Misleading pseudo-scientific argument of the week

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According to Abigail Norfleet James, Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School (2007), p 37:

The shape of the inner ear is not the same for boys and girls. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the female cochlea responds more quickly to sound than does the male cochlea (Don et al., 1993) That means that boys are likely to respond to aural information of questions just a bit slower than girls will. Because boys don't hear soft or high sounds very well and because they don't respond to sounds as rapidly as do girls, boys may have trouble with auditory sources of information.

The reference is to M. Don et al., "Gender differences in cochlear response time: An explanation for gender amplitude differences in the unmasked auditory brain-stem response", J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 94(4): 2135-2148, 1993. And yes, there really are sex differences in cochlear response time — but the distributions for males and females overlap, as usual, and the average sex differences are less than a thousandth of a second.

There are different ways to measure the response, and different frequency bands to check — you can read the paper to survey all the differences in detail — but here's a typical figure from Don et al. showing the sex differences in cochlear latency for a two types of measurement in one frequency range:

And another figure showing differences for one type of measurement in different frequency ranges:

Most of the differences are in the range of .0001 to .0003 seconds (1 to 3 ten-thousandths of a second), and none are larger than .0007 sec.

In comparison, simple acoustic reaction time in adults ranges from about 120 to 300 msec. (R.D. Luce, Response times, 1986). For children, mean simple acoustic reaction times range "from 465 msec at age five to 190 msec at 15 years" (K. Andersen et al., "The Development of Simple Acoustic Reaction Time in Normal Children", Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology 26(4), 2008). "Simple acoustic reaction time" is how long it takes to respond to a sound when you know it's coming, and all you need to do is to press a key as soon as you hear it. Choice reaction times (where you need to interpret the simulus and respond accordingly) are much longer. And the time that it takes even the most attentive and cooperative child to respond to a simple verbal instruction is more like two or three seconds, if only because the instruction itself is likely to take nearly that long to be expressed.

So the average sex difference in cochlear response time of .0002 to .0006 seconds — even if this difference is preserved through the brain stem and the cortex, and translated to the interpretation of the stimulus and the formulation and execution of the response — is roughly a thousandth of children's typical simple acoustic reaction time, and about one part in ten thousand of the time that it takes them to respond to even the simplest verbal instructions.

While we're looking at the Don et al.paper, though, let's also reproduce what they found about pure-tone thresholds:

[The subjects in the Don et al. study were 17 females and 14 males aged 18-38.]

Dr. James claims that "Because boys don't hear soft or high sounds very well and because they don't respond to sounds as rapidly as do girls, boys may have trouble with auditory sources of information."

I don't know whether it's really true that boys have more "trouble with auditory sources of information" than girls do. I do know, however, that when Dr. James tries to persuade her readers of this by citing research about sex differences in cochlear response times and audiometric profiles, her argument is at best irrelevant and at worst dishonest.

And this error is not an isolated one. There is a growing popular literature on the biology of human sex differences, and the use of misinterpreted or overinterpreted "scientific" evidence is all too typical of the strand of this work that emphasizes sex differences in order to argue for sex-specific (and often sex-segregated) educational practices. For more on this with respect to sex differences in audiometric thresholds, comfortable listening levels, etc., see here, here, and here.



26 Comments

  1. AKMA said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    Phooey, I was hoping for “The Return of the Crockus.”

  2. Bill Findlay said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    "Because boys don't hear soft or high sounds very well and because they don't respond to sounds as rapidly as do girls, boys may have trouble with auditory sources of information."

    Ah, this explains why most professional musicians in the last few hundred years have been women, and why male conductors and composers are so rare!

  3. Amy Reynaldo said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    It's astonishing that despite their obvious physiological deficits, for centuries boys have managed to grow up and become part of the dominant group in society. Just imagine how many more seats in Congress men would hold if only they could respond to auditory cues a teeny fraction of a second faster. The poor dears have suffered so.

  4. Mark P said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    I do not understand this. Does she not understand her references, or does she understand but choose to misinterpret them to support her thesis?

    [(myl) This is an excellent question, which has to be asked about many other instances of this same rhetorical type. In addition to ignorance and dishonesty, another possibility is credulousness, where the argument and the scientific reference are borrowed without checking from another author -- in that case, the "ignorant or dishonest?" question is displaced to the source. And yet another option is carelessness, where someone with a preconception (in this case, that girls are more alert to verbal instructions) looks for scientific support, and doesn't bother read any more of the article than the few words of the title and abstract needed to verify that yes, females were found to have a more rapid acoustic response than males do.]

