This post discusses an article, recently published in LiveScience.com, titled Brain Gains: Women Getting Smarter Faster Than Men by Tia Ghose. That article, by itself, is not of great importance. But as an example of what passes for science journalism these days, it does deserve some discussion.
The title itself is interesting. When I first saw it, I wondered if Ghose wanted to give the world yet another iteration on the “men still don’t get it” theme that one encounters too often these days. To some extent, the article does seem to attempt that. Hence, I chose the title of this critique partly to convey what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of such remarks.
Ghose’s title is also interesting for its opaqueness. I mean that in two regards. First, neither Ghose nor the research summarized in her article makes clear what it would mean to become “smarter faster.” As shown below, the research in question does not seem to be oriented toward such a claim. Second, Ghose’s title leaves something unsaid. Consider her first sentence: “When it comes to smarts, women are catching up to men in some areas and outpacing them in others, new research has found.” In other words, Ghose implies that women are still trying to catch up in some areas. It develops that some of those areas are important.
As will soon become clear, I think Ghose takes a rather benighted approach to the subject. But if you approach it as she does, you wind up with the conclusion stated in the title of this reply.
So let us look at what Ghose has given us. As a starting point, she does not provide a direct citation of the research she purports to summarize: her article provides neither the name of the published article nor a link to it. But I believe the article to which she was referring was one titled “The Changing Face of Cognitive Gender Differences in Europe.” The text of that article is available only to subscribers to an expensive academic journal, but its abstract can be summarized thus:
Mental abilities differ, between European men and women, according to nationality, the kind of task being performed, the year when the person was born, and the kinds of living conditions and educational opportunities s/he experienced during his/her school years. Women are superior to men in some areas; men are superior to women in other areas; but in both regards women who experienced improved living and educational conditions did better than those who did not experience improved conditions.
This is not surprising. Of course kids, male or female, will do better when they are not held back by existential adversities. One would expect to see the greatest improvements in those whose conditions were most improved.
That, however, is not how Ghose plays the article. She provides this statement:
“When living conditions increase over time, so do cognitive abilities both for men and women, and that has been shown previously,” said study co-author Agneta Herlitz, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. “But we show that women’s cognitive abilities increase more than men’s.”
That last sentence is disturbing. It presents, as a flat fact, that when women and men are given equal opportunities, women will make better use of them. That is not what the research was about. It did not involve a comparison of men and women who began on an even footing. Those few words are also probably not the full text of Herlitz’s communication to Ghose. It appears, rather, that Ghose selected a sentence consistent with her personal bias. In any event, it is not clear why a competent science writer would prioritize an email from one person over the actual contents of the article being summarized — a peer-reviewed article reflecting the views of four researchers — unless, perhaps, Ghose did not bother trying to read the article that she was presenting to the world, or could not understand it.
Consider a hypothetical. Let’s say you have a bunch of elite runners. All are able to run a mile in less than 4.5 minutes. In comparison against them, you have a bunch of people who have only one leg. On average, with prosthetics or wheelchairs or whatever, these people require 25 minutes to cover a mile. Now you give both groups unlimited access to the latest and greatest research and technologies. The elite runners are able to trim about four seconds off of their running time but, wow, the one-legged people are able to cut 15 minutes from their average time for the mile. These results would not demonstrate that one-legged people are better at using their opportunities. Nor should one infer that people with one leg will ever achieve average mile times superior to those of elite runners. That could happen, but this hypothetical study would not demonstrate that it is likely. This study would rather support the obvious fact that even a simple improvement in the condition of a highly disadvantaged person can yield a greatly improved outcome.
Ghose refers to another study — again, not linked or named, but apparently titled “Sex Differences in the Structural Connectome of the Human Brain” (2013). From that study, Ghose draws this conclusion:
An average woman’s brain, that study revealed, has more connections between hemispheres, while a man’s noggin has more connections within hemispheres. The study researchers speculated that this may make the male brain better at motor skills and the female brain better at combining analytical and intuitive thinking.
That is, again, a substantial distortion of that other study. First of all, as noted in the LiveScience article summarizing that study, the lead researcher “cautioned against making sweeping generalizations about men and women based on the results.” Moreover — contrary to the phrasing used by both Ghose and that other LiveScience article — the study was not about “men” and “women.” Consistent with the ages of its participants (8 to 22 years old), it referred rather to males and females, and it noted ways in which its findings applied primarily to certain age groups. For example, the authors observed that, within the larger study of which their work was a part, male-female differences in ability (in e.g., language vs. spatial tasks) “were mainly observed in midadolescent age (12-14 y).” The LiveScience piece acknowledged that, in that study, “the most pronounced brain differences . . . got smaller with age.”
