Beyond Lazy Language: Hopes For Future Science Discourse

“Overall, the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes,” proclaims Madhura Ingalhalikar and ze’s colleagues in their recent neuroscience paper on connectivity in the brain. Inglhalikar et. al’s research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Ian Sample reported the findings for the Guardian. The research measures both neural connectivity and behavior for 949 young people aged 8-22, and observes differences between male and female participants in the structures of neural connections and on behavioral tasks about regarding attention, word and face memory, social cognition tests, spatial processing, and motor and sensorimotor speed.

The description of the results by both the scientific paper and media coverage are extremely problematic. The background of history and politics that exists outside of the UPenn neuroscience lab and the Guardian newsroom makes these articles incredibly high stakes in terms of the assumptions they embody and the types of realities they actively perpetuate. The way the research is synthesized gives little detail about methodology, and the conceptual framing of the research significance rests on the natural fallacy of form to function to future. These concerns have been raised in letters to the editor in the Guardian by philosophers and neuroscientists. These commentators have not asked the question: what are our expectations of scientists and journalists as we continue to conduct complicated research on human subjects?

The language used both by Ingalhalikar et. al (the researchers) and Sample (the Guardian correspondent) is commonplace and wildly imprecise. Neither piece specifies how the gender of the subjects was determined. This is not just a problem of representation of the population (where do trans people fall in this pattern of neuroscience?), but actually undermines the power of the research. Even if the 924 subjects in the study are all cis-bodied people, the lack of detail means we have no idea what is being measured: is it the difference in brains of people who experience a particular gender role, the difference in brains of a certain size, the difference in people who have certain levels of hormones in their bodies, or some other measure of gender? Depending on how gender was determined in this study, the way subjects fall on these spectrums could vary greatly. The vagueness in category means a vagueness in implied cause of the differences observed.

To be sure, this paper is not claiming to explain the cause driving the differences observed between people. But the way Ingalhalikar et. al frame the significance of the paper indicates the underlying tone of the research. The paper’s first sentence notes the interest in “prominent sex differences in the behavior of human and non-human species.” They say the observations represent “adaptive complementarity.” Ragini Verma, a member of the research team, says to the Guardian that these differences are “hardwired.” The fallacy of the appeal to nature says that patterns seen in nature are good. The is-aught fallacy says that patterns in nature are fixed, and are probably largely unchangeable in the future. These fallacies are entrenched in public thought, and if this study is read with this background mindset, the implications of the findings are grave.

The researchers fall prey to the traps of these fallacies about the connection between nature and future. The study does not describe what types of tasks are used to assess broad behaviors such as “memory” or “spatial awareness.” In summarizing results, the researchers use even more sweeping language, giving male brains the domain of “perception and coordinated action” and female brains the domain of “communication between analytical and intuitive” thinking. This type of generalization reveals deep assumptions of strictly defined gender roles. In talking to the press, Verma says, “I was surprised that it matched a lot of the stereotypes that we think we have in our heads. If I wanted to go to a chef or a hairstylist, they are mainly men.” In satirizing the types of logical leaps Verma makes, Dean Burnett, a Guardian blogger writes, “Observational studies have shown that the male brain is hardwired to be paid more, occupy more powerful roles and positions, and be more inclined to kill things randomly, whereas the female brain is hardwired to get more harassment and oppression, develop worrying obsessions with physical appearance and to care more about other humans and sometimes kittens.”

Our critiques above are a few among many.  The work of both Ingalhalikar et. al and Sample have been widely critiqued both in op-eds written to the Guardian and in the scientific community at large. Why another op-ed pointing out the dangers of the language of a few articles? What is the role of the commentator, the journalist, and the scientist, in this very public discourse? What do we want to look different next time we have a discussion about research on human subjects? How can we build a more intentional forum where presumably benevolently intentioned scientists and journalists can convey the results of their curiosity in a constructive way?

In complicated research about complicated topics (the brain and gender), is it inevitable that the nuance of the issue will be lost in translation? How do we think about the multiple transformations that happen between “In all supratentorial regions, males had greater within-hemispheric connectivity, as well as enhanced modularity and transitivity” (the PNAS paper) to “men’s brains apparently wired more for perception and co-ordinated actions” (the Guardian article)? If journalists are responsible for interpreting the jargon, especially if they are not trained in the field, there are many points of danger. Especially given the short attention spans of readers, quick turnover media cycle, and temptation to sensationalize news to attract readership, how can we have a sober conversation about complicated topics? As Suzanne Moore of the Guardian writes, “That’s not a headline you will ever read, is it? “Men and women: much the same!”

But this is not an example of a rogue journalist stooping to the lowest common denominator and misrepresenting honest science. The PNAS journal piece itself uses the generalized language we critique, and the research, not just the media coverage, has been criticized within the neuroscience community. What are our demands for all the folks involved in this discussion next time?

  • Awareness of historical context. When working with human subjects and investigating categories historically used to cause structural oppression (in this case, sexism and cis-sexism), the statments made in a public forum are high stakes. In a context of historical sexism, to talk about differences in the body as related to behavior is part of a historical tradition of using biology to naturalize stereotypes about prescriptive roles. Because of this history, the implications must be specifically addressed in the description of the research: otherwise the implication is confirming oppressive assumptions and strengthening arguments that cause real differences in how people are treated.
  • Detailed methodology from the scientists. When we say “men are better at recalling a 7-digit number sequence on an index card after reading it aloud for 30 seconds,” that is a different kind of statement than “men are better at memory tasks.” The neuroimaging procedures in this study are detailed; the description of behavioral tests is not more than a sentence of general terms. Because researcher bias will always be present in some form, methodology must be as detailed as possible, and general words like “memory” should be defined precisely.
  • When working with identity categories, precise description of how subjects were placed in a category. To investigate gender, methods like self-reporting, legal documentation, medical designation of genitalia, and hormone levels are all getting at different questions about body and mind.
  • Careful wording about possible extrapolations. It’s an exciting thing to speculate on practical implications of the findings and present future research questions. Glib comments to the press about how more chefs are men undermines the ability for research to add a sober voice to a fraught conversation about social stereotypes.
  • Media coverage needs to investigate limitations of research. In this case, Sample used outside quotes from the authors of the study, but did not report conflicting views from the neuroscience community or limitations of the study, including the limitations already stated within the paper itself.

Nothing is written in a vacuum. The kinds of questions we ask and the way we communicate what we see will create the world we live in. I want that process to be one of precision, and one in which research helps to undermine oppressive stereotypes, opening our minds from the ideas that bind them.

By Eliza Cohen with Aimie Kawai, Contributors

All Images via Google Images

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