    I presume she thinks boys don't pay attention in class. Maybe she should study the literature on sex differences in spitball activity during classroom instruction.

  5. G.E. Wilker said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    If there are sex-linked differences in response time to auditory instructions, it's far more likely to relate to higher-order cognitive functions than to cochlear response times. It may well be true that boys are more likely to be "visual learners" than girls, and that they take longer to respond to spoken questions because they have to think about the questions more to understand them. However, James doesn't appear to be making this claim. I suspect that either the possibility has never been investigated, or that it has been but no sex differences were found; it would make a much stronger and more relevant reason to take differing approaches with boys and girls. (However, even then the overlap would probably be such that splitting classrooms by learning style regardless of sex would be the most productive approach.)

    [(myl) Of course; but the ideology that James shares with Leonard Sax and others seems to be that boys and girls are so fundamentally different, from the sensory periphery to the cerebral cortex and back out to the motor system, that it makes no sense to try to teach them in the same classroom. As Sax puts it, "Girls and boys play differently. They learn differently. They fight differently. They see the world differently. They hear differently."]

  6. Leonardo Boiko said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    @Mark: Cognitive distortion due to overwhelming desire to prove deterministic sexual dimorphism. These people have in the wall a poster with the cover for «Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus», and the subtitle «I want to believe».

  7. Dierk said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    Do I understand this correctly: Leonard Sax et al. claim, men and women inhabit completely different worlds, so evolution shaped them thus differently?

    Explains the Mars-Venus meme, we are not sharing Earth but really living on two other planets of our solar system – a boiling one for females and a dry, desert one for males. No wonder women are hot and men like beer.

  8. richard said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    We also might note that very similar errors (deliberate or otherwise) pop up in polemics regarding racial differences (see, for example, the problems with within-versus-between-group differences in IQ). I'd suggest that gender is the new race, but of course there's nothing new here.

    [(myl) There's a long history of belief in large biologically- (or divinely-) determined cognitive differences between the sexes. For the past century or two, authorities have increasingly cited science rather than scripture in support of this view.

    But the "new biologism" puts a new spin on the old argument. It's not that men and women should be educated separately because girl's brains (or characters, or constitutions) are unable to deal with the difficulties of boy's education; rather, the argument is that boys have special problems (poor hearing, impulsivity and distractability, vision tuned for moving rather than still images, etc.) which require special interventions to keep them from falling behind and dropping out.]

  9. Bill Walderman said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    This reminds me of the folk wisdom that circulates among violinists: women's intonation is better than men's in the higher register of the instrument but men's is better than women's in the lower register–this is supposed to be related to the higher pitch of women's voices. But no one cites scientific evidence to support this claim.

  10. mollymooly said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    I suggest you standardise the units in your exposition –or should that be exposé?– to either sec or msec. It might seem that switching from ".0007 sec" to "120 msec" is intended to exaggerate the magnitude of the differential. I'm sure that was not your intention, but if you're going to be polemical, even in a good cause, you can't be too careful.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    To step back a bit, the percentage of persons receiving college degrees (undergraduate + graduate degrees aggregated, although the trend in bachelors' degrees alone is pretty similar) in the United States who are male has declined from 65.8% in 1960 to 41.3% in 2006 (most recent year available, per table 288 in the current Statistical Abstract). So the dramatic improvement and encouragement of educational opportunities for for girls and young women may have been accompanied by a bit of overshoot past pro rata equality. Thus, those of us who have daughters but not sons now have the luxury of moving on from worrying about their daughters' educational future to instead worrying about the intellectual quality of their pool of potential future sons-in-law (as well as the probability that more and more colleges are engaging in sub rosa "affirmative action" for male applicants, which is unhelpful to ones daughters' prospects for admission). I doubt that this is largely driven by cochlear response time, but it's driven by something (or rather, by the aggregate impact of a whole bunch of somethings). I suspect there are some political incentives which make proposals to improve educational outcomes for boys more saleable if they can claim to be driven by scientific-sounding theories about subtle differences in physiology, rather than the somehow less respectable fact of persistent social/cultural differences (yes, yes, individuals are individual, and the distributions overlap) between the sexes. Those incentives unsurprisingly generate bogus claims like those condemned above, but perhaps we should be trying to change the incentive structure as well as condemning its results as they predictably arise.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

    J.W. Brewster: "…the dramatic improvement and encouragement of educational opportunities for for girls and young women may have been accompanied by a bit of overshoot past pro rata equality."

