Thursday, April 8, 2010

Vive La Difference?

I suppose gender differences could make a topic here on The Longer Web that would run for months. Just the pop psychology alone could keep me busy writing ad infinitum. I don't plan on switching topics and digging into gender issues at the moment. Maybe later.

For now though I've come across a flurry of pieces that cover gender differences and human thinking. While reading these I came across an issue that they indirectly raised.

For me the biggest issue isn't any apparent mental differences between men and women. I defer to research on how (or if) men and women think differently. I certainly can't make any blanket statements about the differences between men and women when it comes to mental faculties. People vary a great deal in their mental strengths and weaknesses even within a gender let alone between genders. Generalizations may be valid but the specific differences between each of us probably outweigh the generalities.

No, for me the issue isn't gender differences. The issue is how research gets popularized and turned into something palatable for the lay person. More importantly, how research can be misinterpreted and misrepresented and how anybody not up to date on the research can be led astray.

It started when I came across an article from 2006 on Why Women Read More Than Men. The article starts by mentioning that women read more books than men. At least according to a survey by the Associated Press. In 2006 the survey found that a typical woman read nine books a year. A typical man read four. Men only out-read woman in the categories of history and biographies.

This is only books mind you. Not newspapers, not the written word at work, not online text or articles, not journals or magazines, nor anything else. Just books. Which leads me to ask: Women may read more books than men but do they read more in general? They may read more... but books aren't the whole story.

Moving on the article mentions that "according to surveys" men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market and that this would essentially make most fiction "chick-lit".

At this point, regardless that they've only covered "books" and found the greatest discrepancy in fiction, the article assumes that women read more than men. Okay... I'll give it that for the moment. Next the article tries to find some simple explanation for why women read more than men. A simple medical or physiological explanation would be best of course. What's a journalist to do to answer the question?

Roll out the author of a then recent book called "The Female Brain":
Some experts see the genesis of the "fiction gap" in early childhood. At a young age, girls can sit still for much longer periods of time than boys, says Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain.
"Girls have an easier time with reading or written work, and it's not a stretch to extrapolate [that] to adult life," Brizendine says. Indeed, adult women talk more in social settings and use more words than men, she says.
Now girls may have an easier time with reading and written work. I seem to remember that many studies have shown that girls are now out-performing boys in grade schools. There's even talk that the programs that were put in place to help girls catch up are now so successful that they should be switched to helping boys. So I'm willing to give her the fact that girls have an easier time with reading and written work. I'm even willing to accept "women talk more in social settings". I base this one only on anecdotal evidence though.

But I'm not sure I can accept "...and use more words than men".

Something is fishy. More words in total? More words in a day? They use a larger vocabulary? The claim is too imprecise, unscientific, and, to my mind, suspect.

So I went digging.

Turns out others went digging as well. In fact that particular assertion was removed from later editions of "The Female Brain" after being fact checked out of existence.

Which leads me to an interesting point. When we read a book or article based on research how do we know the research is being well represented? How do we know that an author isn't pulling numbers out of thin air? Without researching the papers and studies that informed a book how can we tell if the information is correct, let alone useful or properly interpreted?

The only answer I have is the answer science uses. Peer review. Let others "in the know" take books to task. Let people who are in the field fact check books and articles that popularize research. Usually, of course, this doesn't happen. Researchers don't double check every popularization of science. For every book that's critically reviewed there are many others by self help gurus and other writers that don't face technical criticism at all.

"The Female Brain" and the newly released "The Male Brain" by Louann Brizendine are a special case.

Louann Brizendine is not a self-educated self help guru. She's not just a writer of books for the general populace. It turns out she is board certified in Psychiatry, an endowed clinical professor, on the faculty of UCSF, and a doctor. With her credentials it's no wonder that others, just as credentialed, have looked at her books with extra care. Scientists and researchers want to see what one of their own wrote. If they can raise any issue with her work they will raise them. After all peer review and criticism are part of science.

