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Brain Bigots: Pushing Back on Junk Science

Perpetuating destructive stereotypes, and calling it "science," is a serious act on the part of public institutions. Not "having time" to check the facts--or saying the topic is "complex"--is not an acceptable excuse.

A public institution perpetuating destructive stereotypes and calling it “science,” is a serious enough concern. “Not having time” to check the facts—or saying the topic is “complex”—is not acceptable.

This week, the Science Museum in London is under fire for a new exhibit, in which visitors are asked to answer questions that say whether they have a “pink brain” or a “blue” one. Both the science world and the Twittersphere have gone nuts over this, the former accusing the museum of outdated science and the latter erupting with parodies of about brain parts that govern housework versus those that fit suitcases into the back of a car.  In answer to the criticism, the museum has apologized that it did not have time to check the science before putting up the exhibit.  And we are meant to accept that.

We also meant to accept as an excuse that sex difference in brains is a “complex topic.” This buck-passing only further mystifies the issue, leaving the public simply to accept the caricature in front of them. It is the job of institutions like the Science Museum to correctly communicate scientific information to the public, not to make it seem even more opaque than it already does.

In truth, furthermore, the situation is not all that complex.  The evidence at this point shows quite clearly that males and females are not born with different brains.  We now know that our cognitive capacities and even our interests and attitudes are formed through a highly interactive process in which humans experience and learn (throughout life, not just in infancy) and the brain responds by making connections and building pathways. Collectively, these pathways and connections determine the way we think and the interests we have and so forth, but the brain is so plastic that everything we have once learned can still be overridden by new experiences.  Indeed, individual experience is so highly variable that the pathways in brains are as distinctive as fingerprints.  Unlike genitals, which are easily categorizable as “male” or “female” in about 98% of cases, brains are more like eyeballs or livers—that is, not particularly one gender or the other.

However, because males and females are subjected to systematically different social treatment, there are sometimes sex differences discernible at the meta-level.  That is, you can sometimes see gendered propensities in extremely large samples, but not reliably at the individual or small group level.  And it is all subject to change.

The impact on female performance in both math and spatial reasoning during the past three decades is a key example of how a negative environment can be overcome by intentional effort, thus producing radically different cognitive outcomes.  During the early 1990s, in the US, statistical analysis of the Scholastic Aptitude Test performance of gifted middle school students allegedly established that females simply were not as able as males when it came to math.  Over the next decade, however, the effort to make advanced math more accessible to female students caused the gender gap to close.  The same thing happened in other developed nations and, in some countries, girls’ performance even began to outstrip boys’.  It was also demonstrated that the fabled gender gap in spatial reasoning could be closed by just ten hours of video game instruction.

At the same time all this was happening, another study showed that girls’ math ability, worldwide, varies in correlation to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index.  In other words, in countries where girls are treated less well, they do more poorly in math. In sum, we cannot infer that math performance is a function of inborn brain differences if the outcomes can vary so clearly with circumstances.

One hundred years ago, phrenology—that is, the "science" of using the shape of the skull to judge both moral and intellectual worth—provided a handy basis for judging non-whites and females to be intrinsically lesser beings. Hitler loved phrenology because it justified his hatred of Jews. Surely we have learned by now that one must be as mindful of the uses of science as we are of its methods. And that the science of yesterday is often the most hateful sort of ignorance today.

One hundred years ago, phrenology—that is, the “science” of using the shape of the skull to judge both moral and intellectual worth—provided a handy basis for judging non-whites and females to be intrinsically lesser beings. Hitler loved phrenology because it justified his hatred of Jews. Surely we have learned by now that one must be as mindful of the uses of science as we are of its methods.

We can also see that the way children are treated as students can change their performance, sometimes very quickly.  (The current generation of kids shows no gender differences in spatial reasoning. Guess why.) It is now well accepted that when gender stereotypes are invoked at the time of testing, it will affect the performance of the females, depressing the scores of even the most capable students below what they are able to do.  The phenomenon is called “stereotype threat” and it is now one of the most frequently studied topics in social science. Stereotype threat not only affects children, but also adults in a working or graduate environment.

What this means, then, is that free-floating gender stereotyping such as that now being shown at the London Science Museum actually does damage to the people who come in to view the exhibit. I would add “especially children,” but since we all change our brains all the time, the effect is not just on children.  Indeed, experiments have demonstrated that negative gender experiences can cause adult males and females to behave more in line with gender stereotypes.  In other words, if your employer or, God forbid, your daughter’s schoolteacher, happens to see this exhibit, it may affect his or her treatment of males and females at work and in the classroom by underscoring previously-learned beliefs.

Because claims about brain differences that are implicitly derisive of females are so often reported in the media and the studies that falsify such claims are not reported (the flap about the Science Museum being a notable exception), there is now an ethical dispute in neuroscience about the impact of reporting such studies.  The situation is not unlike the era of claiming racial differences in brains:  bigots loved reading those stories, so the press fed them out, but eventually good science and good ethics prevailed.  Today, if a laboratory had a study that showed blacks had different brains than whites, they would have a hard time getting it published in an academic journal.  The burden of proof would be heightened. And no respectable newspaper would report it because of the potential social impact.  Certainly no science museum worthy of the name would create an uncritical, bubble-gum-flavored exhibit around it.  We need to learn to see this kind of irresponsible presentation of alleged, but insupportable, sex differences in cognition as the 21st century version of those racial studies.

We need to be offended, really offended, until this kind of thing stops. Can you imagine a museum offering an exhibit showing that gay brains are different?  Or black or Muslim brains? More than that, can you possibly envision the museum using the excuse that they did not have time to check out the science before opening an exhibit showing that any one of these groups had a different brain?  Such a casual attitude toward maligning the cognition of women, as opposed to all other groups, speaks volumes about how far we still have to go.

The International Finance Corporation asked me, just a few months ago, to do a deep dive into the scientific status of this issue and report back. They have graciously allowed us to post the report, complete with the citations that support the arguments I have made above, on this site.  We are taking advantage of the timeliness of the topic to start our new series:  What Does It Mean for Women. Please click through to that page here.


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