Thursday, November 18, 2010

Neuroscience: Philosopher rips "drivel" - pop science media 's bread and butter

Once upon a time there was this bright philosopher and Fine writer who immersed herself in the pop culture sludge of the breathless (this just in!) latest findings of neuroscience on human nature, in this case the supposed differences between the way men and women think. Differences that, Fine argues, are poorly supported.

What I learned from Cordelia Fine's latest book: Add time on an fMRI scanner to a mediocre mind carrying out a conventional research program and you end up with fodder for Cowsmoopolitan. Fine found that the men vs. women studies were too badly done to be conclusive. Her survey removes all doubt as to how many magazine and newspaper editors, stuck for a Sunday featurette, ever even wonder about such matters.

She goes on to challenge neuroscientists on the ethics of passively allowing these shenanigans:
... neuroscientists who work in this area have some responsibility for how their findings of sex differences in the brain are interpreted and communicated. When this is done carelessly, it may have a real and significant impact on people's lives. Many neuroscientists do appear to be aware of this. They are appropriately cautious about interpreting sex differences to the brain, and may also take the time to remind journalists of just how far we are from mapping sex differences in the brain onto the mind. (And of course they may find their work being misrepresented, regardless, others, however, as we have seen, are more cavalier.) " - from Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (p. 173)
On a less heartening note, she adds,
Finally, there's an urgent need for editors, journalists, and schools to develop far more skeptical attitudes toward claims about sex differences in the brain. It is appalling to me that one can, apparently, say whatever drivel one likes about the male and the female brain, and enjoy the pleasure of seeing it published in reputable newspaper,changing a school's educational policy, or becoming a best seller. - from Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (p. 173)
Trouble is, Cordelia, drivel sells. The woman whose boyfriend is running around wants to believe that a brain scan shows that he is merely a less-evolved ape. And she may not have to wait long for "He's a Gorilla, You're a Bonobo, and You Two Make a Great Scream" (Whattafastbuck Press, 2011) to hit her local bookstore's Women's Empowerment Evening ...

It is really a moral question for the journalist, editor, and bookseller, whether - in hard times - to front this neurobullshipping or demand accountability.
Anyway, hats off to Fine for saying something.

Now, do I agree with Fine that there are no significant brain differences between men and women? Well, let's just say I have a different take on those differences, explained here.

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