Must Read on Psychological Differences and Gender

I often rant about bad coverage of the psychology of sex differences, so it is always satisfying to see an article that really has their facts straight.

Amanda Schaffer and Emily Bazelon, writing in Slate, have an excellent article reviewing Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain and Susan Pinker's The Sexual Paradox. They take both authors to task for selective use of the literature, using evidence that is dated, and for ignoring the complexity of the subject.

The bottom line from the science should really be this: Some differences between the minds of men and women exist. But in most areas, they are small and dwarfed by the variability within each gender. To be fair, Brizendine and Pinker intermittently acknowledge this point, and they translate complex material for a wide audience, which necessarily involves simplification. They get credit for trying.

But in the end they don't leave their readers with the correct, if unsensational, impression, which is that men and women's minds are highly similar.

Both authors push the science further than it really goes, often brushing past uncertainties or making confused evidence appear clear-cut. Even on the most hotly contested questions--like whether women have better verbal skills, or are hard-wired for empathy, or have cognitive differences that limit their advancement in math and science--the case for large, innate disparities is messy and, for the most part, underwhelming. This is especially true when it comes to neural and hormonal claims, which tend to be controversial. These writers offer canny caveats about culture and its role in gender difference. But they tend to imply that if a difference has innate roots, it's likely to be relatively fixed. And that's not necessarily so. In crucial ways, the mind is malleable. Ultimately, the evangelists aren't really daring to be politically incorrect. They're peddling one-sidedness, sprinkled with scientific hyperbole.

Schaffer and Bazelon competently summarize the counter-evidence and complexity that was omitted in these books. Definitely read the whole thing.

Hat-tip: Mind Hacks

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