Neuroscience Makes People Stupid

I’ve been stuck in bed all day with crippling amounts of pain and somehow ended up browsing through the legions and legions of posts that Language Log wrote about the book The Female Brain (list at the bottom). Towards the end of it, even the author says that it’s all “more than any sane person would ever want to read on the subject”, to which I say…yeah okay, fair point. But it just makes me so happy to see the ripping apart of crappy science that depends entirely on telling people what they already believe to be true about gender roles not necessarily because of a political agenda but because it’s bad science.

The amount of attention that books and articles that filled with pseudo-science, gender-stereotype reinforcements and out-and-out bullshit receive makes me very sad indeed. Just so long as it conforms to what people want to hear, the pop media will start to drool over studies whose design quality is questioned by nearly every other expert in their field (whose rebuttals you will never see on CNN or CBC Newsworld, of course). A few months ago, there was this piece of evolutionary psychology bullshit that was getting linked and debunked all over the feminist blogosphere that made the following claim (from the Times Online article on the subject):

In fact, a new study suggests that the way a woman walks changes during her monthly cycle, and that the most seductive wiggle occurs when she is least fertile. As such, a woman’s walk is just another of her feminine wiles, experts say, designed to put off unsuitable partners from a distance.

If she flaunts herself too openly at fertile times, she could be made pregnant by an unsuitable man, so women may have an evolutionary interest in sending out mixed messages

The entire field of evolutionary psychology, as far as I can tell, exists to offer apologetics for rape. The phrasing in the articles–in all of the articles on this study–skips a whole bunch of steps in between hip-shaking and undesirable-baby-having, so just to spell it out, those would include 1) woman walks all sexy 2) man sees woman walking all sexy 3) man decides he’s going to have sex with sexy-walking flaunty woman 4) woman has no say in the matter, regardless of mate-desirability and 5) pregnancy ensues. See where that became about how women are just asking to be raped?

I don’t really want to go into why the science of this is crappy, in addition to why the politics totally suck. This particular study stood out rather forcefully in my mind because, in addition to seeing it all over the popular media, I actually went to university with the woman who was the lead researcher on it, and suffice it to say that I was not the only one who was less than surprised to find out that this particular woman would be publishing articles that feed into conceptions of “feminine wiles”, among other things.

The reality is that the results of the study are completely uninteresting until you start making leaps as to why this might happen, which, it must be noted, are completely and totally based on speculation and assumption. Throwing in hypotheses about how much sense it all makes “evolutionarily speaking” and talking in big terms about reproductive strategies does not negate that fact. But it does make your study much more convincing to non-experts and semi-experts alike, which brings me to the article I really appreciated finding on Language Log, evaluating the ways in which adding neuroscientific terminology makes people (other than actual experts) more likely to accept a bad explanation even when the terms are completely unrelated to the conclusion in question.

Note how this is not a study that’s been well-popularized by science reporters in the mainstream media. Rhethorical question of the day: do you think that’s because the conclusion is uninteresting, or because it speaks to something that the general public (and science reporters themselves) don’t really want to hear?


4 thoughts on “Neuroscience Makes People Stupid

  1. Jay says:

    “Rhethorical question of the day: do you think that’s because the conclusion is uninteresting, or because it speaks to something that the general public (and science reporters themselves) don’t really want to hear?”

    I’d guess a little of column A, little of column B, and a little of column C…while I found that particular article fairly straightforward, I found most of the Language Log articles (that you linked above) incredibly dense and mind-numbing. That may, admittedly, say more about me than about the articles…but I can’t help but feel I’m a fairly “average joe”, and that most people wouldn’t be inclined to wade through the jargon and statistics to find what amounts to “these people (the gender essentialists) are liars and/or morons”.

    The issue Language Log brings up, though, is an issue that I find with nearly any article I read these days that refers to science/studies/statistics…intellectual honesty is going by the wayside, so when a study quotes some sort of factoid or figure, I literally have to do what Language Log did and track down those footnotes and original studies and make sure I wasn’t just fed a line of bullshit. It’s tedious, and the result is to make me usually doubt anyone saying, “I’m right, and here’s some SCIENCE to prove it!”.

  2. purtek says:

    Yeah, you’re right that the articles are pretty tedious and jargony (and the author knows it, which is why he said it takes a pretty high level of non-sanity to read them all). But remember that any of these other articles that are being publicized were also originally written by academics and are being translated by pop-science journalists. That’s the point of pop-science–to distill this jargon into stuff the “average joe” can understand.

    When it comes to linguistics, I’m well above average, so Language Log mostly works for me. I get that it’s not for everybody. But neither is the stuff that *does* get popularized–the relevant point is that the media does the translation enthusiastically when it confirms what they want to hear (and what they assume the general population wants to hear) and avoids it like the plague when it says the opposite, but may actually be better science.

    You don’t have to wade through *all* of those posts to get the point: this woman wrote a book that does not prove what she says it proves. Period. Her references do not back her up, and she’s making a hell of a lot of money, changing a hell of a lot of minds and having a hell of a lot of influence on the basis of statements that are inaccurate at best, blatantly misleading and dishonest at worst. Scientifically speaking, this should be scandalous, but somehow it never is. Somehow the article spelling out how people do this over and over and over just never gets published.

    Plenty of bloggers wrote great takedowns of that ev psych study I mentioned, none of which are terribly difficult to wrap one’s mind around if one tries a little, and all of which are easy to find, but did that change the questions that were asked of the researcher when I saw her interviewed on frickin’ CBC? Not one whit.

  3. BetaCandy says:

    You know what else is fun? That if Language Log got any attention and they HADN’T spelled everything out like crazy, they’d be attacked by her supporters for spouting their preconceived notions as pseudo-science.

    It makes baby Jesus cry.

    Thank you for this:

    The entire field of evolutionary psychology, as far as I can tell, exists to offer apologetics for rape.

    I keep trying to find another application for it, but that seems to be pretty much it. Which in itself perhaps says some disturbing things about evolutionary psychology, if academics are evolving to be rape apologists.

  4. purtek says:

    …academics are evolving to be rape apologists.

    She’s my age (28, maybe 29), straight out of her PhD, and she’s totally going to get tenure out of this crap-ass study.


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