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Neurononsense, and the status quo

October 15, 2010

As a band name, the title’s up for grabs!

It’s proven really, really handy that I ordered in a bunch of books (yes, I do deserve to buy books! *shakes head*) just in time to end up mostly staying in bed and reading.

Thanks to a review by kanata at Dreamwidth (and mentions of further reading in the comments), yesterday I got in Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference and Deborah Cameron’s more language-focused The Myth of Mars and Venus, along with some fiction. Since my brain is going rather stir-crazy with the physical fatigue, I plunged right into the nonfiction. Last night I finished the shorter Cameron book, and am about halfway through now also finished with Fine’s. This post may not hang together as well as it could, since I had the sense to write it incrementally today instead of totally wearing myself out in one go. I have also tried to clean up the huge number of typos, but some may have still managed to sneak through.

The pseudoscience and complete abandonment of critical thinking ability astounds. Truly. (BTW, I got more than a little dark enjoyment out of both authors pointing out what a sloppy, ideology-driven hack Simon Baron-Cohen is. Steven Pinker came in for a lot of well-earned flak, as well.) I knew that most of the “science” was pretty dodgy, but some of the details coming out of bizarre circular reasoning from people who really ought to know better? I despair at how desperately a lot of people must want to believe this stuff. I would go into details, but you’d do better picking up Delusions of Gender; any brief description here would not do the ridiculousness anywhere near full justice.

Not surprisingly, this theme ties back into the last sorta-post: the picture that emerges is people–both on the research side, and the more public side–uncritically working binaries for all they’re worth. And interpreting things in a way that supports this preconceived (oppositional) gender binary, not to mention the house of binary cards supporting it. And people desperate enough to shore up the status quo that they refuse/are unable to see that this is no different from (thankfully mostly discredited1) racial “science”, phrenology, or indeed trying to cram the world into the belief that a particular omnipotent being created everything in a week. Any evidence that cannot, through however tortured a route, be pushed into support of the expected outcome usually just gets ignored and molders away somewhere.

It’s like quantum, or something. And there are lots of cool pictures and graphs. See also Neuroskeptic. Including one takedown of some ridiculous educational recommendations: Educational neuro-nonsense, or: The Return of the Crockus. (How big is your crockus?, from Language Log.) And so much for trying to encourage well-rounded human beings who can use their minds in a variety of ways… See also Misunderstanding in cognitive brain imaging, for reproducibility, random-effect analysis, and other concerns about cognitive applications given current technology (before we even get to the chicken-or-egg socialization, medication in some contexts, and neuroplasticity stuff).

As Cordelia Fine put it (p.170-2):

If patterns of firing in the brain can be seen as better proof of someone feeling pleasure than them selecting the box on the questionnaire marked ‘Yes, I really enjoyed eating that doughnut’, then it’s not surprising that children’s actual academic skills can be so easily overlooked when brain research is enjoying the spotlight…

Another draw of neurononsense is what Yale researchers have referred to as ‘the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations’. Deena Skolnick Weisberg and her colleagues found that people are pretty good at spotting bad explanations of psychological phenomena. Suppose, for example you read about a study in whichresearchers found that men performed better on spatial reasoning tasks. Would you be satisfied by the circular explanation that ‘women’s poor performance relative to men’s explains the gender difference in spatial reasoning abilities’? Probably not. The researchers aren’t explaining their result, they’re redescribing it: women are worse at spatial reasoning because women are worse at spatial reasoning. But simply add neuroscience and the same non-explanations suddenly seem much more satisfying…even for students enrolled in an introductory cognitive science class… Although it’s not yet clear what it is, exactly, about neuroscience that is so persuasive, it’s been found that people find scientific arguments more compelling when accompanied by an image showing brain activation rather than, say, a bar graph showing the same information

This stuff is the main reason I have wanted to turn off the television every time that hideous “slingback synapse” Brantano shoe ad (UK) has come on. Much like hipster racism, it’s not ironic (nor even vaguely cute) when a lot of people really do believe similar crap. Like the beforementioned crockus.

Looking at some of the biological determinism-based research–much less popular writing about it–the wishful thinking astounds. And depresses. So does the harm done by this crap.

I also couldn’t help but get irked at one display of universalist binary rubbish from Deborah Cameron, even better in the context of cultural variation (pp.38-39), emphasis mine:

Ours may be the first time and place in history to hold such unequivocally positive beliefs about women’s ways of speaking. [Goes on to discuss some Western criticisms of women’s speech over the past few centuries.]…

But the very fact that beliefs on this subject have been so variable might suggest that a degree of scepticism is in order. If male-female linguistic differences are rooted in biology, as so many contemporary scientists assert, why do different societies clam to observe diametrically opposed patterns of difference? Why are westerners convinced that women are more cooperative and more attentive to others’ feelings than men, while in New Guinea and Madagascar people are equally convinced that the reverse is true? And if female verbal superiority is a scientific fact, why have so many cultures, for most of recorded history, considered men’s verbal skills (however these were described) to be more advanced than women’s?

