Sunday, 26 October 2014

Pseudo-neuroscience -- 'Is your brain male or female?' No!!

Date Started: 5/10/14                             Date Completed: 25/10/14                          Date Published: 25/10/14

What is it with people making up arbitrary and completely bullshit-based ways to divide humanity? From sexism to religion, to racism, to quackery - they all involve hallucinations of false categories - all of the supposed discontinuities between them are baloney.

Here's a diagram of what an idealised discontinuity looks like:

Whether it's segregating 'empathisers' and 'systemisers', 'males' and 'females', 'lefts' and 'rights', 'extroverts' and 'introverts', 'thinkers' and 'feelers' or any other arbitrary categorisation*, there seems to be plenty of people willing to tell you which one you're in. The evidence does not support any of them.

Whenever a study reinforces the science of 'we're all smudged in together' it just gets ignored. But if a study on 6 people, in an MRI scanner, suggests that men think differently about bananas than women do, all the sexists jump up and thrust it into the public gaze. This causes what's known as measurement bias - where perceptions are biased by seeing more of one thing than another. Consequently, large numbers of people take these puerile ideas seriously.

In this mini-essay-inspiring article, there's an example of self-deception at work, in the way the authors write:

"We are all a mix of the two, but most of us are more one than the other. Men tend to sit more along the systemising end of the spectrum, women at the empathising end, though there are plenty of exceptions."

Imagine if this were blood types instead of brain types. If you are blood group A, you can receive blood from Os and As, but not Bs or ABs. If you do, you can die. There are clear dividing lines between Os, As, Bs, and ABs. That is because the types are real. You either have the 'A' antigen on your erythrocytes or you don't. End of story. The fact that sexists have to blather about there being "plenty of exceptions" indicates that the categories are almost useless in describing reality, and certainly useless at boxing everybody up into different compartments, without leaving anybody out or double-boxing anyone!

Spectrums and types do not go together.**

Presenting this kind of junk as science is essentially no different to instructing racism: there are no Races, because there are no discontinuities between populations A and B that would make sense of them. They have differences, yes, but that doesn't mean they're completely different Races. After all, no two individuals are the same. Are we all our own Race? Are we all our own sex? It's bullshit, all the way, from people who concentrate on the junk and ignore the science, to prop up their factionalistic prejudices, whether Racist or sexist, or of any kind.

"So perhaps we'll be seeing pink pain killers for girls and blue ones for for boys..." the article ends. And white ones for Whites and black ones for Blacks? Bullcrap. Wiser people already know reality doesn't work that way.

Imagine if the systemising-empathising remark had been made in the context of racism:

"We are all a mix of the two [races - Black and White], but most of us are more one than the other. [Whites] tend to sit more along the systemising end of the spectrum, [Blacks] at the empathising end, though there are plenty of exceptions."

The obvious inference being that Whites can do the smart jobs, and Blacks all the menial stuff. Is it not much more obvious, now, that this sexism is merely being glossed over with caveats like
"there are plenty of exceptions"?

The whole point of employing descriptive terms, is that that descriptive term applies to all that we apply it. Tautology is tautologous.

What's the point of saying that men are more 'systemising' (or Whites are more 'systemising' for that matter) if it's as wrong as often as it's right?

Even if it were actually true that studying all of the people in the world revealed those categorised as White to be marginally more 'systemising' (whatever that means@) than those categorised as Black, what would that really tell you? Jamie getting 87% on a test and Chris getting 85% doesn't mean they're poles apart, and worthy of streaming.

If there is no clear distance between two groups, then there is no discontinuity; and if there is no discontinuity, then they are not really separate groups; and if they are not really separate groups.... what's the point in treating them as if they are?!?!?!

I shall reiterate: there are differences between men and women; but there are differences between men and men too, and between women and women. There are also differences between Euro-African peoples, Amero-African peoples, Amero-Euro-African peoples, Asio-African peoples, and Afro-African peoples. But none of these differences are consistent and broad enough to justify treating whole populations on the basis of them.***

To do so is crass, derivative, and divisive. It indicates a lack of willingness to consider the true complexity of the real world, and a disturbing willingness to oblige others to obey personal moral-intellectual failings.

