Neurosexism and neurononsense

by admin on 01/03/11 at 9:36 am

Summary of an article published by Ben Barres on December 14, 2010 in PLOS Biology.

barres_webClayman faculty affiliate and professor of neurobiology Ben A. Barres recently gave a favorable review to Cordelia Fine’s 2010 book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. While the existence of physical differences between male and female brains is unquestioned, Barres commends Fine’s astute critique of the studies that seem to prove that these physical differences create differences in ability or behavior.

Fine was inspired to write the book after learning that her son had been taught in school that he was inherently less capable of empathizing with others than his female peers. She began, using her training as an academic psychologist, to scrutinize the literature. In Delusions of Gender she concludes  that the belief that sexual differences in ability and behavior are ‘hardwired,’ and the scientific studies that support it, simply cannot be maintained in the face of scientific critique.

Throughout the book, Fine meticulously dissects scientific studies on gender difference and exposes large logical and methodological flaws. From the effects of testosterone levels on behavior, to gendered differences in behavior in therapists and newborns, she exposes biased survey questions, suspiciously small sample sizes, and blatantly leading interpretations (one researcher states in her book that all of the most empathetic therapists in a behavioral study  were female while failing to mention that only female therapists participated in the study). Fine also casts more widespread doubt on the ’science of sex differences’ by emphasizing how little is understood about how the structure of a brain is related to cognitive ability and behavior.

Fine concludes her critique with advice to those who would write about gender. She urges them to think twice before asserting a strong causal link between cognitive function and brain structure, to refrain from advocating different treatment of boys and girls due to ‘hardwired’ brain differences, and at the very least stop making things up.

Read Barres’ original article here.

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