The sex difference evangelists

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In the (figurative) pages of Slate, Amanda Schaffer and Emily Bazelon have begun a six-part series on "The Sex Difference Evangelists", with four parts so far:

Meet the Believers (1 July)

Pick a Little, Talk a Little (1 July)

Empathy Queens (2 July)

Mars, Venus, Babies, and Hormones (3 July)

The series focuses on two books, our old acquaintance The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine and a new entry, Susan Pinker's The Sexual Paradox, which we haven't discussed here on Language Log (and which I haven't seen). They summarize Brizendine and Pinker's claims, and, in examining the evidence for these claims, review lots of literature (including some Language Log postings). Their bottom line on Brizendine and Pinker: "They're peddling one-sidedness, sprinkled with scientific hyperbole."

(Hat tip to Tom Ernst.)

This posting is just a pointer to the Slate pieces, not any new contribution of my own, so I'm leaving comments off. Here are a few excerpts from part 1.

Schaffer and Bazelon characterize the two books:

Brizendine argues that "outstanding verbal agility" and "a nearly psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind" are "hardwired into the brains of women." Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker drove home similar claims this spring with The Sexual Paradox, which argues that innate psychological differences between men and women are vitally important and too often underestimated. These writers cast themselves as reluctant truth-tellers: "I have chosen to emphasize scientific truth over political correctness," Brizendine writes.

and conclude:

The bottom line from the science should really be this: Some differences between the minds of men and women exist. But in most areas, they are small and dwarfed by the variability within each gender. To be fair, Brizendine and Pinker intermittently acknowledge this point, and they translate complex material for a wide audience, which necessarily involves simplification. They get credit for trying.

But in the end they don't leave their readers with the correct, if unsensational, impression, which is that men and women's minds are highly similar.

Both authors push the science further than it really goes, often brushing past uncertainties or making confused evidence appear clear-cut. Even on the most hotly contested questions—like whether women have better verbal skills, or are hard-wired for empathy, or have cognitive differences that limit their advancement in math and science—the case for large, innate disparities is messy and, for the most part, underwhelming. This is especially true when it comes to neural and hormonal claims, which tend to be controversial. These writers offer canny caveats about culture and its role in gender difference. But they tend to imply that if a difference has innate roots, it's likely to be relatively fixed. And that's not necessarily so. In crucial ways, the mind is malleable. Ultimately, the evangelists aren't really daring to be politically incorrect. They're peddling one-sidedness, sprinkled with scientific hyperbole.

Schaffer and Bazelon present a measured (even generous) review of the claims and the evidence for them, but in the end come down hard on Brizendine and Pinker's ideological program.

[(myl): Amanda Schaffer was the journalist whose email questions I answered in "Sax Q & A", 5/17/2008.]

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