Saturday, February 11, 2017

Today's Gender Research Piece: The Cold God of Science vs. the Feather-Brained Gender Feminist

The framing of arguments is always fascinating.  I tend to spot a possible bias in the first paragraphs of most studies, articles and opinion pieces by just looking at the basic framing.

Is the author telling that her or his side is God's side, the objective, neutral side, the absolute truth side, even without any evidence?  Is the author telling that the other side is the Devil's side, the subjective, fluffy-headed side, the absolute ignorance side, even without any evidence?

Looking at those features saves me time, and they saved me time in reading this Los Angeles Times article about girl brains and boy brains by Debra W. Soh, titled "Are gender feminists and transgender activists undermining science?"

It's not the arguments Soh makes about actual research pieces that have that flavor of bias for me.  It's not the fact that she writes a  science column for the Playboy Magazine (about sex, as in threesomes and such) or that she doesn't seem to have gotten her neuroscience PhD yet.

It's statements like these:

Gender feminists — who are distinct from traditional equity feminists — refuse to acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain, and instead promote the idea that sex differences are caused by a socialization process that begins at birth. Gender, according to them, is a construct; we are born as blank slates and it is parents and society at large that produce the differences we see between women and men in adulthood.
The idea that our brains are identical sounds lovely, but the scientific evidence suggests otherwise. Many studies, for instance, have documented the masculinizing effects of prenatal testosterone on the developing brain. And a recent study in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports showed that testosterone exposure alters the programming of neural stem cells responsible for brain growth and sex differences.

Here's what I find objectionable in those two paragraphs:

1.  The first hot-wired first link goes to an evolutionary psychology think-piece.  Not to accept one particular set of speculations about evolution (such as the evo psycho one) does NOT mean that one doesn't acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain.  Rather, it means that one is waiting for better evidence than is currently available.

2.  To define "gender feminists" as people who believe we are born as blank slates is a pretty extreme exaggeration.  No doubt there are some who believe that, just as there are quite a few who believe that all sex differences in humans are biologically determined and immutable.

Note that my second point makes Soh's adversaries sound like idiots.  She, on the other hand, though with some regret, is on the side of the infallible science.  Thus the sentence "The idea that our brains are identical sounds lovely, but scientific evidence suggests otherwise."

But actually scientific research is not infallible.   The progress of science is like a very very long debate, conversation or fight.  New evidence keeps arriving, new methods of analysis are developed, and what some researchers told us yesterday as "fundamental" facts is overturned tomorrow.  The process is not random, of course, and ultimately our information becomes better.

But it is dangerous to suggest that the researchers have no axe to grind in that process, because we are all participating observers in these studies, we all have brains.  It is dangerous to set up the false battle lines the way Soh does:  In one corner of the boxing ring, the God of Cold Science, in the other corner, a hippy dippy feather-brained feminist.

That's because other neuroscientists do not agree with Soh's essentializing approach.  That does NOT mean that the alternative is the assumption that our brains are blank slates at our entry to this valley of tears, but that we should remember something Soh hides from us in those above paragraphs:

3.  That both "nature and nurture" affect our brains, in possibly quite complicated ways, so that adult brains already have been molded by our experiences*, including those which are sex-specific.  Soh doesn't even mention that possibility.

4.  Did you check the second hot-wired link in my quote?  It goes to a study about mice. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, except that Soh doesn't tell us that this particular study is not about human sex differences.

The other studies Soh discusses to "debunk" the blank slate brainz idea are a study which argues that the idea of boy and girl brains isn't that useful and to two responses to that study which argue that it is.  The question in all three is whether we can predict someone's biological sex by analyzing the structure of the brain.**

Knowing which of those takes is the best one is past my pay grade, but it's very important to understand the complexities of brain imaging techniques, because they affect everything in this debate:

Yet the old neuro-nonsense arguments have not gone away. Everyone loves a sex difference story, particularly one that can be illustrated with a brain image. Self-help books, adverts, newspaper articles and social media fasten on such stories—even those that are almost immediately challenged.
Such populist neuroscience is often based on a flawed model of what brain imaging can do. It tends to present it as a kind of “cinéma vérité”, offering real-time, instant access to clearly definable brain structures and functions. But brain maps are actually the end-product of a long chain of image-manipulation and complex statistical processing, specifically designed to highlight differences. They do not tell us what any one brain will do in any one situation.

That "everyone loves a sex difference story" is not quite right.  But it's certainly true that such a story gets a lot of clicks and its writer gets more money in the long-run.   Sex similarity stories don't go quite unpublished, but if I wanted to become a very affluent goddess I would write what Soh does.  Or general anti-feminist crap.


*  I quote from the abstract of the linked piece:

Contrary to assumptions that changes in brain networks are possible only during crucial periods of development, research in the past decade has supported the idea of a permanently plastic brain. Novel experience, altered afferent input due to environmental changes and learning new skills are now recognized as modulators of brain function and underlying neuroanatomic circuitry. Given findings in experiments with animals and the recent discovery of increases in gray and white matter in the adult human brain as a result of learning, the old concept of cognitive reserve, that is the ability to reinforce brain volume in crucial areas and thus provide a greater threshold for age-dependent deficits, has been reinforced. The challenge we face is to unravel the exact nature of the dynamic structural alterations and, ultimately, to be able to use this knowledge for disease management. Understanding normative changes in brain structure that occur as a result of environmental changes and demands is pivotal to understanding the characteristic ability of the brain to adapt.

Bolds are mine.

And more, from another source:

The notion that our brains are plastic or malleable and, crucially, remain so throughout our lives is one of the key breakthroughs of the last 40 years in our understanding of the brain. Different short- and long-term experiences will change the brain’s structure. It has also been shown that social attitudes and expectations such as stereotypes can change how your brain processes information. Supposedly brain-based differences in behavioural characteristics and cognitive skills change across time, place and culture due to the different external factors experienced, such as access to education, financial independence, even diet.
The importance of this to the male/female brain debate is that, when comparing brains, it’s necessary to know more than just the sex of their owners. What kind of brain-altering experiences have their owners been through? Even a path as mundane as school, university and a nine-to-five career will meld the brain in different ways to those with different experiences.

**  In interpreting those probabilities, remember that random assignment, assuming that the sample has the same number of men and women, would get about 50% right.