Why bad science spoils research on gender differences

by Veronika Meduna / 11 August, 2017

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Two authors look at bad science, neurosexism and how 'junk science props up totalitarian regimes'.

The year after New Zealand became the first country to grant women the right to vote, American writer Eliza Burt Gamble published The Evolution of Woman and established herself as a scientific suffragette. She mounted an impressive challenge against Charles Darwin, on his own turf of evolutionary biology, arguing he had used his biological insights to justify social gender roles during the Victorian era.

This 19th-century gender battle provides a powerful opening for Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (HarperCollins, $32.99). From there, the accomplished science writer moves through periods of discovery – from sex hormones and brain size to menopause and a plethora of studies probing for gender differences in behaviours, intelligence and skills (think map-reading and empathy). Saini demonstrates that inequality permeates sex studies from start to finish, perpetuating the problem.

She shows that studies investigating differences between men and women continue to suffer from bad science and “neurosexism”, falling back on gender stereotypes even when they have long been debunked as myths. The blame lies with scientists craving the spotlight, scientific journals seeking publicity and media courting controversy to boost audience numbers. Social media further skews the data when conversations veer off and beyond what the science actually says.

Evidence shows any psychological differences between men and women are far smaller than those found between individuals within each group. Saini introduces scientists who argue for a “fingerprinting” approach that considers each person as a unique and ever-changing product of upbringing, culture, history and experience – as well as biology.

Inferior is a highly readable history of sex studies, as well as a sharp exposure of the field’s ongoing internal biases, shortcomings and plain old sexism.

“Junk science props up totalitarian regimes.” This sentence alone makes Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History (Vintage, $30) an essential read. The book first came out in hardback last year but was released in paperback this year and was shortlisted for the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize. With evidence denial and post-truth politics on the rise, it offers a stark reminder that the two usually go hand in hand.

Mukherjee is a superb storyteller – as he has shown in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies – and he interweaves the personal with the scientific with ease. The personal thread in The Gene is mental illness, which has visited Mukherjee’s close family often enough to linger uncomfortably between the generations. The scientific narrative is a journey that begins in Mendel’s pea garden and navigates its way to the present through the lives of those who made significant discoveries in genetics. Mukherjee doesn’t shrink from recounting the most monstrous episodes of genetic history – and it is during these chapters on eugenics that his storytelling shines.

As the world is making the transition from “reading” to “writing” the human genome, with the help of the latest gene-editing technologies, The Gene should be required reading. And for New Zealand readers, it offers an extremely readable reflection on genetics, just as we prepare to revisit issues surrounding genetic engineering, almost two decades after the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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