Sunday, February 13, 2011

Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

Researching popular claims about the differences between male and female brains is not an activity that is particularly good for the blood pressure. The sheer audacity of the overinterpretations and misinformation is startling. Some commentators declare themselves to be courageous taboo-breakers, who shout the scientific truth about sex differences into the hushed silence demanded by political correctness. But this is exactly how they shouldn’t be regarded. For one thing, neurosexism is so popular, so mainstream, that I think it is difficult to argue that our attitude toward the supposedly unmentionable idea of innate sex differences is usually anything other than casual and forgiving. Can you imagine schools implementing brain-based single-race classrooms after seeing a few slides and pseudo-scientific facts about differences between “black” brains and “white” brains? If to talk about innate psychological differences between males and females was truly shocking and provocative, would publishers wave onto their hot list, or editors into their columns, books and articles that so misinform and mislead?

But also, to those interested in gender equality there is nothing at all frightening about good science. It is only carelessly done science, or poorly interpreted science, or the neurosexism it feeds, that creates cause for concern. Unfortunately, pointing out the problems can easily be framed as desperate nitpicking or the shooting of the messenger. Yet as Kaplan and Rogers point out, ‘[s]kepticism and rigorous science are not bad faults compared to moving prematurely to conclusions, especially when they influence social attitudes’. These social attitudes about gender are an important part of the culture in which our brains and minds develop. (237)
This is from the conclusion of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010).

Recommended. The writing is crisp, clear, and often funny. Though the book offers many insights, the most interesting section for me at the moment was Part 2, “Neurosexism,” in which Fine discusses several of the studies that have been raised in these discussions recently.* She examines (and rips apart) individual studies and interpretations, but goes beyond this to place these in historical and scientific context. I have a sincere hope that the people who have been pointing to these studies will take the time to read at least this part of Fine’s book. In any case, in the future rather than continue to repeat portions of the arguments and link to individual articles, I will simply refer people to this comprehensive treatment.

*I’m happy to say the vervet and rhesus “toy-preference” studies are included, and discussed at some length, and that she notes – though perhaps does not mock sufficiently – the inclusion of a certain object in the former.


  1. I'm a lurker at Pharyngula and I just wanted to thank you for the recommendation. I purchased the book during my most recent Kindle-splurge and am greatly enjoying it. Next step: entice my 17 year old daughter into reading it...

  2. Just wanted to apologize for the delay in posting your comments. I had to take a break from the blog.

    Ab_Normal, I hope you're able to entice your daughter to read it!