Kragen Sitaker (kragen) wrote,

Louann Brizendine is a charlatan; "The Female Brain" is a pack of lies

A friend of mine recently posted this link to her blog: Excerpt: 'The Female Brain': Learn What Women Really Think.

Don't forward around nonsense like this! Brizendine's book (excerpted at the above URL) has been rather thoroughly discredited. ABC's failure to update their web page to make this clear reveals the thin nature of their commitment to journalistic honesty.

In http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2006/09/24/sex_on_the_brain/
As it happens, there are many scientific studies that count the words used by females and males in a variety of same-sex and mixed-sex interactions: phone conversations, interviews, group discussions, and so on. These are always time-limited situations-a few minutes to a few hours of talking-not recordings across the whole range of people's daily activities. But together, these studies involve thousands of speakers of many ages, regions, languages, and cultures.

The findings? According to a 1993 review of the scientific literature by researchers Deborah James and Janice Drakich, "Most studies reported either that men talked more than women, either overall or in some circumstances, or that there was no difference between the genders in amount of talk." The research since that review, including counts from my own research, follows the same pattern.

I haven't been able to find any scientific studies that reliably count the entire daily word usage of a reasonable sample of men and women. But based on the research I've read and conducted, I'm willing to make a bet about what such a study would show. Whatever the average female vs. male difference turns out to be, it will be small compared to the variation among women and among men; and there will also be big differences, for any given individual, from one social setting to another.

Unfortunately, this is just one of several cases in recent books on sex and neuroscience where striking numbers turn out to be without apparent empirical support. On page 36 of "The Female Brain," Brizendine writes that "Girls speak faster on average-250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males." In support of this assertion, her endnotes cite Bruce P. Ryan, "Speaking rate, conversational speech acts, interruption, and linguistic complexity of 20 pre-school stuttering and non-stuttering children and their mothers," Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 14(1), pp. 25-51 (2000). Alas, in Ryan's paper, you won't find the 250 vs. 125 numbers, and in fact, he gives no data at all that breaks down speaking rates by sex.

The truth is out there, however, in many studies over the years that do give figures for speaking rates of females and males of various ages. The most recent data comes from a paper presented at a conference this month, in which Jiahong Yuan, Chris Cieri, and I looked at various measures of speaking rate in thousands of English and Chinese telephone conversations. We found that in both languages, the males spoke about 2 percent faster, on average, than the females. This effect was small compared to the variation among female or male speakers, and it was also small relative to the effect of situational factors. For example, people talking with family or friends spoke about 10 percent faster than people talking with strangers.

These numbers might be unrepresentative or otherwise mistaken, but we've documented the procedures we used and the data we analyzed. And we used conversations that have been published as digital audio, along with time-aligned transcripts and demographic data for the speakers, so others can check our work if they want to.

This ability to check or replicate research is central to scientific progress. It doesn't stop people from disagreeing about facts and theories, but it helps organize the arguments and keep them on track.

According to the same author in http://web.archive.org/web/20070826094339/http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004370.html
Judging from the Sunday Times quotes, some of the other
quantitative inventions in The Female Brain are also intact [in the
new British edition]:
"It’s true that the female brain shrinks by about 8% during pregnancy. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that it recovers about six to 12 months afterwards to create large maternal circuits."

Last year, when I looked up Dr. Brizendine's reference for this assertion ("The spread of bogus numbers in the meme pool", 10/16/2006), I found that the 8% number is not entirely made up, like the words-per-day numbers -- but it was based on one small study, whose results were substantially below the cited value:
There were two women in the study, number 6 and 8, who were measured both before pregnancy and at term. Over that period, their brains shrank 4.06% and 6.6% respectively, for an average of 5.3%. There were eight women in the normal group whose brains were measured at term and 24 week (i.e. six months) after delivery. Their brains increased in size during that time by 4.0%, 3.0%, 5.5%, 3.2%, 4.8%, 5.6% and 5.1% respectively, for an average of 4.3%, with a 95-percent confidence interval of 3.4% to 5.2%.

(And there's no scientific support for the view that circuits of any particular kind are being either destroyed or created. The study simply measured overall brain volume, without distinguishing among gray matter, white matter, blood vessels or whatever else, and without providing any evidence about the relationship of the changes in overall size to any changes in number of neurons, number or type or strength of synaptic connections, or any other functionally-relevant parameters. It seems unlikely that such rapid changes in overall size could be due to the death and birth of neuronal cell bodies, or to atrophy and re-creation of a large fraction of the dendritic arborization.)

But that exaggeration is a tiny one compared to those referenced in this paragraph from Ferdinand's review:...

Nature's review, by different authors but also posted on the Language Log web site, was similarly negative:
Yet, despite the author's extensive academic credentials, The Female Brain disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance. The book is riddled with scientific errors and is misleading about the processes of brain development, the neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general. At the `big picture' level, three errors stand out. First, human sex differences are elevated almost to the point of creating different species, yet virtually all differences in brain structure, and most differences in behaviour, are characterized by small average differences and a great deal of male­ female overlap at the individual level. Second, ...

Just doing my part to fight ignorance.
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