    True enough: for some further statistics, see Claudia Goldin et al., "The homecoming of American college women: The reversal of the college gender gap", NBER Working Paper 12139, March 2006. Thus this graph:

    It's important to note that nearly all of the post-1960 change is due to faster improvement in women's graduation rates, rather than a decline in men's. It's also important to note that this is a world-wide phenomenon:

    I gather that the effect is at least as strong in some countries where sex-segregated education is the norm.

    And in the U.S., at least, the effect is much strong in lower SES groups than in higher ones:

  13. Terry Hunt said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

    Since AKMA in the first comment invoked the notorious "crockus" (LL posts passim), I'll pass on the intriguing fact I learned only a few hours ago, from Margery Allingham's 1941 thriller Traitor's Purse, that 'crocus' is/was a slang term meaning a (quack) doctor. According to the OED it may have originated from the Latinised surname of the early 17th-century Dr Helkiah Crooke (who published medical works in 1615 and 1631), and citations from 1785, 1851 and 1877 are given. Allingham's usage suggests it was extant in UK criminal slang at least up until WW2. One wonders if the modern promoter of the "crockus" was subconsciously aware of this, and whether the coinage was an ironic Freudian slip.

  14. Kenny Easwaran said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 5:14 am

    Especially interesting is the fact that the highest single difference in sensitivities between males and females seems to be that males are more sensitive to frequencess around 1500 Hz. As I recall, that's around the range of some of the significant formants that distinguish vowels, right? Which suggests that if anything, girls should be having a harder time understanding speech than boys, unless the speech is in hyper-chipmunk mode.

    (And yes, I realize that the data don't make this conclusion any more relevant than the original ones, given the tiny magnitude of the differences – but at least this is the conclusion that's actually supported even to this tiny degree! Perhaps it does make the comment of Bill Walderman about anecdotal data on intonation more relevant though. Although it looks like you have to go three octaves up from the A string on a violin in order to get into the range where females are on average a tiny bit more sensitive than males, rather than vice versa. But who knows, maybe the higher overtones in a pitch are important for intonation.)

    [(myl) The distribution of audiometric thresholds by sex reported in this study is quite different than in the 1959 Corso paper (discussed here, full table here, and also cited by James), which found a small but systematic difference across frequencies in favor of more sensitive thresholds for female subjects, with the difference increasing with age. For subjects aged 18-24, at 1500 Hz, Corso found that females had average thresholds of 5.3 and 4.4 dB (R and L ears), while males were at an average of 9.2 and 6.2. The differences (3.9 and 2.8 dB) were about half of the standard deviations. With N = 84 (females) and 92 (males), those differences were statistically significant (though too small to be pedagogically relevant).

    In general, other and later studies have not replicated this aspect of Corso's findings -- especially at younger ages, male/female differences are smaller and more erratic, as in the Don et al. study discussed in this post. I'm not sure why, but I suspect a cultural reason: a lot of Corso's male subjects had been in the armed forces, included during WWII and Korea; and many of them were probably hunters, given the time and place; and in neither context, in those days, did people use ear protection while shooting.

    If it's true that there's a sex-by-pitch difference in violists' intonation -- and I wouldn't bet the farm on it, myself -- the explanation can't be a difference in audiometric thresholds. ]

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 5:50 am

    I gather that the effect is at least as strong in some countries where sex-segregated education is the norm.

    I believe there are more female graduates in Saudi Arabia than male.

    [(myl) In an update to "David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/12/2006), Lameen Souag sent in links describing the situation in "Qatar, where men's dropout rates are higher than women's even at primary school and more than twice as many women as men attend university, or Algeria, where 20% more women than men make it to the baccalaureate, or Kuwait, where two-thirds of university students are women". In all of those cases, I believe that the trend is that everyone's participation in education at all levels has increased, but women's participation has increased faster. ]

  16. alex said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    I've often wondered why the fact that more women are graduating from college hasn't closed the wage gap. (Of course, there may just be a time lag.) My current theory is that many lower paid, female-dominated fields now require more education but still don't pay much: a bachelor's degree for a secretary, a master's degree for a teacher. Whereas male dominated fields such as construction, plumbing, or web design pay pretty well without the need to spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars getting a degree. Maybe males are just opting out of college?

