Neuro-nonsense: Bending gender science

By Shaina Ford

Artwork by Aurora Hawcroft

It’s an exciting time to be a feminist. We’re in the fourth wave, and the air is electric. In one way or another, everybody’s talking about gender. We’re challenging structures, questioning norms and breaking down binaries. But times of reformation are times of unknown – they come with great uncertainty for the shape of the future.

People like to turn to science – when it supports their opinions, of course. It might be surprising to learn, but the relationship is mutual. Science likes to use people’s opinions. It’s good at finding what it’s looking for. I’m mostly talking about “bad science” here – but the philosopher Michel Foucault would say that all the ‘objective’ truths claimed by institutions like science have a way of pandering to evil power structures. You know, like the patriarchy.

When science meets pop culture, the lovechild is often an abomination of stagnant folk-mythology sprinkled with some vague science-y claims. As a science undergrad, I usually find it all a bit ‘fishy.’ Nonetheless, I like to think that most science journalism is using its powers for good. But what kind of things has science said about gender lately?

Apparently, while women are blessed with a natural intuition, men are left to bumble along. As Louann Brizendine (a neurobiologist and author of two bestsellers on the topic of gender differences) would say: “A man can’t seem to spot an emotion unless someone cries or threatens bodily harm.” Women, on the other hand, are blessed with a semi-omniscient power to pierce anyone’s deepest emotional secrets with one cursory glance. Scientists wouldn’t espouse these kinds of gender essentialist doctrines without some hard-hitting evidence though… Would they?

Let’s take a look at the facts. Two gender differences with widespread acceptance are, firstly, that cis-females are more nurturing and empathetic than males. Secondly, cis-males are considered to have the advantage in mathematical or visuospatial tasks. For those of you who are already feeling uneasy with these sweeping claims – don’t you worry, for here comes the grand explanatory reveal.

When an XY (genetically male) fetus is developing in the uterus, a surge of the male hormone testosterone triggers a cascade of changes in the baby’s brain. As Simon Baron-Cohen explains, this causes the right side of cis-male’s brains to be ‘dominant.’ This supposedly favours mathematical and spatial abilities. Cis-female brains, which are not typically exposed to these testosterone surges, have a more ‘global’ brain usage. This better connectivity and stronger use of the left side favours the development of strong language skills and multitasking. It all sounds plausible. Unfortunately, it’s not actually science. Ian Gill, a philosopher of science, wittily compares Simon’s ‘scientific’ explanations to arguing “[a man has a] hairier body, so [is a] fuzzier thinker.” At least some of us aren’t convinced that the mythological cis-male ‘right’ brain magically predisposes them to fix cars and work for NASA. As Cordelia Fine points out, without a causally defined relationship between brain structure and complex cognitive functions, the “just-so stories can be all too easily written and rewritten.”

Reflecting on so-called ‘gender science,’ Fine noted that “there’s something a little shocking about the discrepancy between the weakness of the scientific data on the one hand and the strength of the popular claims on the other.” The potency of claims about sex differences lies in their ability to harmfully influence people’s beliefs about the capabilities and roles of themselves and others, which ultimately maintains toxic stereotypes. When scientific research validates gender inequality, over-egging the pudding and producing misleading results serves to weaponise the unproductive biological essentialism rhetoric that has been used for centuries to choke the progression of women. As Lise Eliot warns in her paper ‘the trouble with sex differences,’ neuroscientists must remain vigilant in balancing biological considerations with social and structural ones. The fascination of the public with sex differences leads to “gross extrapolations” of research findings, which have influences in education, mental wellbeing, and equality in the workplace.

With such questionable practices in use, one does question the ulterior motives behind this bad science. It’s reminiscent of a time that, when they realised men didn’t actually have larger brains than women, scientists searched every scrap of the body for a new correlate with intelligence. Including the length of the thigh bone. These explanations given for the ‘inferiority’ of the ‘fairer sex’ seem laughable now. We can see clearly how desperate were the male academics of the time to justify their preferential inclusion – and the exclusion of women – within higher education. Neuroscientific investigation of sex differences saw a great boom in the mid-nineteenth century – funnily enough, this was at the same time as women’s suffrage movements. What would happen to the old boy’s clubs if women were to gain access to universities, political leverage, and social mobility? Foucault was onto something about those political motivations behind scientific discovery.

Of course, things are different now. We live in a politically and socially enlightened era, and our science is far superior. Although, as Fine reminds us “the tape measures and weighing scales of Victorian brain scientists have been supplanted by powerful neuroimaging technologies. But don’t forget that, once, wrapping a tape measure around the head was considered modern and sophisticated too.” The same could be suggested of our politics and societies.

All that being said, I’m optimistic about the drive for reform within science. Science doesn’t have to immobile – not if it’s researchers are alive to the endless possibilities of gender. There’s already plenty of science out there subverting antiquated ideas like the ‘male/female brain.’ We could turn this thing upside-down and inside-out until we have a gender science that reflects the intricacies of gender, personhood, and society – their ultimate un-objectiveness, their unknowability. I don’t know about the rest of my science-sisters, but I’ll be there – lab coat on, Bunsen burner wielding, and ready use science to take down the gender myths. I just hope my girly brain is up to the job.

1. I am using this term solely as a feminist colloquialism that refers to anyone who is it part of the movement – no matter where they fall on the gender spectrum.

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