It can hardly be considered respectable, therefore, for an entire BBC team to justify employment through asking the fatuous question 'Is your brain male or female?'. The answer should obviously be "no - it's just a pink squidgy thing that does essentially the same as everybody else's". That the task of providing a specious answer has been given to the previously-vigorously-maligned Horizon franchise comes to me as no surprise!

If you're a fan of astrological (geocentrist) hogwash, you might think that arbitrarily carving humanity up into meaningless pseudo-types is perfectly fine. Maybe even fun. Victims of it don't. Remember that every factionalistic hatred in the world is funded by such sentiments - that 'us' being on 'our' side, and 'them' being on 'theirs' is a perfectly fine and 'natural' way to be. That questioning and undermining ideologies dependent on unsubstantiated beliefs about the very nature of people is either anathema or unnecessary, and that people who insist on doing so are just billowing hot air.

But in actual fact, as in this mini-essay's subject example of sexist nonsense, it is the factionalists who are issuing those thermally charged exhalations. It is the people who wish others to think that the ways in which we casually distance our understandings from facts are perfectly fine, who go to the effort of enforcing the aforementioned measurement bias, to deceive others into thinking that they are right. And when other people do think they're right, they conclude that they themselves must have been right all along. Other people wouldn't have believed them otherwise. Would they?

If you've had the misfortune to watch the 'IYBMOF?' programme, linked above, you could have noticed that it was full of such vacuous stereotype reinforcement. And in general, the first three quarters of the hour are complete bullshit. Unlike most Horizons, however, the programme manages to end well, with what seems like Alice Roberts doing the heavy lifting. But that doesn't excuse the pseudoscience-ridden rubbish about completely different species; and all the kinds of poorly-conducted and low-powered studies, that were featured in the first three quarters of the programme! Plus, as if to target me, and make me even madder, they trot out another false-dichotomy stereotype: the 'left brain'/'right brain' rubbish. Geepers...

If you're feeling masochistic and/or want to know just what a terrible so-called 'Science' programme looks like, then watch it for yourself. But if you don't want to, or can't, then i've put a text rundown in the 'Extras' section.

There is no such thing as 'an empathiser' or 'a systematiser'; there is no such thing as a 'male brain' or a 'female brain'; there is no such thing as a 'left brained person' or a 'right brained person'; there is no such thing as a 'thinker' or a 'feeler'. We are all all of these things, to varying degrees.

All people can do empathy (except the perfectly sociopathic) and all people can systemise; all people can reverse park and change a nappy; all people can be logical and creative; all people can think and all people can feel.

In fact, there is no such thing as a 'superstitionist' or a 'scientist' in the sense of categories of people who are distinguishable from each other by a discontinuity. Whenever i refer to "superstitionists" (and boy, have i!) i simply mean 'people who have blithely received superstitions' - not people who are utterly unscientific. All people can pick up dodgy ideas, while trying to be scientific, and reciprocally, even the most dedicated Newage machine looks both ways for evidence of traffic when crossing the road! [ref.]

The inevitability of geographical distancing is always going to divide people, and make it difficult to care about those who are far away: people who look different, speak different languages, etc. But seeing them as across a cultural boundary, as if they're a different 'type' of person, makes it so much easier to stop caring about them. It is these kinds of cultural boundaries that peaceworkers have been striving to overcome, for a long time, with moderate success.

So thank you very much, naff team at the BBC, for casually contributing to cultivating a counter-productive, prejudicial environment for us all to live in. Onwards and downwards...

So don't worry about what that Buzzfeed Career Test told you you're going to (or should) be when you grow up, because it's all bollocks - you can be good at anything, with sufficient practice. And as dissonant as it makes me feel, that moral goes to the people at the Beeb who keep churning out Horizons, too. One day, all of you guys might actually be good at making Science programmes. And less good at churning out superstitious rubbish!