And issues are being raised with her books. Especially by one Mark Liberman. Who is a linguist, founder and director of the Linguistic Data Consortium, and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mark has written numerous detailed blog posts on "The Female Brain". Neuroscience in the Service of Sexual Stereotypes is the first in a series. He points out the trick to making sex differences seem larger than they really are:
There certainly are psychological and neurological differences between men and women, sometimes big ones. But even when they aren't promoting their ideas on the basis of "facts" that are apparently false, authors like Sax and Brizendine use a set of rhetorical tricks that tend to make sex differences seem bigger and more consequential than they really are. You can do it too, if you want -- just choose phenomena that emphasize differences, leaving out the ones where the sexes are more similar; pick studies that find stereotypic differences, leaving out the ones whose results disagree; and in all cases, talk and write as if (even relatively small) differences in group averages were essential characteristics of every member of each group.
In the post he reprints a graph that shows the differences in hearing sensitivity between men and women. The graph shows huge overlap between the sexes. Overall differences between the sexes are minor compared to how individuals of a gender differ amongst themselves. So while women may have more sensitive hearing "on average" the overlap between genders is large enough that there is no way to say that all women have more sensitive hearing than all men.

This is why I'm wary of books that "interpret" scientific research for a lay audience. I'm usually extra weary of those that aren't written by someone trained in science. There is a greater chance those authors will misinterpret research or make mountains out of molehills. In the case of differences between the sexes they don't talk about how similar men and woman are (with slight differences). Instead they take those slight differences and make sweeping and inapplicable generalities out of them.

Guess which approach sells books and generates TV interviews though?

Mark didn't stop there when looking at "The Female Brain". In David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist he has a list of links to his writing on "The Female Brain". He's not critical for no reason. In all cases he backs up his assertions or pokes holes in how the book reached conclusions using the research cited by Louann Brizendine and sometimes supplementing the cited research with other studies.

All of this happened back in 2006. Now fast forward to today. This year Louann Brizendine released her second book called "The Male Brain".

Can you guess what happened next?

Did she write a more balanced book based on the research available? It doesn't seem so. The criticisms have started all over again.

Mark Liberman wrote Why Men Don't Listen. A post that starts with the pop psychology explanations on why men don't listen in general and why men don't listen to women in particular. After a few paragraphs he writes:
But the "Men don't listen" idea is a powerful one, and there are plenty of other confidently-asserted biological explanations besides ear-canal hair and hearing-threshold differences. In particular, there are some fine specimens in Louann Brizendine's new book The Male Brain. The relevant section is on pp. 40-41, under the heading Tuning Out. (I've added numbers in square brackets to link to the endnotes, which in the book are on p. 150.)
He follows this by a quote from Louann's book.

Then the fun begins. Mark starts going through the studies she cited to back up her assertions. Among the things he looks for:
  • Is the research even relevant (studies on 50 year olds won't tell you about teenagers for example)
  • Is the research from the country mentioned in the passage from the book (The book mentions Portugal. He repeatedly points out where authors of research are from and that those areas are not Portugal. Though he does admit that Poland at least starts with the same letter of the alphabet)
  • Does the research actually support the claims
  • Was the research properly done and appropriate
The end result is a thorough dismantling of one small section of the book. Even as a criticism of a single particular passage it's completely devastating. Especially considering how the passage contains some provocative statements concerning men and boys and the ability to hear. If someone doesn't have the research to back up one provocative bold claim is there hope for all the other bold claims and over generalizations in the book?

If you don't want to read the entire piece at least scroll down until you reach Mark's "Discussion" on men tuning out woman. It's a brilliant and short FAQ that will answer a lot of questions about whether men really have a hard time hearing women speak.

It turns out the best defense we have against bogus scientific claims and badly interpreted science is other scientists. Those that can check and challenge assertions and hold authors accountable to the source material. Mark shows how's it done. Sadly too many books and speakers who give us "scientific" explanations on all sorts of topics aren't as well scrutinized.

In Mark's post he does point out, only partially in jest, that there is one area where more research may need to be done to explore men's supposed inability to hear women:
The effect of sex differences in ear-canal hair has never actually been tested, as far as I know. Really, old guys do tend to get hair in their ears. Must be there for something.
Who knows. Maybe that's why men don't listen to women. He should write a book about it.

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