"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Friday, December 15, 2017

Delusions of Feminism

Cordelia Fine,Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference
(review in the journal Society)

"One had hoped that, by now, debates about nature versus nurture had run their course. Informed scientific discussion currently is all about interaction: interaction of genes with environment, of biology with culture. But, when it comes to gender, feminist values can be a powerful influence on the side of nurture. Fearing that any evidence for a biological basis for sex differences in behavior would have deleterious effects on women’s rights, some feminist scientists may lean towards a cultural determinism on the theory that society can be changed more easily than the genes. In her book, Delusions of Gender, academic psychologist Cordelia Fine talks an interactionist game but her heart belongs to cultural determinism...

[In the 70s] it was considered unacceptable in the social sciences to argue that cognition or behavior might have a genetic basis, except, oddly, in the area of linguistics. Just as only Nixon could go to China, only radical left-wing Noam Chomsky could propose that a complex psychological process like language could be innate and get away with it. But once Chomsky opened the door it was inevitable that other mental processes would eventually slip through. Then the nineties saw the rise of two strains in the sciences that led to a broader revival of interest in the role of biology in behavior. One strain was research in evolutionary biology and psychology, the other, the introduction of new techniques in neuroscience that have led to a greater understanding of the brain. It is the latter, in particular, that concerns Cordelia Fine. The explosion of neuroimaging research has helped to lead to a swing of the pendulum back to a more biological and genetic focus for the study of behavior. Fine would like to push that pendulum back in the other direction, as least as far as the science of sex differences is concerned...

Although Fine says she supports a biopsychosocial model, the overwhelming impression one has after reading her book is that sex differences are really just all in your mind. In Fine’s view, there is no biology or genetics of gender beyond whatever determines the anatomy and physiology of men and women. As her subtitle indicates, her book is about “how our mind, society, and neurosexism create difference (emphasis mine), ” presumably where there is none...

Fine is not attempting to provide a balanced or comprehensive critique of neuroscientific research on sex differences. Popular science books are often extended arguments weighing evidence for and against a position. Authors of such books typically engage in advocacy as well; writers want to educate but also to promote a favored theory. In the best books, they do both and the advocacy does not overwhelm the balanced consideration of evidence... n other books, the advocacy agenda comes to the fore and dispassionate evaluation of the evidence suffers. Delusions of gender falls into the latter category.

Mindful of the potential for the misuse of research sup- porting a biological basis for sex differences, particularly in areas like science or mathematics, Fine argues for taking a highly skeptical approach to research in this area. The problem with her approach is not the skepticism per se but that her description of the research is limited, to the point that she tends to review just those studies that validate her nurture bias...

Fine’s selective approach leaves the reader with the impression that much of research into the organizing effects of prenatal testosterone on the brain is invalid and unreliable. In reality, the research in this area is extensive, complex and, yes, uncertain, but not, for those reasons, worthless. The extent of this literature is evident in a review of this research that incorporated almost 300 stud- ies (Cohen-Bendahan et al. 2005 ). Included were investigations of four different clinical populations, four different direct measures of prenatal hormones, and six different indirect measures. The authors acknowledged that much work remains to be done on the effects of prenatal testosterone, for example, on how the timing of hormonal expo- sure affects brain development, but concluded, contrary to Fine, that there are reasons to believe that prenatal hormones can have effects on sex-linked behavior.

To be fair, a popular book like Fine’s cannot be expected to cover the same amount of research as a more scholarly review. But Fine’s decision to cover so many aspects of sexism means that she spreads herself pretty thin. As a result, though she is not necessarily wrong in specific critiques, she can mislead the reader by omission. In throwing out the dirty bathwater of poorly controlled studies and false conclusions, she has also ditched the useful baby of careful research and converging evidence...

Readers of Fine’s book might be left not just with a healthy skepticism about neuroimaging research but with deep suspicions about neuropsychological evidence in general. This would be unfortunate because much neuropsychological research is robust and neuroimaging work can be well-executed and useful. For example, in some clinical populations, such as dyslexics, neuroimaging has enabled psychologists to better understand the nature of the deficit and even helped them develop successful interventions.

n any case, Fine’s criticisms can be a double-edged sword since proponents of the importance of cultural influences on the brain also rely on brain-imaging studies. The result is some startling, if not ironic, claims. In a recent article, for example, psychologist Nalini Ambady, identified in Fine’s book as someone who agrees with her assessment of the sex differences research, reports approvingly on studies that demonstrate that individuals in different cultures show activation in different brain regions to the same spatial tasks (Ambady 2011 ). She interprets this evidence as showing that “ East Asians and Westerners use different neural circuitry for fairly simple perceptual tasks” . Substitute “men and women” for “East Asians and Westerners” in that sentence and I suspect that Ambady and Fine would balk. Apparently, neuroimaging studies look more reliable when the topic of discussion is brain differences in ethnic groups than when it is about sex differences.

Although Fine acknowledges that biology puts constraints on the influence of culture one will search in vain for an indication in this book that she believes that these constraints might lie in anything other than gross anatomical differences. Fine keeps saying that the truth about the origins of sex differences is complicated but she promotes cultural influences to the point of sidelining, if not eliminating, the role of biology. This is evident in her assertion that, “ Our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. ” Prominently missing from her list of what creates differences is mention of genes or brains...

It is also hard to believe that hundreds of millions of years of mammalian evolution has not affected men and women’s behavior or mental capacities beyond an overall greater cognitive flexibility in homo sapiens compared to other species, which is all Fine seems willing to allow...

My greatest worry about Fine’s response to the ethical concerns raised by neurosexism involves her suggestion that neuroscientists need to work “under a heavier burden of caution” when working on sex differences than when working in other areas. Fine defines this heavier burden to be greater care in the interpretation of data and in speaking out against irresponsible journalism in the reporting of research. But surely careful interpretation of results, not generalizing beyond what is warranted by the data, and challenging journalistic misrepresentations of neuroscience are good practices whatever area of research is in question. So, my fear is that the “heavier burden” will constitute a bar to inquiry. Calls to greater skepticism in science and journalism, generally, are beneficial and appropriate. But when it comes to the issue of whether or not there are neurobiological constraints underlying sex differences, I hope that Fine’s exhortations won’t cause good scientists to be hesitant to merely ask the question."
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