Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze. The Most Outrageous Popularization of the New Gender Brain Study

The competition for the most daringly incorrect popularization of the Ingalhalikar et al. study is still open (send in submissions!), but by the time I'm typing this (ouch, the carpal tunnel syndrome all this gives me), the preliminary winner surely is Geoffrey Mohan at Los Angeles Times ("Brains of women and men show strong hard-wired differences.").

He must have read a whole different study than I did.  Or perhaps he imputed other stuff into it.

But daring he is.  He begins with a study looking at connectivity in the brains of young people which purports to find sex differences and declares:

A map of the human brain may in fact be a two-volume edition, divided by gender, according to a new study that found significant differences between how the male and female brains are hard-wired

He then tells us that those differences exactly match the observed behavioral differences (untrue, as my earlier post shows). 

But wait!  There's more:

The results lend weight to growing evidence that humans have formed strong adaptive complementarity, suggesting that biological evolution predisposes the species to divide gender roles.
So now the Ingalhalikar et al. study is about evolution!  About adaptive complementarity!  It suggests (well, that was a prudent word choice)  that biological evolution predisposes the species to divide gender roles.

The results do none of those things, actually (see my earlier post), because the study is not about evolution, and because of the plasticity of the brain and the impossibility of determining all the possible reasons for the observed path differences (including research mistakes, biological sex differences, differences based on how men's and women's lives make them use their brains differently, i.e. the very gender roles Mohan mentions.)

Then there's the idea of being predisposed to particular gender roles by biological evolution.  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  But if we take the various guesses about the real-world meaning of the Ingalhalikar et al. study findings seriously, we must ask whether the traditional gender roles would be what those guesses immediately suggest.  

For instance, one of the researchers argues that women are better social intelligence.  That's not something the study could actually prove, of course.  But suppose that this is indeed the case.  How could we best use that talent edge women are supposed to have in our societies?  Perhaps only women should be the politicians?  The managers of firms?  Anything where people talents are needed (priests, mullahs, clerics in general)?

Duh.  I obviously don't support such sex segregation.

But I very much doubt that having more female presidents is what Mr. Mohan has in mind there when he talks about how the results supposedly justify evolutionary predispositions towards certain gender roles.

I pull out this particular popularization because it teaches us a lot about what these popularizations do. 

Here's an interesting thing for you to do:  Follow what happens to the Ingalhalikar et al. study over time.  Is it replicated?  Is it not found to be replicated?  Then ask yourself if popularizations would cover both of those outcomes equally noisily.

I'm willing to make a large bet that we will never learn in the popular media if the study is not replicated, partly because they will already cover some other Mars-and-Venus study.
PS:  All these studies teach us that we should not be lax in the way we look at a study if it supports our own prior beliefs about gender or if it supports the value of research we have been involved in.  I saw such laxity and bias far too often in the field of gender differences, and that's how Echidne The Viper Tongue was born!   I want popularizations to be objective and careful, even when that causes some results I adore to be found limited or false.