Monday, March 24, 2008

The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism

Meet Sarah.

Sarah can “identify and anticipate what [her husband] is feeling—often before he is conscious of it himself.” Like the magician who knows that you’ll pick the seven of diamonds before it’s even left the pack, Sarah can amaze her husband at whim, thanks to her lucky knack of knowing what he’s feeling before he even feels it. (Ta-DA! Is this your emotion?) Sarah is neither a fairground psychic nor the somewhat irresponsible owner of a futuristic brain wave interpreting machine. She is simply a woman who enjoys the miraculous gift of mindreading that, apparently, is bestowed on all owners of a female brain:

‘Maneuvering like an F-15, Sarah’s female brain is a high performance emotion machine—geared to tracking, moment by moment, the non-verbal signals of the innermost feelings of others.’

Sarah is just one of the many curious characters who populate lay science books about gender. She can be found in Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain, one of several recent popular and influential books arguing for fundamental and ‘hard-wired’ differences in male and female psychology.

Unfortunately, scientific accuracy and commonsense are often casualties in the ugly rush to cloak old-fashioned sexism in the respectable and authoritative language of neuroscience.

These are the opening sentences in a piece by philosopher Cordelia Fine. She's responding to the recent wave of literature that attempts to parse sexist hunches in the language of neuroscience, pretending that there's science to prove that the stereotypes are really "hardwired sex differences" when the science we have says just the opposite.

Full text, entitled "Will Working Mothers' Brains Explode? The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism." with citations available here.

I'm so sick of seeing the sort of articles and books Fine writes about.

Take for example, this NY Times article which was among the most emailed of the week when it was released. The article explores Leonard Sax's new book "Why Gender Matters" which asserts that female teachers (who according to him are "soft spoken" *) bore boys with their gentle tones. In fact, according to Sax, boys would be doing much better in grade school if we could just get them away from all the soft and pretty girly stuff that grade school is apparently inundated in -- 'coz the boys need a cool, steely room where they're encouraged to draw pictures of people kicking each other to really learn. Riiiiight.

It's been my hope since I started this blog to produce a series of posts debunking these sorts of claims and laying out the science the way it really is. It's just a matter of finding the time. Until then, I'm glad Fine has the ball rolling.

* Somebody should let all those ham-fisted (and strong voiced) ladies who taught me grade school know about this.


Chris said...

With a new six-week-old (boy) at home, I've been thinking anew about gender issues. My in-laws give me some funny looks over how interested I am in my son's care; diapering, doing my share of the waking up at night, cuddling and dancing around with him, taking an interest in the breast-feeding process... all these things seem to make me less manly in some people's eyes. Mostly I don't care about those oppinions, though I admit that I only use my highest, silliest "baby-falsetto" when no other grown-ups are around to hear me.

I guess I think there are some differences in the genders, though to define them would be tricky. But if men are less nurturing, I'd blame it more on social pressure than biology. All this should be moot anyway, since any GENERALIZATIONS we make about the genders wouldn't apply to the people that we meet who are INDIVIDUALS.

Ashley said...

I swear some people will say anything to sex up their research.

Ashley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachael said...

Pun intended Ashley?

Ashley said...

I think it was born out of an unconscious word association with the topic of the article... and once I realised what I had done, well, there was no going back! :)