Tuesday, December 09, 2008

21 Reasons Why Gender Matters: Footnote 3

For reference the pamphlet "21 Reasons Why Gender Matters" can be found online here.

Footnote 3 is provided as evidence that the brains of men and women are different, claiming "for example, one University of Massachusetts researcher reported that “at least 100 differences in male and female brains have been described so far”." The quote is a secondary quote, footnoted as being "cited in Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, The Mind of Boys. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005, p. 46.

It was tricky to track down for two reasons. The first was that they got the title of the book they cited slightly wrong, and while the difference between "The Mind of Boys", and "The Minds of Boys" (complete title is "The Minds of Boys: Saving our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life") may seem unimportant, it can mean the difference between a successful and a failed Google Book Search.

The second was that the quote in the book was cited in the book from another source, not published there originally. I found the details for the original source. The unnamed-in-the-pamphlet University of Massachusetts researcher has a name: Nancy Forger. The quote from her is not from any academic work, but from a news article. The footnotes in "The Minds of Boys" give the following source: "Quoted in Amanda Onion, 'Sex in the Brain: Research Showing Men and Women Differ in More than One Area', ABC News, Sep 21 2004". This article does not appear to be online anymore at abcnews.com.

I'm forced to rely on what appears to be a reposting of some or all of the original article on a web forum. Again, the quote isn't quite right. "The Minds of Boys" lists the quote as given above, but this repost of the news article includes an extra word: "At least 100 sex differences in male and female brains have been described so far" (emphasis added).

So after all that, does this footnote support the claim that the pamphlet makes in the main text? Yes, as far as demonstrating the existence of differences in brain structure between the sexes goes. But Nancy Forger makes a further statement that isn't included in either the pamphlet or the book quoting her. From the article itself:
This kind of research [searching for differences between sexes in the brain] remains controversial, as does any work that looks for explanations for human behavior in the brain. But most researchers looking into differences of the brain are quick to point out that there are many more differences in the brain just between individuals than between groups of people or between the sexes.

"Men and women are more the same than different in the brain — without a question," said Forger. "But," she added, "little differences can go a long way."

When the pamphlet states in the main text that "our brains are different", it seems to me that they are vastly overstating the limited findings so far. They leave the findings behind completely in the very next sentence, claiming that "such hardwired differences explain why men and women are so different in areas of behaviour, perceptions, the way they process information, and so on".

While there is some of evidence of some difference in brain structure provided, the news article (not a research paper) cited does not support claims about those differences as grandiose as those made in the pamphlet.

Verdict on Footnote 3: Exaggerated

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