Sunday, December 08, 2019

A Blast From The Past: The Extreme Male Brain

I recently came across that old argument that the existence of an "extreme male brain" is the real explanation for autism.  Given this, it might be worth my while to review here some of the results from research I did earlier on the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, the creator of that concept.  In particular, I want to explain how he tested the existence of supposed male and female brains and what is veryvery wrong with those tests:

Most of our gender concepts arise from the heads of people, not from laboratory experiments or genome study. Some such concepts, based on less-than-perfect research, develop a life of their own and end up regarded as proven facts.
The example I wish to cover here has to do with the concepts of feminine and masculine brain, as invented by Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher and, yes, a cousin of the comedian Sasha Baron-Cohen.
Simon Baron-Cohen argues that the female brain is empathizing, the male brain systematizing. If this sounds to you a little bit like the stereotype of women as emotional, men as logical, well, you are forgiven, though Baron-Cohen's concepts are narrower and slightly different. In his theory, women are skilled at reading other people's emotions, whereas men are skilled at creating and understanding systems. His overall theories are explained in his book: The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain.
The word "essential" refers to Baron-Cohen's belief that the differences he has stipulated are almost completely based on biological differences, not on upbringing or cultural effects though those can exaggerate the initial biological differences. The word "truth" sits oddly in the title of a book. It places great demands for what that book contains and also demonstrates a certain kind of omniscience which most human researchers fail to reach. Given that book title, it is justified to put Baron-Cohen's arguments through a very severe critical lens. After all, he tells us that he is offering eternal truths about men, women and brains.

Yet the book is fairly short on actual evidence for these arguments. Two chapters speculate on how our prehistoric ancestors might have obtained gender-based evolutionary adaptations of the kind Baron-Cohen believes lie behind the emphasizing and systematizing brains of men and women. Everything in those chapters is hypothetical. along the lines of man-the-hunter, woman-the-housewife, and quite different stories could be told of the ancient prehistory. Sociological and psychological evidence about the prehistoric human beings is, after all, nonexistent.

Baron-Cohen's starting point seems to be in autism, his actual field. It is his assertion that the autistic brain is an extreme male brain, bent on classification and typologies and the analysis of systems. Autism is more common in men, hence the assumption that whatever autistic individuals exhibit is just a sharpened form of the general male brain. Women are offered the empathizing alternative, perhaps because they have to be offered characteristics which autistic individuals have been argued to lack. Baron-Cohen even muses in his book that there SHOULD be individuals with an extreme female brain, very high on empathizing and very low on systematizing, to match his views of autism as the extreme male brain. He then asserts that such individuals would be treated better by the society than autistic individuals are:

When we find someone with the extreme female brain, my guess is that we also find that society has made it easy for them to find a niche and a value, without that person having to feel they must in some way hide their systemblindness.

I hope that at least one benefit of this book is that society might become more accepting of essential sex differences in the mind, and make it easier for someone with the extreme male brain to find their niche and for us to acknowledge their value. They should not feel the need to hide their mindblindness (as many currently do).

Baron-Cohen continues:

A central tenet of this book is that the male and female brains differ from each other, but that overall one is no better or worse than the other. Hopefully, in reading this book, men will also experience a resurgence of pride at the things they can do well, things like being able to work out confidently how to program a new appliance in the home, being able quickly to discover how to use a new piece of software, or how to fix something with whatever available tools and materials are around. All these need good systematizing skills.

It sounds like Baron-Cohen thinks men can't currently feel pride in their technical skills? Everything in the above quote smells more like gender politics to me than neutral research. But whatever.

Sometimes a general theory can arise serendipitously from theories pertaining to some special problem. But not in this case. To see what the problems might be, let's turn to the questionnaire Baron-Cohen initially used to create his definitions of male and female brain as systematizing and emphasizing, respectively. It is available in the Appendix in his book but it has also been widely disseminated by various websites.

There are two sets of questions, one part testing the respondent's emphatizing skills, one part testing her or his systematizing skills. Here are two sets of the assertions in the questionnaire from the BBC version of the test, the first from the emphatizing part, the second from the systematizing part. For each assertion, the respondent is supposed to state agreement or disagreement, and those answers will then be added up to get someone's overall emphatizing and systematizing scores.

Emphatizing assertions:

I really enjoy caring for other people.

It is hard for me to see why some things upset people so much.

I find it easy to put myself in somebody else's shoes.