...fingers crossed :-P

--------------------------------------------- Extras

* Personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Test, and even all those 'Which video game character are you?' kinds of tests, are just as bunkum. Very popular they might be, but they are no more scientific than the idea of left-brained and right-brainedness. We all use all of our brains. And we don't apply only 10% of it either, in case you'd been duped by that little factoid!

** As an experiment for how effectively we can all delude ourselves, in hallucinating fake 'types' over spectrums, just look at a rainbow. That's pretty much the definition of a spectrum (minus a few absorption lines) and yet everyone seems to think they can count bands of colour! Reality says that's not true. There are no 'types' of colour because they all smudge into each other. Try to zoom into the discontinuity between yellow and green, and you just find a kind of yellow-green colour. The bands are an illusion.

*** Notes for the factionalists:

Sexes are real, Races are not. You either have ovaries, or you have testicles, or you don't.
# Pretending that things like 'empathiseyness' are somehow distinguishing variables is simply silly. Races are not real because there are no meaningful distinctions between populations that could rationally lead to them being considered Races. It's hopefully now a cliche to say that racists see the world in black and white, and non-racists see shades of brown. It's as idiotic to say that "these people are Black and the rest aren't" as it is to say "these people are tall and the rest aren't". Unlike sexism, which consists of false distinctions between the sexes, in a context where there are real ones, racism has no real distinctions - only false ones.

# Actual sex is determined by genomic makeup and chromosomal combination, so even gonads can be misleading to the presumptuous. But the fact that the Venn diagram of sex overlaps a little doesn't mean there isn't valid (and limited) meaningfulness to distinction between 'sexes'. Sexist prejudice exists in pretending that distinctions exist where really they do not. Discompassion for intersex and transsexual people is just as much sexist as it is to insist that women can't drive and men can't do childcare.
Intersexual and transsexual people suffer dysmorphia due to this irrational and unnecessary obligation to adhere to sex types. Historically, the sex of intersex people has been re-determined by good-meaning but good-failing people, who decided on the basis of external features, thinking that, as modern sexists still do, their sex could be 'corrected' to a hallucinated ideal. There is essentially no difference between insisting that 'a proper man does [this] or doesn't do [this]' and insisting that 'a proper man has a brain type like this'. It is the cultural imposition of false types that burdens intersexual and stereosexual people, alike.


The Horizon TV programme notes:

1" Everything in the introductory first minute is sculpted as if to answer to the question 'Is sexism OK?' with "yes" - difference as right, and similarity as wrong. They promise lots of lovely science, but none of this comes until the last 15 minutes.

3" Stats about there being more males in STEM are tritely reissued, even though they don't have anything to do with innate mental makeup. The puerile sexist attitude that life is a battle of the sexes is played out (maybe despite the presenters) with Alice representing the 'Girls' faction, and Michael representing the 'Boys' faction.

4" The typical contemporary TV pseudoscience reiterates. Tiny studies, unblinded and uncontrolled, with sample biases of people willing to be on TV, and primed with the systematic bias of sexist prejudice (for the sake of 'interviews') do not constitute anything of scientific weight. These are not experiments - they are demos - and they can be done much much better. (This is a general point that i mentioned in my Horizon-specific mini-essay - the pseudoscience in the programme). P.S. On-line studies are rife with systematic bias - the people who think they can live up to sexist expectations are much more willing to do them, and the study will thereby exhibit all the prejudices that honest researchers will not want to see!

12" / 31" A specious detour into looking at the brain itself. If the question title of the programme 'Is your brain male or female?' refers only to whether it is the brain of a man or of a woman, then surely the answer is just a tautology and must be 'yes'. There is no investigation to do, unless brain 'types' are defined as the mental product of that squidgy lump inside our craniums. See the New Scientist article 'Men and women: Different brains, same aims' (linked below) which explains how male and female physiology differs, but achieves the same result -- like walking a different route to the corner shop for a Mars bar and a copy of the Metro. Same result, different method. Assessing the brain's physical structure achieves nothing. P.S. Note that the second fallacious stint is caveated with 'the research... has been heavily criticised'. In other words, it's insubstantial and should be ignored.

