Interview: The new fashion for biological determinism

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Here's another interview-as-blog-post. This time the interviewer is someone writing a book, who has read some of the Language Log posts linked here and here; and the subject of the interview is "the new fashion for biological determinism in debates about differences between the sexes".

1: Why did you first begin analysing the science around sex differences?

I teach introductory linguistics, and one of the 24 lectures is on "Language and Gender". The topic also comes up in the lecture on "Brain and Language", and in discussions of the evolution of language.

What was it about the claims being made in this area that made you interested or suspicious?

When Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain was first published, I saw a copy in a bookstore. The impressive list of bullet points on the dust jacket caught my attention — it promised to "reveal the neurological explanations behind why

  • A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000
  • A woman remembers fights that a man insists never happened
  • A teen girl is so obsessed with her looks and talking on the phone
  • Thoughts about sex enter a woman's brain once every couple of days but enter a man's brain about once every minute
  • A woman knows what people are feeling, while a man can't spot an emotion unless somebody cries or threatens bodily harm
  • A woman over fifty is more likely to initiate divorce than a man"

I figured that the first bullet point must refer to a new study that I hadn't heard about. The numbers were radically inconsistent with other reports that I'd seen, but there are a lot of different ways to approach a question like this. The other bullet points seemed exaggerated and stereotyped to me, but I know that jacket blurbs are like that. So I read the book and checked the references.

2: What alerted you to the fact that Brizendine's claim about men's and women's use of language could be wrong?

I read the book and checked the references.

Were you surprised that she, as a professor of psychiatry, was tempted to put forward statements unsupported by the evidence?

I was surprised by the contrast between style and reality. The book has copious references to the scientific literature, laid out in the style the scientists use to support non-obvious claims: there are 90 pages of end-notes and bibliography in support of 185 pages of text. And yet in the cases that I checked, the cited references offered little or no support for the sweeping and controversial claims in the text.

It's common for researchers and clinicians to write popular books containing "statements unsupported by the evidence", perhaps because they feel that the pressures of popularization require it, or just because they want to exercise their basic human right to say what they think. But I'm not used to seeing someone support (controversial and perhaps false) claims with detailed reference to long lists of specific scientific books and papers that provide no support for the claims being made.

Are you disappointed by the fact that your work to expose the reality has not prevented her claims being continually reproduced?

No, I think that the uptake has been pretty reasonable, given all the cultural forces on other side of the discussion.

3: One of the strong points you often make is that the way that sex differences are handled in the media fails to take account of the variability among men and women. Would you agree with this paraphrase of your view: "Journalists and the public often assume that one can turn small differences in group distributions into categorical statements about all members of that group," and can you expand at all on this?

That's fair enough. But the critical thing that makes this rhetorical move wrong is that the differences in group averages are small relative to the variation within the groups.

4. I would like to simplify and summarise the points you make on the blog entry 23 Sept 2006, "Gabby Guys: the effect size". I know that many of my readers, like me, will not understand if I say that the effect size of the difference between the number of words used by men and the number of words used by women is 0.128. Can I say that in the data you looked at from nearly 6000 telephone conversations, you found that the differences among men and among women were huge, and the overlap was also great, but overall men had the advantage – that if you listened to a hundred men and a hundred women talking to one another, you would find that 54 of the men talked more than the women, and 45 of the women talked more than the men.

How about "The men varied a great deal in talkativeness, and so did the women. But on average, men were somewhat more talkative than women — if you listened to a hundred conversations between men and women, you'd find that in 54 of the conversations, the man talked more than the woman, while in 46 of them, the woman talked more than the man. Even if you listened only to men talking with men, and women talking with women, you'd find the same tendency: a slight advantage in talkativeness for the men, on average, but a great deal of overlap between the groups."

5: Your analysis of the Savic and Lindstrom study is compelling, but you had to work back from the final conclusions to the the raw data in a way that frankly defeats me. Do you agree that most people who read such studies and the way they are reported in the media are simply unable to tease out the raw reality behind the conclusions, and that journalists often take advantage of that?

Very few people actually read original scientific books and papers, as opposed to the news reports about them.

It's probably also true that the percentage of the general population that could understand such papers, if they bothered to read them, is not very large — though I imagine that there are a million or so such people in the U.S. alone. However, I worry that this group may not include many of the journalists who explain such research to the public at large.

In any case, as far as I can tell, science journalists mostly don't read the original papers, whether or not they're capable of doing so. At least, what they write rarely shows any critical engagement with the primary literature. Instead, they rely on press releases (and to a lesser extent on interviews).

And the people who write press releases, even at universities and scientific societies, rarely resist the temptation to spin things for maximum audience appeal, even when this crosses the boundary into misrepresentation or outright falsehood.