If anyone asked me if I liked their haircut, I would reply truthfully, even if I didn't like it.

Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.

I am able to make decisions without being influenced by people's feelings.

People sometimes tell me that I have gone too far with teasing.

I usually stay emotionally detached when watching a film.

I can tell if someone is masking their true emotion.

Systematizing assertions:

I find it difficult to read and understand maps.

I find it easy to grasp exactly how odds work in betting.

I find it difficult to learn how to programme video recorders.

I do not enjoy games that involve a high degree of strategy (e.g. chess, Risk, Games Workshop).

I can remember large amounts of information about a topic that interests me e.g. flags of the world, airline logos.

I know very little about the different stages of the legislation process in my country.

I can easily visualise how the motorways in my region link up.

Notice anything odd about those sets of questions? The systematizing questions contain many more specific examples and applications than the empathizing questions. Notice anything even odder? The examples given are about maps, programming video recorders, highways/motorways, flags of the world, airline logos and so on.

Those examples have the power to steer individuals towards certain answers, and the power appears tilted towards male hobbies and preoccupations. Now, it could be that those hobbies and preoccupations are predominantly male because of that, you know, systematizing brain thing. But it could also be that a woman with a very systematizing brain is steered away from responding as a systematizer because the examples are about male systems.

There are traditionally female systems, in terms of gender roles. Cooking a complicated meal, following and deciphering complicated knitting or crocheting instructions, cutting patterns for dress-making and the order in which the parts are put together and so on. Likewise, women can remember large amounts of information about a topic that interests them. Among those traditionally female topics would be all the various types of make-up items, all the small details which define this year's fashion rules and so on. Do a thought experiment and replace a few of those systematizing assertions which are tilted towards male hobbies with some of my suggestions. Isn't it possible that more women and fewer men would now score higher in systematizing?

This criticism matters, because the questions confuse something that is supposed to be innate with cultural gender role patterns. The questions also omit almost all possible traditionally female systems.

For more examples of the problems with the questionnaire, have a look at these additional systematizing questions:

Do you know how to fix electrical problems in your house?

When you see a piece of furniture, are you interested in how it is made?

Do you like collecting rare coins or stamps?

The last two questions are yet more examples of the effect of using predominantly male hobbies in the examples which steer answers. Imagine them being replaced by these alternatives:

When you see a beautiful dress, are you interested in how it is made?

Do you like collecting vintage costume jewelry or old Barbie dolls?

But it's that first question which is the truly problematic one. It manages to both discuss a culturally gendered task, fixing electrical problems in the house, AND adds something which simply cannot reflect an essential, unchanging attribute in a person. The latter means that this question should certainly have been deleted from the questionnaire. Here's why: Before I became the proud owner of a fixer-upper house I knew nothing about fixing electrical problems. But now, many years later, I'm not bad at that chore!

Did I somehow become more systematizing? If systematizing is an innate characteristic, such learning shouldn't happen.

Here are a few more questions for your analysis. By now you should be able to see how very tilted these systematizing questions are:

If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about its engine capacity.

I rarely read articles or Web pages about new technology.

I am fascinated by how machines work.

I find it difficult to understand instruction manuals for putting appliances together.

If I had a collection (e.g. CDs, coins, stamps), it would be highly organized.

When I read the newspaper, I am drawn to tables of information, such as football scores or stock market indices.

When I look at a building, I am curious about the precise way it was constructed.

Mmm. And this is how we created the female emphasizing and the male systematizing brain concepts!

Given these problems, Baron-Cohen's questionnaires cannot be regarded as a proper research tool for defining innately emphatizing and systematizing brains. Besides, there's nothing to stop a respondent to score high on both dimensions or score low on both dimensions. What are those individuals who score high on both the male and female brains? Or low on both?

But wait, there's more! Even with the tilted questions, Baron-Cohen's original research subjects failed to answer the questionnaire in a way which would justify the equation of an emphasizing brain with a female brain or a systematizing brain with a male brain. In that study, depending on the way classifications were done, between 46% and 51.5% of women did not have "a female brain" and between 48% and 40.4% of men did not have "a male brain." Instead, they had either stolen the brain of the other sex or had "balanced" brains.

Baron-Cohen does argue in his book that all what matters is whether more men than women score higher on systematizing and whether more women than men score higher on empathizing. But calling these hypothetical brains female and male is somewhat a stretch. Add to this the tilted initial questionnaire, and we should be very critical of the use of concepts it created, including that of an "extreme male brain."