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August 10, 2005

The science behind the sexist journalism

Coturnix takes a hard look at NeuroImage article about recognition of gender from voice, and the media coverage surrounding it.

I saw this on Pandagon first - a response to an article on NeuroImage about gender-specific voice recognition. Actually, it was not a response to the article itself (behind the subscription wall), but to the MSM reporting about the article. Soon, other bloggers chimed in, notably Feministing, Blondesense, Lindsay and Amanda again. [...]

To find out what the study actually said, read the whole thing.


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And let's not forget the NYTimes' role in the promotion of the favorite research strategy of the patriarchy, evolutionary psychology.

I see that the Times ran Simon Baron-Cohen's claims, a few days ago, about the differences between male and female babies - boys are thinkers, girls are emoters, you see.

Of course Elizabeth Spelke thoroughly debunked Baron-Cohen's claims in her classic debate with Pinker. But for some reason you only read about evolutionary psychology claims in the Times, never work that debunks its claims. Could this be because, like the Intelligent Design crew, the evolutionary psychologists excel at PR?


The first claim, as Steve said, is gaining new currency from the work of Simon Baron-Cohen. It's an old idea, presented with some new language. Baron-Cohen says that males are innately predisposed to learn about objects and mechanical relationships, and this sets them on a path to becoming what he calls "systematizers." Females, on the other hand, are innately predisposed to learn about people and their emotions, and this puts them on a path to becoming "empathizers." Since systematizing is at the heart of math and science, boys are more apt to develop the knowledge and skills that lead to math and science.

To anyone as old as I am who has been following the literature on sex differences, this may seem like a surprising claim. The classic reference on the nature and development of sex differences is a book by Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin that came out in the 1970s. They reviewed evidence for all sorts of sex differences, across large numbers of studies, but they also concluded that certain ideas about differences between the genders were myths. At the top of their list of myths was the idea that males are primarily interested in objects and females are primarily interested in people. They reviewed an enormous literature, in which babies were presented with objects and people to see if they were more interested in one than the other. They concluded that there were no sex differences in these interests.

Nevertheless, this conclusion was made in the early 70s. At that time, we didn't know much about babies' understanding of objects and people, or how their understanding grows. Since Baron-Cohen's claims concern differential predispositions to learn about different kinds of things, you could argue that the claims hadn't been tested in Maccoby and Jacklin's time. What does research now show?

Let me take you on a whirlwind tour of 30 years of research in one powerpoint slide. From birth, babies perceive objects. They know where one object ends and the next one begins. They can't see objects as well as we can, but as they grow their object perception becomes richer and more differentiated.

Babies also start with rudimentary abilities to represent that an object continues to exist when it's out of view, and they hold onto those representations longer, and over more complicated kinds of changes, as they grow. Babies make basic inferences about object motion: inferences like, the force with which an object is hit determines the speed with which it moves. These inferences undergo regular developmental changes over the infancy period.

In each of these cases, there is systematic developmental change, and there's variability. Because of this variability, we can compare the abilities of male infants to females. Do we see sex differences? The research gives a clear answer to this question: We don't.

Male and female infants are equally interested in objects. Male and female infants make the same inferences about object motion, at the same time in development. They learn the same things about object mechanics at the same time.

Across large numbers of studies, occasionally a study will favor one sex over the other. For example, girls learn that the force with which something is hit influences the distance it moves a month earlier than boys do. But these differences are small and scattered. For the most part, we see high convergence across the sexes. Common paths of learning continue through the preschool years, as kids start manipulating objects to see if they can get a rectangular block into a circular hole. If you look at the rates at which boys and girls figure these things out, you don't find any differences. We see equal developmental paths.

I think this research supports an important conclusion. In discussions of sex differences, we need to ask what's common across the two sexes. One thing that's common is infants don't divide up the labor of understanding the world, with males focusing on mechanics and females focusing on emotions. Male and female infants are both interested in objects and in people, and they learn about both. The conclusions that Maccoby and Jacklin drew in the early 1970s are well supported by research since that time.

In fairness, Baron Cohen has never voiced his findings or opinions in quite so clumsy and blanketing a fashion as you suggest, Nancy. He reports generalisations and his findings are heavily informed by his research into autism among infants, notably more prevalent in boys, as you likely know. And it's interesting that as soon as we start to talk of 'brain differences' between gay males and straight males, those on the political 'left' (wherever we draw that line) suddenly abandon their cynicism like a hot brick.

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