14" Yes, marketing is sexist. It appeals to the sexist beliefs of the shoppers. We know. None of this assesses whether the sexism is sexism or actually just.

18" An asinine aside into researching the behaviours of monkeys, who do not have any understanding of the purposes of toys. This baffled the claimants too, btw. This research is both irrelevant and unreplicated. It also falls foul of various other fallacies that can introduce systematic bias into results. In medical research, epidemiologists know well that there are limitations in the physiology of mice - all drugs have to be experimented in humans, before sale to humans. Recently, the debate has been about having more trials involving women -- historically, trials have been mostly in men alone, because their physiology does not fluctuate over a monthly cycle, which would introduce uncertainty into data and make discovery of the truth much harder. Obviously, this means less is known about sex differences in response to medicines, which is the next challenge for medical research to assail.

24" The 'extreme male brain' hypothesis for autism is just a hypothesis, and so the meandering on this subject, with autism as extreme masculinity as a premise is insubstantial and should be ignored.

26" @ It's claimed that men are systemisers and women are not, with 'systemising' defined as a drive to analyse and order a system. For example: arranging stock on a shop floor, organising a patient's treatment schedule, separating the formula from the breast milk, tidying the toys, maintaining a housework schedule, maintaining the boss' meetings schedule, paying bills, timing when to put the different veggies on the heat, assessing which pupils are doing better and granting them representative marks, and ensuring the Dewey Decimal System is adhered to. It must be evident to all, that none of the activities women are stereotypically involved in on a regular basis depend on systemising! <s>

17"/ 36" So many parents insist that they're not instilling prejudices into their kids, but the people involved in their demo... well, i think they effectively demonstrate that people can indoctrinate prejudices into their kids without being aware that they are doing it! Especially when they are around other adults - peer pressure exacerbates adherence to cultural 'norms'. It should be noted that it is more than slightly common for modern children to be left in the care of multiple adults at, for example, a nursery/playgroup.

42" Alice goes back to the Secondary School she attended, divides the boys and girls onto opposite sides of the room, and then watches the factionalised mentality sprout forth into the conversation. Note how the blame for stereotypes comes from the kids themselves. And also that the analysis of where the stereotypes come from, comes from girls - not the supposedly-better-at-it boys.

45" At last, some sense, from Gina Rippon. She iterates the fact behind there being no basis to the idea of a brain 'type' and to the questioning title of the programme. Sex differences are dependent on culture - to the arbitrary sexist beliefs that they were accidentally indoctrinated with as a growing proto-adult. Then again, look at all the over-the-shoulder cut-away editing in Gina's interview, which is used to hide devious editing practices. I'm not saying they majorly changed what she meant, but why introduce unnecessary doubt? Well, they thought they'd get away with it -- most people are unaware that cut-aways are used to hide deceptive editing, and so there's never a substantial backlash when anyone notices it.

52" None of this, about pain or immunology, has anything to do with brain 'types'. Did they run out of material? Or were they just clamouring for ideas with which they can prop up sexism? "Any difference; any difference at all; just give me a difference damnit!"

59" A positive end to the programme. But really - why did the majority of it have to be so shit?

References and further reading:

The offending article: 'Is your brain male or female?'

New Scientist: 'Men and women: Different brains, same aims' (subswalled)

New Scientist: 'Boy brain, girl brain: How the sexes act differently' (subswalled)

American Psychological Association: 'Think Again: Men and Women Share Cognitive Skills'

On blood groups and real, meaningful discontinuities:

On pseudo-neuroscientific categorisations: 'Left Brained, Right Brained, or Hare Brained?'


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