Ghose, as just quoted, would evidently have us believe that men, with their superior “motor skills,” are more suited to be athletes and mechanics, while complex “analytical and intuitive” tasks are best left to women. Here, again, her verbiage does not comport with the researchers’ own words. The actual report contains no statement that female brains are “better at combining analytical and intuitive thinking.” What the authors say is, rather, that “[F]emale brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.” That is not a claim about analytical or intuitive thinking; it is a statement about communication between modes. This statement does not indicate that females excel at either analysis or intuition; nor does it indicate that the “communication” between analytical and intuitive modes actually achieves any useful synthesis of outputs from those modes. It may be mere cranial chatter (see Beaty et al., 2017). Communication is great; but, by itself, it may result in nothing more than indecision, anxiety, and befuddlement.
It is not clear what purpose Ghose’s distortions would serve in any case. Do we wish to establish that, to the extent that intelligence is the key factor, average females might appropriately predominate in some average occupations (e.g., teaching, social work, customer service)? That might be a reasonable suggestion, but it is very different from a claim of female superiority across the board — and it comes at a price. For one thing, it suggests that some traditional occupational sorting processes (resulting in female dominance in e.g., teaching) may have been justified. In addition — as demonstrated, again, in the title of this post — sexist claims of superiority by women like Ghose invite male retorts in similar spirit. For instance, as discussed in another post, in some areas men evince a wider distribution of scores: there are more men than women at the extremes. So, whatever may be true at the average, your leading mathematicians are overwhelmingly likely to be male. It seems, in other words, that when someone like Ghose makes highly gender-conscious claims implying female superiority in fields like nursing, she invites an admission that men should lead in math and science.
Ghose’s final paragraphs cite two scholars whose views seem incompatible with Ghose’s views as discussed above. Yet Ghose presents those incompatible views as mere commentary. There is no admission that there might be any controversy among them. Similarly, Ghose reports the Herlitz article (above) as straightforward fact, without offering any critique. But a better science writer — one more committed to the truth, and less preoccupied with getting sources to say what she wants them to say — might have mentioned some problems with this study. For one thing, it was based on data from Europeans who were born between 1923 and 1957. At the time of the research in 2006-2007, these people ranged in age from 49 to 85. Even after eliminating participants experiencing obvious senility, is it any surprise that some of the older ones would score lower in “episodic memory” or other tested capabilities? If you want a comparison of how 30- or 50-year-olds are changing over time, you have to conduct the test when they are 30 or 50, not when they are 80.
The age dimension is problematic for another reason. This research is about people who are well into the second half of life. How that population would justify a claim that women in general are getting smarter faster nowadays, I do not know. At the time of Ghose’s article, every person examined in that study was over the age of 55.
And then there is the small matter of World War II. Europe lost tens of millions of people to death and emigration. In some instances (involving e.g., Jews and Poles), particularly talented people were singled out for expulsion or extermination. After the war, talented males may have been especially likely to emigrate (to e.g., the U.S.) in search of opportunities. In short, European study participants born before 1958 may not accurately represent men and women in all countries and all times.
I found it interesting to compare Ghose’s credulous treatment of the Herlitz article, written by four women, against the much more critical treatment given by one of Ghose’s fellow LiveScience staff writers to a different article. In 2006, Jeanna Bryner introduced her LiveScience summary of a piece of research by J. Philippe Rushton with this headline: “Men Smarter Than Women, Scientist Claims.” Immediately in that title, it was emphasized that a view favoring men vis-à-vis women was just someone’s claim. Similar distancing appeared throughout the piece. For example, instead of acknowledging as plain fact (á la Ghose) that a recent study had found that men tend to have larger brains than women of similar body size, Bryner positioned that as the researcher’s opinion. And then, immediately after summarizing Rushton’s work, Bryner cited another scholar for an opposing view, and placed those remarks under a heading, plainly reflecting her own opinion, that read, “Flawed Conclusion.”
Bryner then said, “The findings add fuel to a still smouldering debate ignited by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers,” further emphasizing the idea that Rushton’s findings were controversial; people naturally shy away from that sort of thing. Yet as discussed in another post, there was little scientific controversy about the accuracy of what Summers said; the controversy was political, about the fact that he had dared to say it. Bryner concluded her summary with the remark that Rushton “left the door open for opposing views” and with a cautious quote from Rushton — “I wouldn’t say it’s the last word” — as if to imply that he was not really sure of his findings, or that readers could be excused from taking those findings seriously. Any scientist knows that opposing views will and should continue to be offered whenever the evidence supports doing so, but that hardly justifies capricious disregard of bona fide research.
LiveScience may have changed its approach somewhat since 2006. The terms of gender discussion in various quarters may have grown somewhat softer as well. Yet Ghose’s piece is not reassuring. It appears that misandry in popular journalism may merely have become more subtle. No doubt there are many ways in which various men and women excel at certain tasks. There is no excuse for a bigoted misrepresentation of research findings.
When researchers explicitly advise against sweeping generalizations about men and women, it is advisable to put the ideology on the shelf, stop making men out to be apes best suited for wrestling, and try instead to write intelligent material exhibiting some of that vaunted female sensitivity and empathy. Many women — most, I suspect, and possibly a large majority — would not have seen wisdom in Ghose’s worldview. There is a time and a place for cheerleading. Perhaps there is even a time and a place for sexism. But neither seems especially appropriate in everyday writing about science.