Debunking differences

Get your Gender Essentialist bingo cards ready, but this time so that we can cross off various myths being vigorously debunked.

First the headline and teaser:

The difference myth
We shouldn’t believe the increasingly popular claims that boys and girls think differently, learn differently, and need to be treated differently.

Image Source: Getty Images via the Boston Globe

Then, a few intro paragraphs and we get to the meat of the article:

Boys and girls are different because their brains are different. This idea has driven bestsellers, parenting articles, and even – increasingly – American education.

The problem is, a hard look at the real data behind these claims suggests they are simply untrue. Some of them are baseless, using the language of science to cloak an absence of serious research; others are built on tenuous studies, with methodological flaws and narrow margins of significance. More and more, they are simply coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility.

Scientists have turned up some intriguing findings of anatomical differences between the sexes. But we know very little about their real-world effect on how boys and girls behave – meaning that any conclusions based on these findings are premature.

Just go read and tick off those boxes. It’s a shame that the card doesn’t have boxes just for the studies (and pseudo-studies) that keep getting thrown around improperly, but those get ticked off too: Baron-Cohen, Gurion, Brizendine and the skeptics’ favorite, Not-A-Dr John Gray.

Before someone jumps up with the “feminists deny biological differences” strawman, read the article properly. Pointing out that there are bucketloads of dubious difference myths is not the same thing as arguing that no differences exist, nor is it the same as arguing that gender does not influence the distribution of difference at all, it’s just that looking at differences with gender first in mind is not the most accurate way of sorting the identification, assessment and analysis of difference.

Of course, it would be naive and even harmful to pretend there are no differences between boys and girls. Boys, for example, are more vulnerable to autism and dyslexia – and teachers and parents need to be alert to that fact. But there’s a mountain of evidence to show that gender is the wrong lens through which to view education policies and practice. Some kids learn best visually, others verbally; some do best in “boot-camp” type settings, while others thrive in informal classrooms with lots of freedom. But science and aptitude surveys tell us that gender isn’t a helpful way to sort students into those groups.

This makes perfect sense to me: we have 23 pairs of chromosomes for genetic differences to distribute themselves across after all. Only one pair of those chromosomes determines sex, the other 22 are autosomal, and there are approximately 3 billion DNA nucleotide pairs to distribute across those 23 chromosomes. Only a few human traits (all rare disabilities) have been identified as single-locus, confined to only one chromosome, let alone one nucleotide pair. That certain of these disabilities are sex-linked, occurring more often in men than women, is intriguing but hardly implies that all measures of ability are located on the sex chromosome. Complex human behaviours have never been tied down to a single genetic locus, so trying to shoehorn all performance differences onto a single chromosome seems most foolish.

Back to the article: unfortunately the authors do not tackle any savannah myths. But I am hopeful those will be addressed in the book on which they are working, which I’m sure will have the space to touch on stereotype threat and confirmation bias as well..

Caryl Rivers, journalism professor at Boston University, and Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis, are at work on “The Truth About Boys and Girls: How Gender Stereotypes Harm Our Children.”

One of the things they point out, as I did last week with regard to James Watson’s racial essentialism, is that so many of the proponents of these allegedly innate and ineradicable “differences” rely almost solely on IQ test results, and that there’s a real problem there with whether IQ tests are an adequate measure of what they are professing to measure, seeing as intelligence is such a difficult concept to accurately define.

Looking forward to the book.

Full disclosure: my kids go to single sex high schools, but I didn’t choose that option because I think boys and girls have vast differences in neurological learning styles. I was more concerned with differences in social behaviour in classrooms, which have shown that there is strong social pressure for girls to defer classroom interaction to the boys in their peer group, social behaviour which I did not want reinforced in the classrooms of either of my kids.

Their schools share a campus, by the way, and do musical and drama activities together, so that the kids get daily opposite sex socialisation as well, which was also important to me.

Categories: culture wars, education, gender & feminism, Politics, Science

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4 replies

  1. Scientists have turned up some intriguing findings of anatomical differences between the sexes

    ha! ha! Fantastic.
    Just be careful with your pooh-poohing of single locus thingamajigs. By your reasoning above, even an entire chromosome duplication should not be responsible for something as distressing as Down’s. After all, Chromosome 21 is one of the smallest, it can’t be that important (44 million out of 3 billion, i.e. 1.5%). And we’re 98%(ish) chimp, so why aren’t we swinging through the trees peeling bananas with our feet?
    The trick is to look at controlling regions – relatively small parts of the genome that turn huge swathes off or on.
    I’m not disagreeing with your conclusion, just pointing out that your logic is flawed.

    so trying to shoehorn all performance differences onto a single chromosome seems most foolish.

    (my emphasis)
    is true, but it smacks of straw-patriarchism.

  2. Good points, BK.
    I was just thinking on my morning walk that I’d forgotten that the gender essentialists arguments really all come down to testosterone anyway, and that certainly is a sex-chromosome mediated hormone. I’d also forgotten to account for how small differences in genes can have a large effect on phenotypic expression e.g. the action of sex-chromosomally determined testosterone levels on the pituitary gland is the main determinant of sexual dimorphism in height and musculature etc, which are largely otherwise autosomal traits. (For those without the genetics lingo, the genotype is the DNA organisms inherit, the phenotype is how those genes are “expressed” as organisms grow i.e. the genotype is the blueprint, the phenotype is the building – think of how two buildings from the same blueprint can end up looking different and having different structural soundness characteristics depending on various factors influencing the construction of the building.)
    The trouble with the gender essentialist approach is that it wants to take the known effects of testosterone on the musculoskeletal system and extend the influence of that one hormone across a whole range of other human phenotype expressions, when there is no evidence that testosterone mediates the biochemical pathways known to be crucial to those other phenotypes.
    I find it interesting that in vertebrate species where females are larger, testosterone is found to inhibit growth rather than promote it. Just because testosterone promotes one trait in humans that reinforces male dominance (sexual size dimorphism) doesn’t mean that any other traits mediated by testosterone will be shown to do the same.

  3. Oh, and I should point out that the single-locus genetic stuff in the post is entirely my own arguments, not Rivers’ or Barnett’s.

  4. It’s long been known that the main predictor of how someone will do on an IQ test is not gender, but rather social class and cultural background. IQ tests, right from their very inception, have been designed to select for people from upper-middle-class backgrounds, primarily white, and primarily male within that class group. But upper-middle-class females will tend to do better on a standard IQ test than a working-class male, because the primary selector is cultural background and cultural literacy – neither of which have anything at all to do with genes.

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