These are questions I will return to later on. Meanwhile, they should remind us that beliefs about male-female differences are never neutral.

Erm, except when the culture in question isn’t centering its ways of thought around oppositional binaries, requiring value ranking, in the first place. I am bypassing more criticism of limited cultural/class/sexuality/etc. perspectives in both books here, since it’s not really within the intended scope of this post and I could drone on for quite a while; that’s covered a little more in the review that led me to both books. (At least both authors admit that they’re mainly looking at White, middle- or upper-middle-class people, and Cameron points out how badly conclusions based near-totally on this subject pool can apply to anyone else–and how prescriptive this can become, especially where psychology is involved.) And is about what I’d expect, unfortunately–including continuing to think in terms of inevitable oppositional binaries, cherrypicking exotic cultures, and assuming they’re operating along the same lines. I was going to put in another long quote on how this stuff is not universal, but am saving it for another post. 2

I will say that I was impressed yet again at feeling like I was reading about the same aliens I first encountered after starting into a dominant-culture-controlled elementary school, especially reading Fine’s otherwise excellent descriptions of the fish-in-water pressure on children to differentiate themselves and behave in very narrow gender-congruent ways. (Hell, I wasn’t even aware that there were supposed to be two species of humans–much less a lot of the culture-specific things used to differentiate said species–before that. And I’d been in school elsewhere for over a year by that point.) Yeah, some of my interactions with other 7-year-olds, involving exactly how I was doing it wrong and how threatened most of them apparently felt, make even more sense now. On the really messed-up end? It never really occurred to me that kids’ assigned genders are the main social affiliations available to them outside the family, while they’re still learning–and making up–what being a member of that particular group is supposed to mean. Ouch. No wonder the policing can be so brutal.

Not that a lot of adults are much better, mind you, they’re usually just less in-your-face about it. Except when they’re not. The less overtly violent approaches to enforcement still aren’t great. From Fine, p.223:

One can even, at a stretch, imagine a panel of preschoolers coming up with, or perhaps even improving upon, certain popular book titles such as Men Are Life Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti; Why Men Don’t Iron; and Why Men Don’t Have a Clue and Women Always Need more Shoes.

Erm, yeah.

Some background, which I am increasingly thinking ties in with my mind3 just not doing binaries for whatever reason: I’m apparently classified as a naturalistic4 and radial (“chaos theory at its finest”#–ha!) thinker. Seeing patterns and connections–and trying to make sense out of them–is kinda what my mind wants to do, to a greater extent that most people’s, and that is not limited to the “natural world” (another binary!). On the silly career assessment things, I kept coming up “police detective” or “research scientist”, and have been on one hand encouraged into biology and biochem in particular, and OTOH actively discouraged based on being “hopeless at math”–i.e., simultaneously being dyscalculic and repeatedly 99th percentile in testing–and, no doubt, perceived gender and the race/class complex (and who knows what else).

What’s my point here? When I was a kid, I had trouble with various “intelligence” testing, because I could see many other ways of grouping and interpreting the information–especially on things like analogies, “what comes next in this series”, and “what doesn’t fit with the other items”–so I had to try to figure out what the hell kind of answer they were looking for (i.e., model the thinking of the person(s) creating the test questions–and apparently doing fairly well at it, in the face of some stereotypes). This is still a problem.

I notice exactly the same thing with a lot of sloppy research. I don’t think they’re measuring what they think they’re measuring. (Start with some dodgy assumptions, tack on some really odd ideas about what qualities and abilities Western gendered tasks actually require5, then go from there. Be sure to give some monkeys Western human-gendered toys–including cooking pans, FFS–while you’re at it.) And it becomes extra frustrating when I can see the biases and (binary) preconceptions and just plain unexamined bigotry getting the way of doing real science, like the emperor’s nudity. At worst, it becomes an exercise in shovelling a bunch of the same old tiredwidgets around, while trying to pretend you’re doing something daring and innovative. And people eat it up, especially when it gets applied to topics such as gender, with a lot of cultural investment in certain ideas about how the world works.

Critical thinking–who needs it?! Especially when there are simplistic explanations involving pretty colored blobs, which neatly confirm your existing suspicions.

