Annals of over-interpretation

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Some useful framing for the Ingalhalikar et al. paper I wrote about earlier today – Christian Jarrett, "Getting in a Tangle Over Men's and Women's Brain Wiring", Wired 12/4/2013:

[L]et’s set this new brain wiring study in the context of previous research. Verma and her team admit that a previous paper looking at the brain wiring of 439 participants failed to find significant differences between the sexes. What about studies on the corpus callosum – the thick bundle of fibres that connects the two brain hemispheres? If women really have more cross-talk across the brain, this is one place where you’d definitely expect them to have more connectivity. And yet a 2012 diffusion tensor paper found “a stronger inter-hemispheric connectivity between the frontal lobes in males than females”. Hmm. Another paper from 2006 found little difference in thickness of the callosum according to sex. Finally a meta-analysis from 2009: “The alleged sex-related corpus callosum size difference is a myth,” it says.  

OK, one last thing. I don’t know if you saw it, but earlier this year another study involving hundreds of participants used a different technique (resting state fMRI) to examine connectivity in the brain, this time for the purpose of seeing if some people have more left-brain functional hubs and others have more right-brained hubs (they don’t). This obviously isn’t the same focus as the new PNAS paper, but if men and women’s brains really are wired up differently to optimise them for map reading or multitasking etc, you’d think there’d be some important sex differences in the way functional hubs are lateralised (distributed to one side of the brain or the other). In fact, “no differences in gender were observed,” the authors said.  

In conclusion – Wow, those are some pretty wiring diagrams! Oh … shame about the way they interpreted them.

A small sample of the more credulous media uptake:

Ian Sample, "Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal", The Guardian 12/2/2013
"Striking differences in brain wiring between men and women", EarthSky 12/3/2013
Eamonn Fingleton, "Is Equal Opportunity Threatened By New Findings That Female And Male Brains Are Different?", Forbes 12/3/2013
Steve Connor, "The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are 'better at map reading' and why women are 'better at remembering a conversation'", The Independent 12/3/2013
"Sex and Brains: Vive la différence!", The Economist 12/7/2013
Robert Lee Hotz, "Differences in How Men and Women Think Are Hard-Wired", WSJ 12/9/2013
Debora MacKenzie, "Brains of women, men are actually wired differently", New Scientist 12/12/2013
Tom Purcell, "Gender differences are hard-wired", Pittsburgh Tribune-Review 12/15/2013

Some more thoughtful reactions:

David DiSalvo, "Study: The Brains of Men and Women Are Different… WIth A Few Major Caveats", Forbes 12/8/2013
Alva Noé, "Do Men And Women Have Different Brains?", NPR 12/13/2013
Robin McKie, "Time to ditch the 'Venus and Mars' cliche", The New Zealand Herald 12/14/2013
"It's time for brain science to ditch the 'Venus and Mars' cliche", Pandagon 12/12/2013

And a really good piece of general advice, from Donald Clark, "Scientists are from mars, Journalists are from Venus", Irish TImes 12/7/2013": "Beware of any science story that tends to confirm your own prejudices".

Well, thank goodness that’s sorted. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have proved that women are genetically predisposed to chatting and men are better at snooker and reading maps. If I’m reading the report correctly, it supports most of the arguments made by Prof Higgins in My Fair Lady. “Why is thinking something women never do?” the Edwardian misogynist warbles. [...]

Something about this doesn’t feel right. Don’t you think? If the scientists had “proved” Italians were programmed to be libidinous and the Irish were genetically predisposed to drunkenness, there might have been a little more scepticism about the findings. One suspects the human psyche is not so easily corralled. 

 


Update — Lise Eliot has a expert discussion of the science as well as the media response: "Sex-trapolation in the Latest Brain Science", 12/30/2013.

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8 Comments »

  1. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 15, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

    The mere presence of the words "hard-wired" in a journalistic article about brains is a pretty reliable signal that there is little point in reading on.

  2. herr doktor bimler said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 1:49 am

    The mere presence of the words "hard-wired" in a journalistic article about brains is a pretty reliable signal that there is little point in reading on.

    When it features in so many headlines, it's also an indication that the press release was worded that way.

    The "hard-wired" assumptions begin with the Abstract of the PNAS paper itself, which takes an unambiguous evo-psych stance: "male brains are optimized", "female brains are designed". Yet none of this is supported by their data. In fact the data are in direct contradiction to the Abstract — the differences they report are not present at birth, and do not emerge until after a childhood and adolescence of male / female social roles.

    So the authors started with a evo-psych agenda, and tortured their own data to support it, and journalists credulously pass on the message because slightly tweaking the words of a press release is already a lot of work.

  3. tpr said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 5:50 am

    @herr doktor bimler:

    the differences they report are not present at birth, and do not emerge until after a childhood and adolescence of male / female social roles

    The stage of development at which a trait emerges doesn't necessarily tell you anything about the relative influence of genes and environment. Pubic hair, breasts and so on are not present at birth, and do not emerge until adolescence, but I doubt you would be willing to attribute their emergence to socialization.

  4. herr doktor bimler said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

    TPR:
    Good point. It is certainly possible that the subtle group differences which the authors report, although not hard-wired from birth, are instead hard-wired from adolescence.

  5. Alex said,

    December 16, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

    I've long since given up on newspapers being able to report any science, at all, ever.

    I remember there was a CDC study on transmission of HIV among gay men. They went to gay night clubs, tested people and had them fill out questionnaires. The headline was "1 in 4 gay men have HIV!!!!!" when I was like, um, the CDC even said they didn't go to a random sample of night clubs, and their tables even showed they tested bi and straight men at those clubs, and what about gay men who don't go to night clubs?

    Even worse was that the CDC had done a similar study several years before, using different cities and a different questionnaire, and found that 17% or so of their sample had HIV. The abstract of the latter study explicitly said "Do not compare this study with the previous one because the methodologies are too different."

    Did that stop the Washington Post? Hell no! "HIV increases by 8% among gay men in several years!!!!111!1!!!!!"

  6. JW Mason said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 11:38 am

    I've long since given up on newspapers being able to report any science, at all, ever.

    What did the newspapers do wrong here? It seems they accurately reported the contents of the paper as presented by the authors.

  7. davep said,

    December 17, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

    JW Mason said: "What did the newspapers do wrong here?"

    This:

    "JW Mason said: "It seems they accurately reported the contents of the paper as presented by the authors."

    That is, newspapers should do more than pass along press releases.

    That there is (might be) differences in brain organization doesn't really provide sufficient evidence as an explanation of a difference in brain function (which hasn't been established anyway).

  8. Somewhere else, part 102 | Freakonometrics said,

    December 18, 2013 @ 1:58 am

    […] "Annals of over-interpretation" http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=9111  […]

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