers have even come up with clever ways of avoiding this.

I watched in horror as two local newscaster (one male, one female) talked about the study and concluded that the man as “hunter” and woman as “nurturer” is possibly just a complimentary evolutionary arrangement.

But regardless of all that, the media is still wrong in the basic conclusions of the study. As New APPS points out,  “it’s important to emphasize, as the authors do, that the study revealed very few gender differences in connectivity in children younger than 13 years of age.” If anything, it’s a reason to believe that our brain chemistry and wiring is highly influenced by our environment – that is culture, schooling and media.

And for the neuroscience field and it’s relation to studying sex and gender in general, we should be skeptical, argues Cordelia Fine:

“As an empirical endeavor,” Fine points out, “the neuroscience of sex differences began in earnest in the mid-nineteenth century,” when their findings were used to oppose women’s suffrage and equal rights in general. Still, it’s notable how these ideas have been resurrected, after a period in which gender differences, and sexism itself, were mostly seen as having historical, societal, and cultural roots. Nowadays, when we find ourselves in a society in which women still can’t quite have it all, it’s no surprise that old notions are making a comeback, with an assist from advanced brain imaging — used, as Fine says, “to reinforce, with all the authority of science, old-fashioned stereotypes and roles.”

…[Fine]casts a critical eye on the use of neuroscience not only to describe gender differences in behavior, but, increasingly, to excuse longstanding sex-based inequality and even to push for new forms of gender segregation, such as separate schools for boys and girls. Such arguments, Fine warns, often rest on scientific studies that are half-baked, ill-conceived — and as for how they’re presented to a general audience, she writes, “the sheer audacity of the overinterpretations and misinformation is startling.”

  • michael

    THANK YOU

  • John

    I’m not quite sure which is more painful…the local newscasters’ interpretation of the study, or your own *slaps forehead*

    • David

      Dude, don’t just leave your humble opinion unexplained like this. You’re contributing nothing here. Please tell: How did the author misinterpret the study? I’d love to know.

      • Kenneth Tilton

        Well, for example, neither the study nor the LA Times piece are “a story that says, in essence, that I’m a rational man and you’re a hysterical woman.” Instead we find, “The observations 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.” Granted, not half as much fun as Eugene’s spin.

        To me the question is, if there were a strong biological component to the differences between X and Y, would that be a problem? Do we need to be biologically identical to respect each other?

        • Connor Syrewicz

          Eugene’s issue is not so much with the study, it is with the media’s handling of the study. For example, “I watched in horror as two local newscaster (one male, one female) talked about the study and concluded that the man as “hunter” and woman as “nurturer” is possibly just a complimentary evolutionary arrangement.”

          It is completely valid, as far as I am concerned, to point out the lack of counter-views covered by these outlets (even those contained within the report!) which could potentially falsify or at the very least de-value the differences emphasized by the media. The report may have gotten all of its facts right but, as Eugene pointed out, it emphasized certain facts over others. Likewise (and this is the real issue), I wouldn’t say that Eugene’s spin is very much “fun” when he is pointing out a narrow gendered and sexed ideology these media outlet’s are speaking from and contributing to.

          In regard to your question, biological identicality is exactly what is asserted by the media’s report of these reports. Is it so hard to imagine someone already biased against, for example, same-sex couples easily claiming “Ah! At last! Science has proven that my bias is legitimate! It is unnatural for same-sex couples to live together, love eachother, and raise children! There will be no complimentarity!”?

          • I anticipated the counter “but what would someone with bias do with this information?”: it is the argument always used against science.

            So are we to ban all science and reporting that can be abused by those poisoned and twisted by prejudice? Do we realize how much science that would be?

            I have learned over the years to address what I like to call “the right problem”. The right problem when sexists abuse good science is the sexism. Address that directly. Do not get drawn into wrangling over a study. Just call them out.

            Bashing scientists and good reporters wastes ones own energy, looks like knee-jerk extremism thus diminishing ones credibility, and hurts the innocent.

            The sexist walks free.

          • Connor Syrewicz

            I didn’t claim that we should “ban all science” nor that science is even the issue here. It is extremism to think that the only choices are either “ban all science” or that all science is necessarily legitimate and simply in the hands of the wrong people.

            Likewise, Eugene did not bash any scientist in this article. In fact Eugene (aware of himself as a media outlet) used science to do the responsible and respectful thing by complexifying the image that could be taken away from the media’s portrayal of these reports.

        • Distance Left

          There are strong biological differences, you’ve seen naked men and women right, they’re not what I would call identical. Whilst there is nothing definitive yet, neuroscience is starting to show marked but slight differences in the development of male and female brains, and thus one would expect their behaviors.
          I always thought respecting people was about acknowledging the differences but respecting common humanity, I’d find it hard to respect a fascist granted but you get the point.

  • Ben

    In addition the magnitude of the difference detected in the study was very small. I presented this paper for a seminar I was taking this semester, so I read it quite closely. The striking failing of the authors was that, when you look at the data, the story being told is one of overwhelming similarity. For instance, they measured connection strength between 95 different nodes in the brain, between which there are something like 4000 possible connections. The number that were significantly dimorphic (different between the sexes) was, if I remember correctly, less than 50. Further, in the paper they did not provide an estimate of the magnitude of the effect-another researcher reconstructed this online and the most statistically significant effect reported had a smaller effect size than does the sexual dimorphism in height. Keep in mind that this study was done with almost a thousand participants, and so has the statistical power to render small differences statistically significant.

    There are also methodological concerns about the methods used, but I am not a neuroscientist and cannot speak to them in detail. Overall, the study seems to be pretty worthless as an endeavor. In contrast, a couple of recent studies found that the differences in spatial reasoning between the sexes may be almost totally eliminated by playing 10 hours of an action video game-and a strong effect was found with, I believe, fewer than 50 participants. The PNAS connectome paper is wasteful, irresonsible science, and the blame for that rests not with the media but with the authors.

    • Critical Theory

      Wow, a comment that was actually helpful and informative. Thanks Ben!

  • David Whiteknight

    Critical theory is bullshit.

    • Agree with you 100%, more if that would be possible. It’s inherently feckless, and economically inconsequential, which is why all those “Marxists” jumped ship soon as they discovered they could get funding by doing critical theory instead. In other words, despite wingnut fear-mongering, critical theory is anti-marxist to it’s very core. Which as a Marxist it disgusts me most, that nobody teaches actual Marxism, and instead teaches this establishment friendly nonsense. That;s why it’s so racist and sexist at times, clear contrasts from actual leftism. The right-wing pleas to avoid gender and race are actually the correct views! We must stop using identity to avoid talking about economic problems.

      • Ray

        Marx was a fool. The only experience with “Capitalism” he had was with the loan sharks he borrowed money from in London. He based his idiotic theories on them.

  • Distance Left

    For a start these are sex differences (sex is a physical, biological and physiological set of differences) gender is a more fluid subjective construct, almost bordering on the impossible to pin-down.
    http://cranepsych.edublogs.org/files/2009/06/his_her_brain.pdf this is a surprisingly good study, but it does what most proper science does; flies in the face of all this post-modern/structuralist BS, with proper empirical evidence.

  • Ray

    Get over it. Gender is not a construct.

  • JasonJones

    Post structuralism is bullshit. gender roles are a product of natural selection, and are, in effect, “hard wired” to the system, rooted in biology, and psychology. What they aren’t is a set of cultural norms imposed on women by men.