February 9th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; gender and language, part 2; "gendered" brain research

The research reports that have been coming out in recent years about the alleged neuroanatomical differences between male human brains and female human brains (and the accompanying discussions of why those alleged differences exist), make me nervous. The articles and "medical moments" that have been coming out in the mass media based loosely on that research make me very nervous.

In the fictional United States that I wrote about in the Native Tongue novels, women were legally minors for their entire lives; instead of an Equal Rights Amendment, the Constitution had an amendment making that their permanent status. And the reason that happened was because it had been "discovered" by scientists that female brains were inherently inferior to male brains. The epigraph for Chapter 6 explains it this way:

"The curious 20th century aberration in cultural science that led briefly to such bizarre phenomena as women practicing medicine, sitting as judges -- even as a Supreme Court Justice, incomprehensible as that seems to us today -- and filling male roles throughout society, can be rather easily explained. Men are by nature kind and considerate, and a charming woman's eagerness to play at being a physician or a Congressman or a scientist can be both amusing and endearing; we can understand, looking back upon the period, how it must have seemed to 20th century men that there could be no harm in humoring the ladies. ... Our forefathers did not know -- despite the clear statements of Darwin, Ellis, Feldeer, and many others on the subject -- they did not have scientific proof of the inherent mental inferiority of women. Only with the publication of the superb research of Nobelists Edmund O. Haskyl and Jan Bryant-Netherland of M.I.T. in 1987 did we finally obtain the proof. And it is to our credit that we then moved so swiftly to set right the wrongs that we had, in our lamentable ignorance, inflicted. We saw then that the concept of female 'equality' was not simply a kind of romantic notion -- like the "Noble Savage" fad of an earlier era -- rather, it was a cruel and dangerous burden upon the females of our species, a burden under which they labored all innocent and unawares ... the victims, it can only be said, of male ignorance. There are some who criticize, saying that it should not have taken us four long years to provide our females with the Constitutional protection they so richly deserve and so desperately needed. But I feel that those who criticize are excessive in their judgments. It takes time to right wrongs -- it always takes time."

Research on the human brain is very hard to do, very expensive, and -- as research goes -- subject to unusual limitations. PET scan and fMRI scan technology gives us a window on the human brain that we never had before, making it possible to, at long last, make statements about the operation of the brain that are actually based on evidence rather than on speculation. However, there's one thing about the research studies that the media never bothers to mention: that a typical brain research study involves no more than a dozen different brains. Studies that present data from no more than half a dozen different brains are common. So that statistics like "65% of the male brains exhibited [X]" and "83% of the female brains exhibited [Y]" are ordinarily talking about 65% of eleven, or 83% of seven. This is unusual. To do a respectable research study about human beings in other fields of science and have it accepted as definitive you need at least 100 different research subjects; studies with populations much smaller than that are usually referred to as "pilot" studies.

No neuroscientist who publishes a paper based on data from a dozen different human brains can be certain that if he or she had had just one more brain available the additional data would not have disconfirmed the entire thesis of the paper. (That would also be true of a study done with 100 brains, of course; it could be that one more brain added to the study would radically alter the conclusions. But the larger the research population is, the less likely that becomes. That's why 100 has become the traditional minimum number.)

The paradigmatic anecdote you use to caution students is the one about the neuroscientist who was just getting ready to publish a paper in which he claimed to have discovered a distinct neuroanatomical difference that would distinguish the brains of serial killers. As a final cautionary measure, however, he checked one more brain -- his own -- and found that he also had that neuroanatomical difference.

And then there is the extraordinary rapidity with which the hypotheses and conclusions in brain research come and go. If you talk to neuroscientists they will be the first to tell you that this is the truth: We know very little about the human brain with any certainty, despite what the mass media will tell you. And basing any sort of "social" conclusions on the little we do know is not safe.

Note: You are quite right: I haven't provided you with the citation for the "brains of serial killers" anecdote. I'm absolutely swamped with work today, and don't have time to go hunt for it in my files. I'll get to that as quickly as I can; if one of you should find it and post it before then, you can be certain that I'll be grateful for your help.