Crockusology returns

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No, sorry, I don't have any updates on the brain region named by Dan Hodgins after the eponymous and legendary Dr. Alfred Crockus. But the Neuroskeptic has picked up on some "Educational neuro-nonsense" voiced on the BBC's morning Today Program by Vicky Tuck, president of the (British) Girls' Schools Association:

If you look at the girls they sort of approach maths through the cerebral cortex, which means that to get them going you really need to sort of paint a picture, put it in context, relate it to the real world, while boys sort of approach maths through the hippocampus, therefore they're very happy and interested in the core properties of numbers and can sort of dive straight in …

…in the study of literature, in English, again a different kind of approach is needed. Girls are very good at empathizing, attuning to things via the emotions, the cerebral cortex again, whereas the boys come at things… it's the amygdala is very strong in the boy, and he will you know find it hard to tune in in that way and needs a different approach.

As NS notes, "This is, to put it kindly, confused."

Ms. Tuck is apparently hoping to take advantage of "The seductive allure of neuroscience explanation" documented by Deena Skolnick Weisberg and others. But as Dan Hodgins has shown, there may be limits to this effect; and although Vicky Tuck didn't go so far as to invent and name a non-existent brain region, her proposed localization of functions by gender is sufficiently fanciful that perhaps there will be other skeptical reactions.

But there's no skepticism in this article from the Independent, which swallows the brain-differences stuff without a murmur, while weaving in some less scientistic (and more plausible?) arguments:

"These neurological differences are pronounced in adolescence," added Mrs Tuck, the principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College. "You have to teach girls differently to how you teach boys." She added that girls said "it helps not having boys there mucking about or making them worry about their appearance"

Let's see, is it the hippocampus that's the mucking-about organ?


  1. Sili said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

    This sounds pretty close to 'neuroscientification' (to coin an ugly phrase).

    The basic claims actually fit me to a t – I had no trouble learning lots of maths step by step, but I never discovered the grand perspective and as a result I never really … 'felt' it for lack of a better word.

  2. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 4:05 pm


    Principal: Mrs Vicky Tuck appointed 1996. Masters degree in applied European studies. Previously Deputy Head at City of London School, Head of Modern Languages at Bromley High and French and Italian Teacher at Putney High; also PGCE Course Director at Institute of Education; Member of the Institute of Linguists

    aaaargh …..

  3. Mike Anderson said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

    SCIENTISTIC says it all. Thanks for the neologism.

  4. John Cowan said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

    Not a neologism; it's been around since the late 19th century or perhaps the early 20th, depending on what some of the early sources in the OED understood by the term.

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

    None of my maths teachers ever pointed out that Mathematics, as field of study, is really a collective artistic endeavor. That is, what goes in, and ends up being taught to students, and what languishes and is forgotten, is much more a matter of esthetics, and even of fashion, than of truth or correctness. Correctness matters, certainly, but it's only a first step toward acceptance. (Sometimes correctness is dispensed with, for a while.)

    It might be invidious to suggest that more girls would find maths engaging if presented on that basis. I certainly found maths more approachable after the realization. I remember the exact moment: we were studying Stokes's theorem, in which, for certain fields, a closed line integration can be substituted for a integration over the enclosed surface. The professor suggested that for some integrations, one can invent a field that allows you to convert it to a line integration, and the light burst through the clouds. What I remember feeling at the time was confusion, but I figured out later that it was revelation.

  6. Tim Silverman said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

    @Nathan Myers: well, it's certainly a valid general principle that different students learn in different ways (and that different experts think of the same problem in different ways—sometimes the same expert thinks of the same problem in different ways). So one should teach a variety of approaches (and not just technically different but, as you say, philosophically different). But this has nothing to do with the distinction between male and female. Whatever differences may exist between boys and girls, they're sure to be swamped by differences within each sex, because, well, such differences always are.

  7. Tim Silverman said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

    One of the things that always seems so strange about nonsense like this is that it must be contradicted on a daily (nay, hourly) basis by the direct experience of the people propagating it. It regularly happens that I read someone saying "Men do X" or "Women are like Y" or whatever, and think back over my life, and cannot recall a single instance in which I have observed any man doing X, or more than one or two women occasionally being like Y. Even if my experience is somewhat atypical, it can't really be atypical in all possible ways. So Ms Tuck's experience of teaching girls must surely have thrown up numerous examples that contradict her statements. Do these simply not come to mind when she is engaging in her ritual utterances? Or does she not think evidence is relevant?

    In my more bitter and cynical moments I think of this as, "People are blind and deaf and have no memory and no ability to think" and, when cynical but less bitter, "Most people walk around with their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears." Then again, it is a salutary exercise to spot ones own forays into unsupported generalisation. (For instance, most of the time, people aren't spouting this sort of nonsense, but are saying much more sensible things that indicate they can see and hear perfectly well …. Even if they haven't ever noticed that the moon is sometimes visible in the daytime ….)

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

    Tim: As is usual for cynical thoughts, Swift said it better long ago, but it bears repeating.

    The appeal of these "men are this, women are that" statements (and they really do have broad popular appeal) seems to me to be that they give people permission to be different, or lazy. If you can't read a map upside-down, it's not because you refuse to practice, it's that your brain isn't wired for it. If you can't dress nattily, it's because you can't distinguish many hues. It's not all negative. People have limited attention, and limited time, and can only get really proficient in a limited number of skills. It's when they're shut out of a job they could do, or skip learning something valuable, or miss understanding something that is actually correct about people, that it gets pernicious.

  9. Neuroskeptic said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 4:43 am

    Thanks for posting this.

    What's especially bizarre about this is that Tuck talks about the brain when she could be talking about real, relevant evidence from educational psychology. this is part of the lure of neuroscience explanations – they don't just complement, but actually seem to substitute for, proper evidence…

    Or to put it another way, bad neuroscience explanations deactivate your frontal lobes, meaning that they are bad.

  10. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    I'm always so glad when you all debunk these scientistic theories that purport to find gender differences. I don't know enough about the science to critique them properly; all I know is that they set my teeth on edge.

    A few years ago I took an overview of modern physics class at the Smithsonian. And I found myself frantically scribbling down the math formulas, because I found that physics made more sense to me when I looked at it in abstract equations — even though it's been way too many years since I had a math class and don't have as much mathematical knowledge as I need for physics. More concrete explanations left me cold — I didn't get them and I didn't care.

    Last time I checked, I was a girl.

    Instead of wasting time finding gender differences that don't exist, why don't educators and scientists studying education focus on the fact that there are real differences — not tied to gender — in how people learn effectively, and work on how to conduct a class so that visual, verbal, kinesthetic, etc., learners can all get a handle on a subject.

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 10:51 am

    Nancy Jane Moore: A few years ago I took an overview of modern physics class at the Smithsonian. And I found myself frantically scribbling down the math formulas, because I found that physics made more sense to me when I looked at it in abstract equations.

    Another story that I have often heard about gender differences in mathematical cognition is that "women think algebraically, men think geometrically". This has some affinity to the idea that women are verbal while men are spatial.

    It seems plausible that there's a spectrum of individual differences on the algebra/geometry dimension, though I've never seen any precise account of what the differences are or how to test for them. It seems less plausible to me that there's a reliable sex difference, though I have no evidence either way.

    But the idea that women prefer equations to diagrams, true or false, seems roughly opposite to the idea that women need you to "paint a picture".

    One of the reasons that these stereotypes are resistant to factual influence may be that there are enough more-or-less inconsistent ones that almost any observation can be associated with one or another of them.

  12. James Wimberley said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 11:38 am

    The nugget of truth is in the commonsense observation, attributed to the girl students, that "it helps not having boys there mucking about or making them worry about their appearance". Teaching maths in a mating lek is very difficult. Why appeal to cod neuroscience?

  13. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    November 22, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

    We do seem to be wired to make up congenial explanations for things. Ms. Tuck apparently attended a single workshop on this, because she gets within shouting distance of some gender brain differences for which there is actual research. (Let me assure you, Nancy, that those gender differences are far more limited and statistical, and your focus on individual differences is still the better chance.)

    But Ms. Tuck picks up isolated items of brain area function and weaves them into complete theories for which there is little basis, rather like a child categorizing plants by the color of their flowers. This distressing reasoning is equally common in alternative medicine and management techniques.

  14. Evan said,

    November 23, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

    sounds like Ms. Tuck is a graduate of the Pilkingtonian School for Neuroscience

  15. Secular Alliance of IU » Blog Archive » Serious Linkage said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 9:10 am

    […] language in politics, and startlingly developments in English language usage. The occasional posts on the horrors of pop psychology are particularly […]

  16. Conn Suits said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 2:39 am

    I only discovered this crockus jazz on Sun and read the articles from 07. Sorry I don't think Hodgins was winning a bet. This guy is (was?) taking money, including possibly from the public school system, viz our tax money, to spread intentionally made up fake science. So you have all the negative effects of the fake science's content: girls as different and dumber, boys as different and colder, plus the brain as both magically able to cause events, yet so easy-peasy to understand that head mistresses and MA ex-community college teachers can easily be expert in it. AND this crook running around sucking up public and other money, openly fabricating and not getting busted. This is just a fraud. For money. And not part of the creepy ideology of made up sex differences. Although people like Ms. Tuck do seem to be clutching onto this guff in hopes of obtaining some shred of prestige via reflected expertise. That is very different from getting speaking fees under false pretenses. Did anyone do anything to stop him? Did I just miss that bit?

    [(myl) In the case of Dan Hodgins, scientifically-sound ridicule seems to have been effective in putting an end to his lecture tours.]

  17. ECE Professional said,

    February 28, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

    Conn Suits, Actually, Hodgins was stopped only to a limited extent. He was removed from my state's list of approved PD providers, so public school teachers and assistants here cannot earn PD credits from his presentations. However, from what I've been able to tell from Google searches, he's still presenting here at professional conferences that are primarily aimed towards ECE community college students and private preschool teachers, and he's also still traveling around and presenting to both public and private school teachers in other states. He has written a couple books which he sells on his website as well.

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