Which Science?

Tweets and articles abound to the effect that Damore’s memo “isn’t sexist… it’s science.” One title boldly declares that ‘The Science Says the Google Guy Was Right About Sex Differences‘.

The problem is, “The Science” doesn’t exist. There is no one science. Science is not a single laboratory in which a single group of scientists find and publish The Facts. There are many sciences, or scientific fields, and the myriad scientists working across them do not all agree – in fact, they don’t even all agree on what exactly qualifies as “science.”

It’s useful to remember that “science” used to denote just “knowledge,” or “knowledge or understanding acquired by study” (OED 2) and that in modern French it still has this broader meaning. (And it’s always in the plural in French and German.)1 What we call “the scientific method” is just one way of trying to generate knowledge; an exaggerated faith in this method alone, in “evidence,” “data,” “statistics” and nothing else, is sometimes known as scientism, a term also used to denote the improper use, or improper understanding, of science and scientific findings.2 A phrase like “the science says” is closer to scientism than science.

And even within the scientific method – by the scientific method’s own logic – no one study or finding is ever conclusive alone; indeed, multiple studies together are rarely entirely conclusive. A phrase like “scientists have shown” or “a study has shown” should be used to start up a discussion, not to close it down.

It’s also important to remember that no science can ever be entirely objective; individual scientists still less so, however much some of them like to pretend that they are. A statement like “it isn’t sexist, it’s science” sets up a false dichotomy: science can be sexist. Science can be racist. Science is not conducted in a vacuum, safe from the influence of politics. As Dr Anne Fausto-Sterling puts it, “there is no such thing as apolitical science. Science is a human activity inseparable from the societal atmosphere of its time and place.”3

So when someone claims that “it isn’t sexist, it’s science,” or that “scientists have shown” X, Y or Z, it’s important to ask which science. Let’s have a look at Damore’s.

He seems to have lifted his ideas from Wikipedia (rather than from original sources like books and journals, which isn’t very convincing if you’re trying to be “scientific.”; have a look at the Wikipedia page on “neuroticism” and you will notice distinct similarities in phrasing – if it hasn’t been edited out of recognition by the time you check), but one major influence is Simon Baron-Cohen, author of the “empathizing vs. systemizing” (or “empathizing-systemizing”) theory that Damore cites (without acknowledgment).

Baron-Cohen is a professor of psychology at Cambridge University, where I obtained my degree. Where you find the phrases “empathising vs. systemising,”“prenatal testosterone,” “male brain” and “female brain,” there’s a good chance that Baron-Cohen’s nearby.4 But although he’s popular, his work has also attracted criticisms in the scientific community. We’ll come to those. First, let’s have a little look at his theories, his methods and his findings:

The following quotations are taken from his popular science book (by “popular science” I mean it wasn’t peer-reviewed and so didn’t have to be held to a certain academic standard) called The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism (2003), but he first began publishing on this theory in 19975 and identical phrasings are found in a number of his works. He defines “three main brain types”:6

  • the female brain – empathizing” (p.11),
  • the male brain – systemizing” (p.13),
  • the balanced brain,” where “systemizing and empathizing are both equally strong” (p.17).

Supposedly, “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy” while “the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems” (p.11). He claims that “ultimately, systemizing and empathizing depend on independent sets of regions in the human brain” and that “they are not mystical processes but are grounded in our neurophysiology” (p.16).

These are bold claims. But how does he actually propose to measure your “neurophysiology” and diagnose your “brain type”? With questionnaires, mostly.

He has developed two sets of statements for which you have to choose Strongly Agree/Slightly Agree/Slightly Disagree/Strongly Disagree, and then add up your score at the end. One is called the “Empathy Quotient” (sometimes the “Empathizing Quotient”), abbreviated to the “EQ” to make it sound a bit more scientific, and another set called the “Systemizing Quotient”, or “SQ”; you can find them both online but I’ll be referring to the versions included as appendices in The Essential Difference.

