Top critical review
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Engaging, insightful, and flawed
on December 11, 2010
Delusions of Gender focuses in particular on the brain and media coverage, whereas Brainstorm is a synthetic evaluation of the theory that prenatal exposure to hormones has a long lasting impact in organizing the mind. The former is also much more geared towards the general public. Although both focus a great deal on methodology, Brain Storm is actually focused on the question of the etiology of gender differences, whereas the message of Delusions of Gender is focused on flaws in interpretation and use of neuroscience research.
While I admire Fine's questions, I think she makes some researchers and conclusions out to be more unreasonable than they actually are. She points out that researchers often make much of small studies and highlights two claims that originated in studies with a limited number of participants: the idea that males are more lateralized for language than females and that they have larger corpus callosums. Fine contends that when meta-analyses are done, it becomes apparent that this is not the case. It's not that clear cut. Daniel Voyer conducted a meta-analysis and concluded that there are sex differences in lateralization (Voyer, 1996). Similarly, the corpus callosum claims often depend on how the measurement is done. It's important to take into account study quality as well ( Holloway 1998). She downplays the ambiguity on these questions. Also, even Hyde's Gender Similarities Hypothesis documented sex differences in some language-related skills(Hyde, 2005). Girls outperform boys on standardized reading and writing tests (Program for International Literacy 2006, US Department of Education 1997). Moreover, Fine's discussion of the mental rotation and math relationship does not note some compelling findings that might alter a reader's impression. For example, Casey and colleagues found that spatial abilities mediated the gender gap on the SAT-M (e.g. Casey et. al 1995, Tartre 1990). She cites Ceci et. al 2009 for a statement of dispute, but doesn't go into detail about the issues they raised. They don't think the research showing SAT-M scores and mental rotation are flawed, per se. That said, Fine raises some legitimate issues about how the scientific community and press responded to some papers, especially in light of subsequent findings and controversy.
Although one can easily beg to differ with some of Fine's takes on the data, many of the questions she poses are important and worthwhile. Much of the book features Fine explaining this technology and its limitations. She spends a lot of time indicting particular studies, illuminating how ambiguous some data is, and how it gets wildly interpreted. She emphasizes how challenging it is to interpret what's really going on in the mind. One need not agree with Fine's take on certain controversial issues on the topic to see her point about popular writers gone wild. She also rightly stresses that people tend to be particularly impressed with this research (Weisberg et. al 2008). Fine's text is well-suited to instilling skepticism into readers and enabling them to look critically at the claims they might encounter in press reports. This is especially valuable because press reports typically mention methodological details, but don't cover some of the limitations in procedures.
The downside, though, as Diane Halpern notes is it not as helpful to distinguishing between cautiously executed studies with reasonable conclusions. Note also, such investigations do exist. (e.g. Allen et. al 2003; Koscik et. al 2009; Hanggi et. al 2010). Researchers who care about these sorts of issues, exist too. Consider Tor Wager who conducted a meta-analysis of 60+ brain imaging studies, and noted he was speculating in his discussion of them. Wager and one of his colleagues also opened a discussion of sex differences in the emotional brain by pointing out Aristotle's views on women's inferiority, and ended by emphasizing sex similarities. I suppose there are still limitations in the research, and some of this could be misconstrued. It's not a researcher getting overly excited about a single spurious finding that conforms to stereotypes.
Genes, hormones, and their impact on brain structure and function contribute to making the lives of men and women different (Hines, 2005). Yet, the awe that some neuroimaging studies inspire may not always be conducive to understanding how. New York Times editor wrote that Fine's book helped her "see how complex and fascinating the whole issue is." I do worry that this comes at the expense of dismissing legitimate scholarship.
Ultimately, Fine posits that some of this research will wind up in the sorry scrap heap of the past. That's not beyond the scope of possibility. Maybe in retrospect, we will see some bias, some flaws and gaps. But it won't just be a bunch of over-eager researchers to
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