Men and women should be treated ‘differently’

Venus and Mars: Scientists disagree over how different men and women really are.

According to a prominent neurobiologist, male and female brains differ in important ways – but scientists are afraid to say so. How do social values affect science, and why does it matter?

In 2013 the US government cut the recommended dose of a widely used sedative in half – for women only. Until then, scientists had assumed that men and women are effectively the same (outside the reproductive system), and so should take the same amount of drugs. New research was turning that assumption on its head.

Last month a neurobiologist involved in that research revived the issue. Larry Cahill argued that male and female brains differ in significant ways. Yet neuroscientists have dodged this fact, for fear of appearing sexist and becoming ‘a pariah’. As a result, they continue to concentrate their research on men and wrongly apply their findings to women, endangering their health.

Since the rise of feminism in the 1970s, any suggestion that men and women are essentially different has ruffled feathers. While recognising that there are some divergences, feminist scientists point out that these are often exaggerated in order to ‘confirm’ existing gender stereotypes – a phenomenon they call ‘neurosexism’.

This school argues that researchers can be biased by their own sexist assumptions. Cahill counters that political correctness is stifling scientific progress. Essentially, both are making the same point. Though seen as a neutral investigation into objective fact in the world, science is actually shaped by social expectations.

This has always been true. When Galileo declared that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa, he was imprisoned. When Darwin argued that evolution, not God, shapes species, he was mocked. When Ignaz Semmelweis predicted the existence of bacteria, nobody listened. Today the tendency to reject evidence that contradicts a firm belief is called the ‘Semmelweis reflex’.

Science is now governed by peer reviews. For research to be published, in general it first needs to be assessed by experts in the field. This system is designed to filter out dodgy science, but it can reinforce taboos by silencing non-mainstream views. This poses a problem for scientists who want to promote a controversial idea…

The scientific method

The whole point of science is to challenge assumptions, say some. If that means making enemies, so be it. Without radical thinkers like Galileo, there would be no progress. Cahill is right: we should always give new ideas a chance, rather than dismiss them just because they go against our cherished beliefs.

Yes, reply others, but a ‘radical’ idea can do damage if it turns out to be wrong. In science, it pays to be careful, and only to accept ideas as fact once a consensus has formed around them – hence peer reviews. Cahill and the feminists largely agree on most points. Instead of picking fights, they should work together.

You Decide

  1. Do your male and female friends act differently? If so, how, and why do you think that is?
  2. It is accepted that women and men have different anatomies. Why is it so controversial to argue that they have different brains?

Activities

  1. Choose a scientific theory from history which was later proved wrong. Write a short essay explaining the theory, how it came to prominence, and why it was eventually rejected.
  2. Pair up with a classmate and ‘peer-review’ their essay from Activity 1. Check all their facts, give them a grade and suggest improvements they could make.

Some People Say...

“Men make assumptions, but women rarely do.”

Stephen King

What do you think?

Q & A

So is my brain determined by my sex?
Yes and no. There are differences: on average, men’s brains are 10% bigger (but this does not make them smarter). The latest research describes the brain as a mosaic of different traits, some of which are more common among men, others with women. But there is no such thing as a clearly defined ‘male’ brain, shared by all men. Same with ‘female’.
Why are feminists angry?
It must be stressed that they generally accept the differences mentioned above. They take issue with research concluding that women have fundamentally different characters. Not only is this bad science, it can give an air of legitimacy to outdated views on women’s role in society. For example, if a study says they have inferior spatial awareness, they may be seen as unsuitable for some jobs.

Word Watch

Sedative
Inducing sleep or calm, in this case the medication Ambien.
Larry Cahill
Cahill was writing in the Journal of Neuroscience Research.
Significant ways
See Q&A.
Exaggerated
One study looked at male and female brain scans. It started with the hypothesis that women would reveal more ‘emotional’ brain activity, then twisted the results to fit that assumption.
Gender stereotypes
For example, men have better spatial awareness, while women are better at languages.
Neurosexism
The term was coined by the psychologist Cordelia Fine. See Become An Expert for an interview with her.
Ignaz Semmelweis
In the 19th century, the Hungarian physician observed that hospital workers appeared to be spreading fever among patients. At the time, the notion that bacteria could transmit diseases was very new. When Semmelweis suggested that the staff should wash their hands, they took offence and ostracised him.
Agree
Cahill insists that men and women are equal. In fact, he argues that by treating them the same, science is not treating them equally, as medicine designed for men is harming women.

Subjects