Do you think that scientists should do more to ensure that their work is accurately reported?

Yes. But it's worth making a few distinctions here.

The commonest situation is that interesting and socially-relevant work is not reported at all.

Then there are cases where the popular press engages in bizarre acts of mindless misunderstanding.

But what we're talking about here is research that is picked up in the media, and subject to misinterpretation of one of the standard kinds, for example describing a small average difference in P between possibly-unrepresentative samples of group A and group B as the scientific discovery that "As are P-er than Bs".

Sometimes this move is entirely due to the journalists; but sometimes the scientists themselves are responsible for over-interpretation or misinterpretation of their results, and are willing partners with the press in promoting it.

And then there's a big gray area, where the misinterpretation starts somewhere in the conversation between the researchers and the publicists working for their institution, finds its way into the press releases and the press interviews, and then dominates the press coverage. In the area that we're talking about, I believe that this is the commonest situation. It confronts the scientists involved with a minor moral dilemma, which they rarely handle well, from what I can see.

6: Why do you think it is that even when the evidence isn't very compelling, the media and the public buy into the idea that there are innate, unchanging differences between all men and all women in many aspects of behaviour and cognition?

The pattern seems to be:

1. There's a traditional belief X, with cultural, social and economic connections.

2. Progressive social advocacy challenges X and undermines its associated social structures, while conservative social advocacy defends them.

3. There are some new scientific results bearing on X.

Everyone with an opinion about X and its social correlates now has an interest in spinning these results. If the results seem somewhat contrary to X, the anti-X faction will want to push the interpretation as far as possible to further discredit X. If the results seem somewhat supportive of X, the pro-X faction will want to push the interpretation as far as possible to bolster X and to discredit its challengers.

This is a lot like what happens in a political campaign.

As for the media's motivations, one obvious consideration is that clear, strong, unhedged stories are a lot more attractive than fuzzy, weak, nuanced ones are. With respect to the Savic and Lindstrom study, for example, "Gay men and heterosexual women have similarly shaped brains, research shows" is a much better headline than "10% fewer gay men and straight women have asymmetrical brains", or whatever the percentage difference actually was.

7: Do you think we have seen a shift over the last decade here – that people are more keen than previously to believe these theories of biological determinism, and if so, why do you think this is?

I doubt that the general public's attitudes have changed very much in recent times.

But gender roles have certainly become a lot less polarized in our society over the past century or so. In parallel, the conventional wisdom about the extent and the source of cognitive differences between the sexes has also shifted, towards believing that there are few if any biological barriers to full social equality. This creates the intellectual equivalent of a new ecological niche, for scientific evidence of significant biologically-determined cognitive differences between the sexes.

This has a demand side — social conservatives like David Brooks who are happy to see evidence that "Once radicals dreamed of new ways of living, but now happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago" (which was his way of describing what he learned from reading The Female Brain).

And I share with you the impression that there's a recent increase, on the supply side, in work on the biology of cognitive and behavioral gender differences. Partly, I think, this reflects a general swing of the epistemological pendulum from nurture to nature over the past 50 years. But there's also something more specific: the way that a certain kind of argument has spread from one end of the political spectrum to the other.

This is a view about the nature of men and women that started among feminists who think of themselves as progressive — I first saw a version of it in works by Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen — and has more recently recently been adopted by social conservatives. Louann Brizendine and Leonard Sax are part of this process.

It features a sort of female triumphalism, as in the slogan on the back cover of Brizendine's book "Men, get ready to develop brain envy", along with negative images of males, as in Sax's title "Boys Adrift: the five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men".

This started out as a way to validate traditionally feminine characteristics (like gossip and empathy), and to devalue traditionally masculine characteristics (like aggression and stoicism). But it was inevitably tinged with stereotyped ideas of what men and women are like; and it often flirts with a more nuanced version of the strongly anti-male rhetoric of people like Mary Daly.

So there's something for everyone here. For the left, it's a way to promote and support women. For the right, it's an argument for more strongly differentiated sex roles. And because it generally treats females as not only different from males, but also "better" — more sensitive hearing, better at reading emotions from faces, more verbally adept, and so on — it seems to protect itself in advance against the charge of discrimination against a historically oppressed group.

In some ways, this echoes Kipling's famous argument against female suffrage based on female superiority (for more discussion see "The superior cunning of women", 9/2/2006):

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her
Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands
To some God of Abstract Justice – which no woman understands.

And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern – shall enthral but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male.


  1. » Language differences between men and women said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 9:01 am

    […] Via Language Log […]

  2. Larry Lard said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 9:27 am

    The final link to LL Classic has .ics. for .cis.

  3. john riemann soong said,

    August 13, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    Determinism based on sexual dimorphism doesn't make any sense. Funny how it goes the other way round when we talk about human universals…

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