    Or maybe they can't hear well enough to take notes in a large auditorium for Psych 101. It's obviously more likely that the effect is due to an almost imperceptible physiological difference than to a large, glaring social gender difference.

  17. Bill Walderman said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    "If it's true that there's a sex-by-pitch difference in violists' intonation — and I wouldn't bet the farm on it, myself — the explanation can't be a difference in audiometric thresholds."

    I think you meant to write "violinists' intonation." Violists' intonation is notorious regardless of sex. See the definition of a minor second.

    http://web.mit.edu/jcb/www/viola-jokes.html

    As for violinists, I didn't mean to endorse the idea of intonational dimorphism, only to mention that there are those who believe it.

  18. Dave said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    Abigail Norfleet James: "That means that boys are likely to respond to aural information of questions just a bit slower than girls will."

    This is evidence of not really understanding statistics. It would seem to be much better to tailor the educational methods to the characteristics of the individuals instead of to the tiny differences between the two groups (male and female).

    (Many racial arguments fail similarly.)

  19. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    Regarding Mark P's question and Mr Liberman's response, the matter of consciously advancing a fallacious argument, especially in the cloak of authority, is very serious. To put it crudely, to do so one must be stupid, evil, or crazy. I am grateful that Mr Liberman introduced another possibility, yet credulousness seems to be a variation of, forgive me, stupid (though it could be evil).

  20. Sandra Wilde said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    So men finally have an excuse for why they don't listen when we talk to them!

  21. David Walker said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    The differences are so small that diagram 12, especially, is pretty much meaningless. Diagrams are supposed to tell us something, and this one tells me that the values are about the same.

  22. David Walker said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    I meant "Fig 12", of course.

  23. Abigail James said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    Check out this reference: Cassidy JW, Ditty KM, Journal Of Music Therapy [J Music Ther], ISSN: 0022-2917, 2001 Spring; Vol. 38 (1), pp. 28-35. The final paragragraph says: It appears that answers to some of these questioins regarding physiological differences between genders are relatively easy to answer given the prevalence and sophistication of hearing screening. What is more difficult and costly to determine is brain response to and interpretation of musical stiimuli. In the end, it may not matter to the music therapist why gender differences occur, but rather how to counteract the apparent disadvantage present in the male hearing systern. Future research in controlled environments should compare infant gender differences in responses to music presented across a range of decibel levels, timbres, and styles in order to determine effective protocol for music therapy.

    Don't forget, I'm referring to boys in general and not to specific boys. There is no question that most fine musicians are men and that they have keen hearing. However, having taught both boys and girls for over 30 years, most boys do not pay attention to soft sounds especially if the speaker is turned away as a teacher might be who was talking to the blackboard. The other problem for language acquisition is that at the time that children are gaining phonemic awareness, boys are more likely to suffer ear infections. That has been long known to contribute to some of the reading problems noticed in young boys. Many of the problems that boys have in class have to do with some difficulty with auditory information which teachers depend on.

  24. clew said,

    September 28, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    "I've often wondered why the fact that more women are graduating from college hasn't closed the wage gap. "

    My story is that the wage gap is what causes the college gap; men and women with similar capabilities and desires for financial security will consider different levels of education 'enough', if one group expects to get paid more.

    (And since the 'narrowing wage gap' usually has to correct for time spent out of work looking after children, and I think more women expect that than men, women have an even stronger reason to get their credentials together at the starting gate.)

  25. Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-10-02 – Friday Lazy Linking said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 2:38 am

    [...] Misleading pseudo-scientific argument of the week. Mark Liberman, Language Log (2009-09-03). According to Abigail Norfleet James, Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School (2007), p 37: The shape of the inner ear is not the same for boys and girls. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the female cochlea responds more quickly to sound… (Linked Wednesday 2009-09-30.) [...]

  26. boy girl boy girl « Learning: Theory, Policy, Practice said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    [...] anecdotal phenomena). And proponents of sex gender determinism frequently engage in both, even in areas of research in which they have no particular technical expertise, and even when counterarguments are made by those who do have such expertise. Sax specifically was [...]

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