In Delusions of Gender the psychologist Cordelia Fine exposes the bad science, the ridiculous arguments and the persistent biases that blind us to the ways we ourselves enforce the gender stereotypes we think we are trying to overcome. Newer, shinier versions take hold every year: "The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems," writes Professor Simon Baron-Cohen , while the neuroscientist Louann Brizendine describes a "female brain" and a "male brain" forever divided by their genetic destinies. Drawing on more sound but less high-profile research, Fine argues that most gender differences arise within social, cultural and personal environments that influence what hormones we produce and how our genes work. The human brain, female and male, has a remarkable plasticity. To assume that many complex adult traits are determined at birth is "so last century".
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Without understanding any of the details, I had absorbed the vague idea that science had now established, with the help of modern neuro-imaging techniques, that there were clear differences between male and female brains.
Men had stronger spatial and mathematical skills, and women had stronger verbal and emotional skills, and this all dovetailed sensibly with various biological and evolutionary stories. Fine, who works in psychology and appears to know the literature well, demonstrates that this story absolutely fails to stand up to critical examination. The science of gender differences turns out to be very bad science indeed; it seems that everyone has an agenda, and is willing to do whatever it takes to advance it.
Researchers carry out poorly designed experiments with inadequate numbers of subjects, and then draw sweeping conclusions from differences which are not even clearly significant. They look at coarse measures of activation in parts of the brain whose functions are still largely unclear and mysteriously deduce general cognitive principles, relying on the fact that few people know how to interpret a brain scan. In surprisingly many cases, they flat-out lie.
I am shocked, though I suppose this just shows how naive I am: I have worked for a long time in Artificial Intelligence, a field that is notorious for overhyping its achievements. Somehow, I had thought these people were better than us, but that does not appear to be true.
I do not think, however, that that would be true to the deeper spirit of the book. Fine, who comes across as an admirable person, is upfront about the fact that no one is neutral in this debate, and she does not even pretend to be neutral herself; this is indeed one of the things which makes her writing so amusing.
She shows how researchers, time after time, have made claims about gender differences which in hindsight have turned out to be utterly absurd. The rational response is to be as skeptical as possible about all such claims, and I will pay Fine the compliment of treating her own arguments with the same skepticism.
I am indeed convinced by the way she refutes arguments that women are incapable of performing as well as men on a variety of tasks where they have traditionally been supposed inferior. The section on the notorious spatial rotation task was particularly startling. But there are, all the same, a number of facts which I do not think are obviously explained inside the framework she describes here. With some misgivings, I will outline what they are.
It is hard to believe that this is coincidential. I would like to make it clear that I am in no way saying that women cannot be chessplayers, mathematicians or computer scientists: I know many women who are world-class in these fields.
The clearest and most extreme example I can come up with is inventing a new chess opening. There are several hundred accepted chess openings, and, to the best of my knowledge, none of them have been invented by women. Why is this?
Basically, inventing an opening is not a useful activity in any normal sense of the word. Most strong chessplayers - most World Champions, even - have never invented an opening. It is not necessarily very creative. The real reward is that it appeals to a kind of stubbornness. The person who invents the opening goes his own way, against the whole world, just to show that he can.
Thinking in this way is a kind of madness that is much commoner in men. But, somehow, society as a whole seems to benefit from the existence of this small group of people who are willfully different, even if the majority of them have wasted their lives without achieving anything.
Chess is a richer and more interesting game because there are all these different paths one can take. But she has convinced me that the facile arguments about brain scans proving that women are inherently wired to read emotions but not to understand calculus are utter crap.
Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 a6 5. One of her opponents was Beliavsky, a previous top 10 player and still very strong. Go Stefanova! Surely others will follow where she has led? Despite the fact that my lifetime score against Grandmaster Short is in my favor, I would like to make it clear that I in no way consider myself more intelligent than he is.
Statistics can be very misleading when taken out of context. Ma says early on that But this is exactly what the Howard study quoted by Short claims is not true.
I think we need more actual data here. It would be particularly interesting to see the Howard analysis repeated with proper attention paid to obvious sources of bias introduced by the fact that women play disproportionately often against other women. Despite the fact that GM Harika thoroughly outplayed him and won a good game as Black, it would be premature to draw any sweeping conclusions from a single result.
She then followed up by beating Meier, a normally very solid German grandmaster, and drawing with World Champion Carlsen. Go Hou!
Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference