On my drive home from class last night I caught part of the program On Point with Tom Ashbrook on my NPR station. His guest was Cordelia Fine, psychologist and author of Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. In the book, Fine’s mission is to expose and disprove the sloppy science used to justify gender stereotypes, which she labels “neurosexism.” From a Washington Post summary:
Fine traces its roots to the mid-19th century, when the “evidence” for inequality included everything from snout elongation to “cephalic index” (ratio of head length to head breadth) to brain weight and neuron delicacy. Back then, the motives for this pseudoscience were transparently political: restricting access to higher education and, especially, the right to vote. In a 1915 New York Times commentary on women’s suffrage, neurologist Charles Dana, perhaps the most illustrious brain scientist of his time, catalogued several differences between men’s and women’s brains and nervous systems, including the upper half of the spinal cord. These differences, he claimed, proved that women lack the intellect for politics and governance.
None of this was true, of course. Not one of Dana’s brain differences withstood the rigors of scientific investigation over time.
Delusions of Gender sounds very similar to The Mismeasure of Man, though I have not read the former. I tuned in as Ashbrook asked Fine about the political and social implications of her book and the so-called science it demolishes. She explained, of course, that the alleged–and real–differences between male and female brains are used to justify personal, social, political, economic sex inequality. But she is more concerned about scientific integrity than sexual politics.
My excitement quickly turned to agitation as Ashbrook began taking calls.
To summarize the first caller, “Are you a mother, Cordelia? Because I used to think the way you do but once I had my four kids I could no longer deny that sex differences are inborn.” Oh here we go. Fine said yes, she is a mother, but her status as a parent has nothing to do with the facts. Gendered stereotypes affect a child’s life even before zie is born, and even well-meaning parents project their own unconscious biases onto young children. Plus, parents are not the only influence on children’s–even babies’–behavior.
This is why I would be bad at interviews, because I would have been like, “Are you a scientist, Ann? Stop the presses because this lady’s daughters want to be princesses every Halloween and her sons are really rambunctious. Great work.”
The second caller was also a woman, who said she’s been told she thinks like a man because she’s more logical than other women. Then she illuminated Fine by completely misinterpreting the study about women’s tears. “I don’t know if you heard about this study they did but they found that men really don’t like it when women cry in front of them! I think that must be because men are naturally less empathetic.” I was hoping Fine would eviscerate this lady for only reading headlines on Yahoo! News. Not that the National Geographic teaser is any better. The researchers studied sexual arousal in men who sniffed either tears extracted from women’s eyes or a control liquid of saline. The men and women were not in the room together. It was a study of chemical communication. Anyway, Fine just explained that the results do not indicate that women would not react similarly to the scent of men’s tears (or men-men, women-women), but that was not part of the study.
After a break, Leonard Sax joined the conversation. Sax is a physician and psychologist and author of Boys Adrift, Girls on the Edge, and Why Gender Matters. He is an advocate of single-sex education. I found it strange that Sax was invited to be Fine’s foil in the discussion. He mostly writes about how girls are under increasing pressure to be perfect and accomplished in all aspects of their lives while more and more young men lack motivation or direction. I do not disagree with his observations, even if I take issue with some of his claims about their causes or his proposed solutions. He was pitted against Fine on the show, and they argued about the way [some part of the brain] thickens in males versus females over time. He just did not seem like a good fit for this particular topic.
I would have extended the “driveway moment” but Ashbrook announced he would be taking more calls after the break and I just didn’t want to sit through the stupidity. Maybe some kick-ass feminist called in to say something wonderful but I didn’t want to risk it. And Jersey Shore was starting. It seems like no matter what people like Fine do, most folks will cling to the conventional wisdom about sex differences and rationalize it any way they can. I know; that’s the patriarchy for ya. But it’s also the abysmal state of science reporting and education in this country.
Did any of you hear the show? Read the book? Change someone’s mind about brain differences?