But, I’m a female-bodied “Hyper-Male”-brained6 (*retch*) autistic person with all kinds of other dodgy traits. And I didn’t even manage to finish my BS, much less have all the cool graphs and PET/fMRI blob patterns to show people–though I could probably make some up, which would be at least as good as most of the ones currently out there. Possibly not including the dead fish fMRI scan, which was pretty brilliant. 😉


1 Yep, it’s still hanging on. Very relevant quote in many contexts (emphasis mine).

As Evelyn Hammonds, a professor of history of science at Harvard, has observed, the rekindled debate over the scientific validity of race ultimately has less to do with medicine or genetics than politics: biomedical research on human variation naturalizes and is animated by the social order it is made in.#

But, thankfully, it seems to look dodgy to a lot of people outside the “flaming bigot” category. As Cordelia Fine put it in the epilogue:

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 on to their hot list, or editors into their columns, books and articles that so misinform and mislead?

(That last bit in reference to the common oh-so-brave presentation of “shocking truths” flying in the face of “political correctness”. Ah, the edginess!) Actually, I can believe plenty of people in charge of public education buying into the race-based BS and wanting to do all kinds of stupid shit, but people are more likely to cry foul with some of the fairly recent (US I’m most familiar with) history there. As they should, in any such case. There is also some really, really nasty history of pseudoscientific rationales for women (and so many Other groups) being treated as inferior, yet somehow the current repeat is more palatable.

2 Instead of going back and editing endnote tags again: I was going to stick a fairly long quote in, but am moving it to another post instead. Not that brevity is my strong point, but… 😉

3 Yes, the distinction between brains and minds is as important as that between sex and gender–and in a lot of the same ways. And funny how most of the first-page search results for “radial thinking” involve somehow improving your brain (example), when so many people act like you’re crazy when you spring radial thinking on them. And it gets described in some really unflattering ways if it’s considered a symptom of a disorder. Note: I can just about emulate some version of linear thinking in a pinch, though it takes an awful lot of spoons. Cramming reality into binaries? Nope, I can only see some of the resulting patterns.

4 More on this, including links to some amusing-if-not-taken-too-seriously inventories: Music and me, Part 1: musical thinking. And yes, this has been linked to (one style of) autistic thinking in a way that makes sense to me–and is far less dehumanizing than a lot of other descriptions. (“Of course, our kids’ sensory sensitivities are labelled as problemmatic; our kids propensity to collect and sort is considered to be perseverative, and our children’s interest in Animal Planet is discouraged as socially inappropriate. Maybe, though, there’s an up side to our kids’ unusual form of intelligence, which is more about observation, categorization and information gathering than it is about conversation, social interaction and verbal learning.”)

5 One example Fine also noticed, from notes on Chapter 10 (p.265):

19. Baron-Cohen argues that systemising ‘needs an exact eye for detail, since it makes a world of difference if you confuse one input or operation for another.’ (Baron-Cohen, 2003), p.64. However, it seems to me that one could just as plausibly argue that good empathising requires attention to detail, because otherwise you might, for example, fail to notice the important emotional leak that tells you what the other person is really feeling, or how you might be best able to make him or her feel better. In addition, the benefit of attention to detail would seem to depend on whether the right detail is being attended to. Focus on something irrelevant will not be helpful to understanding a system. And sometimes, as the earlier quotations from the Nobel Prove winners suggest, breakthroughs in understanding require a feel for the bigger picture, beyond the details of the component parts.

6 “We aren’t familiar with the this research area, but it seems like a stretch. Baron-Cohen has done some other excellent research in autism though.” Yeah, if you’re into insults, dehumanization, and dodgy assumptions. *prolonged retching* I’m really not feeling particularly charitable at the moment; this is definitely a case where respect needs to be earned.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. gregorylent permalink
    October 15, 2010 6:36 am

    neuro”science”, phrenology 2.0

  2. October 15, 2010 3:02 pm

    I’ve actually heard that having problems with standardized tests due to seeing many more possibilities than what the test maker intended is really common among kids identified as highly gifted. As is being a nonlinear thinker. So you’re not alone.

    As for me… In a way, this is both ironic and exactly what we should expect: I’m a nonlinear thinker identified as highly gifted, but I never, ever had the figuring-out-what-the-test-makers-intended problem. I’m almost entirely sure that this is due to how I was abused, and the particular coping mechanisms I learned.

    When I interact with somebody, I automatically, compulsively model them, the contents and extent of their intellectual picture of the world/whatever it is they’re talking about, their vocabulary choices, their political/religious/etc. value judgments, and even little things like what foods they consider it “weird” for people to like. And I automatically, compulsively constrain my behavior by their model. I became quite good at this after getting the look many, many times for expressing an unauthorized opinion, liking an unauthorized thing, or just talking about something others didn’t understand.

    So taking tests was just more of the same. Figure out, through their word choice and what they consider important, what their model of How Things Are is. Then constrain my behavior by it and spout it back to them.

    I think this says a lot about what the educational system demands.


  1. World Wide News Flash

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