An article proclaiming the latest hardwired gender difference in the brain has been making the rounds. But to those of us who have been reading about gender research, both academic and popular, for many years, this is just more of the dependably shoddy research and even shoddier journalism that get far more media play than the well-done studies that challenge the status quo. Is anyone surprised?
My first response to reading this article was, “so what?” A male neuropsychologist once told me that differences in brain structure don’t necessarily translate into differences in behavior. Nothing I have read in neuroscience since has challenged that view.
My second thought was that the article is full of misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and incorrect data. This is typical of such reports. For starters, Steve Connor, the author, writes: “A pioneering study has shown for the first time that the brains of men and women are wired up differently.” Oh please. This is not “pioneering” nor is it the “first time.” There are more studies like this than I can count.
Connor quotes several results of the brain scan that show gender-related differences in brain functioning, as if these differences prove something. A far more accurate view of brain research can be found at a Psychology Today blog, where the author writes: “In fact, in many cases we simply don’t know the implications of the sex-related brain differences.” Don’t be deceived by claims to the contrary.
Then Connor quotes the study as saying that it supports the idea of better female intuition. Actually, other studies claim the opposite. Oops. In fact a study cited in the very same newspaper by the very same writer, as well as at the BBC, states: “Female intuition is a myth, according to a scientific study.” Oops, what was that again?
Connor claims that the study also supports the idea that men tend to outperform women involving spatial tasks. Actually this is no longer true. You have only to read the well-researched book, The Mathematics of Sex, to discover that on spatial abilities, several European countries show no gender differences and in Iceland, the girls are better.
Other studies not only show that spatial abilities are culturally influenced, they are also correlated with the treatment of women. Researchers found that countries with high gender equality like Norway and Sweden also have almost no gender differences in math. On the other end of the spectrum, countries like Turkey and Korea have the largest math gaps. This would come as no surprise to those who have read Sex and World Peace, a study that correlates ill treatment of women with the aggressiveness and war-mongering of the country. How women are treated does affects the culture. Women matter.
Even better is a new study with two populations in India where the only difference between the two groups was that one was patrilineal and one was matrilineal. The authors state that in the patrilineal group, the males did better at a spatial puzzle but in the matrilineal group there was no gender difference. Replication is a keystone of the scientific method. Such cultural influences have been replicated enough times now that the claim of inherent gender differences in spatial ability needs to be put to rest.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for the average journalist to figure that out.
Other critiques of this study are easily found on the Internet. I would suggest that no one put the slightest stock in this study. Furthermore, those who understand research methodology know that one study “proves” nothing. The dangers in believing in only one study can be found by reading the book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences.” The author, Rebecca Jordan-Young, points out that even if researchers are careful about the limitations of their own studies, journalists often misrepresent the findings. She examined all the gender studies done on brain organization up to that time, finding a series of methodological weaknesses, questionable assumptions, inconsistent definitions, and enormous gaps between ambiguous findings and grand conclusions. These inappropriate conclusions are then repeated over and over. This isn’t science, she asserts. No, it isn’t, but those who are motivated to believe that men and women are “different” don’t want to hear that.
So the lesson here is simple: when you see a gender-related study that claims to reinforce traditional views of gender, be skeptical. Wait till you read what other experts have to say. Then decide for yourself.
Sharon Presley, PhD. is a social psychologist who taught Psychology of Women for many years, as well as research methods and critical thinking.