The EQ includes statements like 22. I find it easy to put myself in somebody elseʼs shoes, 42. I get upset if I see people suffering on news programs, and 43. Friends usually talk to me about their problems as they say that I am very understanding. It’s quite plain that these questions are asking you to report how nice you think you are. Does this seem like a robustly empirical and objective way of measuring a cognitive function governed by a particular set of regions in the brain?

Not all psychologists place so much faith in self-reporting questionnaires. Cordelia Fine, who is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, puts it this way: “to find, as Baron-Cohen does, that women score relatively higher on the EQ is not terribly compelling evidence that they are, in fact, more empathic.”7 Fine gathers together a number of criticisms of such methods, including “an important review of gender differences in affective empathy” which reported that “no gender difference was found for studies using unobtrusive physiological or facial/gestural measures as an index of empathy.) In other words, women and men may differ not so much in actual empathy but in ‘how empathetic they would like to appear to others (and, perhaps, to themselves)’”.8

As for the SQ, a number of critics have remarked upon the fact that the tendencies and interests supposed to indicate that your brain is “hard-wired for understanding and building systems” are very obviously gendered male: 5. If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about its engine capacity, 7. If there was a problem with the electrical wiring in my home, Iʼd be able to fix it myself, 13. I am fascinated by how machines work, and 25. If I had a collection (e.g., CDs, coins, stamps), it would be highly organized. Answering “Strongly Agree” for any of these fetches two points apiece.

Fine cites philosopher Neil Levy pointing out that many of the questions in the EQ and SQ are actually “testing for the gender of the subject, by asking whether the subject is interested in activities which tend to be disproportionately associated with males or with females (cars, electrical wiring, computers and other machines, sports and stock markets, on the one hand, and friendships and relationships, on the other)” (562).

I’ll be back tomorrow with more on the empathising-systemising theory; for now, my female brain (tired out with all this unnatural systemising of evidence and argument) needs its beauty sleep.

1One definition of “science” still current today is “the kind of organized knowledge or intellectual activity of which the various branches of learning are examples,” (OED 5.a.) which used to be used interchangeably with “philosophy.” The most commonly understood definitions in English today didn’t gain currency until the nineteenth century: “A branch of study that deals with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less comprehended by general laws, and incorporating trustworthy methods (now esp. those involving the scientific method and which incorporate falsifiable hypotheses) for the discovery of new truth in its own domain” (OED 4.b.), and “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing those branches of study that relate to the phenomena of the physical universe and their laws, sometimes with implied exclusion of pure mathematics” (OED 5.b., a narrower definition than 4.b., otherwise known as “natural science”). The only case in which one should use the phrase “the science” is as a synonym of “the data;” that is, locally and specifically,, within the context of a single study or specified studies. 

2OED 2: Chiefly depreciative. The belief that only knowledge obtained from scientific research is valid, and that notions or beliefs deriving from other sources, such as religion, should be discounted; extreme or excessive faith in science or scientists. Also: the view that the methodology used in the natural and physical sciences can be applied to other disciplines, such as philosophy and the social sciences, <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172696?redirectedFrom=scientism#eid> [accessed 13 August 2017]; ‘The Basics of Philosophy,’ <http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_scientism.html> [accessed 13 August 2017].

3Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men, 2nd edn (New York, 1985), p.207.

4A note on spellings: in many of Baron-Cohen’s publications, although he is British, the American English spelling is used (e.g. “systemizing” rather than “systemising”. When quoting I use the spelling used by the author; when writing in my own words, I will use the British English spelling.

5Baron-Cohen and Hammer, ‘Is autism an extreme form of the “male brain”?’ Advances in Infancy Research 11 (1997), 193-217.

6Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism (New York, 2003), p.16. Hereafter page numbers will be given in brackets in the text.

7Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (London, 2011), Amazon Kindle e-book, Chapter 2, location 567. Hereafter locations will be given in brackets in the text.

8Ibid. Fine is citing Eisenberg and Lennon, ‘Sex differences in empathy and related capacities,’ Psychological Bulletin, 1983, 94(1), 100–131, and Eisenberg quoted in Schaffer, ‘The sex difference evangelists,’ Slate, 1 July 2008, <http://www.slate.com/id/2194486/entry/2194487>.

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