Scientists are from Mars, Journalists are from Venus

Opinion: Beware of any science story that tends to confirm you own prejudices

And you are? Angela Merkel may be OK at recognising faces but don’t ask her to park the BMW. Photograph: AP

And you are? Angela Merkel may be OK at recognising faces but don’t ask her to park the BMW. Photograph: AP

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 00:01

Well, thank goodness that’s sorted. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have proved that women are genetically predisposed to chatting and men are better at snooker and reading maps. If I’m reading the report correctly, it supports most of the arguments made by Prof Higgins in My Fair Lady. “Why is thinking something women never do?” the Edwardian misogynist warbles.

The Daily Mail jumped on the news that women are “better at remembering a face”, whereas men are better at “parking the car”. This must by why Angela Merkel is such a great success. You’ll never catch her failing to recognise prime minister of Malaysia Najib Tun Razak or King Letsie of Lesotho. It hardly matters that she’s constantly backing over tricycles when parking the BMW. Her husband can take care of that side of things.

Indeed, the study kicked up quite a rustle of wishful thinking. The knowledge that human behaviour results from an immeasurable mass of neurological interactions and that, when analysing such behaviour, circumstance matters as much as genetics isn’t much use when constructing the gender stereotypes on which we journalists rely. Facetious columns such as this thrive on generalisations.

The study did, of course, have some good news for my friends of the other gender. Dr Ragini Verma, front-person for the study, is not any sort of self-hating woman. She and her kind are, the paper argues, quite good at multitasking and intuitive thinking.

Something about this doesn’t feel right. Don’t you think? If the scientists had “proved” Italians were programmed to be libidinous and the Irish were genetically predisposed to drunkenness, there might have been a little more scepticism about the findings. One suspects the human psyche is not so easily corralled. Then again, what do I know about neuropsychology?

Happily, Christian Jarrett actually is a cognitive scientist and has written an article in Wired magazine that does some of the unravelling for us. To be fair, he admires how Dr Verma and the team have mapped connectivity between various sections of the brain. Their key finding, he explains, is that men have “more connectivity within each brain hemisphere, whereas women’s brains had more connectivity across the two hemispheres”.

Pretty diagrams
Jarrett is, however, unsure the differences in wiring are quite so dramatic as the pretty diagrams seem to suggest. Putting it in scientific terms, the distinctions are significant, but may not be substantive.

More seriously, the scientists did not actually make any observations of their subjects’ behaviour. Rather, they dredged up old research – some of it now questioned – about which parts of the brain are concerned with which processes and used that to make sense of their maps and coloured vectors. For instance, the notion that men are programmed to be better at sport relies on the assumption that the cerebellum – one area where males exhibit greater cross-hemisphere connectivity – is linked purely with motor function. Dr Jarrett says this is no longer believed to be true.

None of which definitively closes the argument for the layperson. I know a great deal less about the subject than Dr Jarrett does. It is, however, hard to satisfactorily express how much less I know about these matters than the distinguished researchers for the University of Pennsylvania.

I have done what a thousand journalists do every day and drawn the inferences I wish to draw from a science story: in this case, that men and women are not so easily pigeonholed. This incident has little to tell the ordinary person about differences between male and female brains.

Qualified neuroscientists can read the study in depth, ponder its methodologies and come to some sort of rational conclusion. The rest of us focus on a few brief extracts and then jump to whatever half-baked conclusion takes our fancy. Red wine causes cancer. Red wine helps prevent cancer. Aliens will eat Gibraltar. Beware any science story beginning with the words: “A recent report has shown . . .”

Mind you (oh damn), a recent French report has shown that such unreliable reporting more often results from over-simplistic summaries in scientific journals than from wild surmises by the lay journalist. Let’s redraft that maxim. Beware any science story that confirms your own prejudices.

Sign In

Forgot Password?

Sign Up

The name that will appear beside your comments.

Have an account? Sign In

Forgot Password?

Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In or Sign Up

Thank you

You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.

Hello, .

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

Thank you for registering. Please check your email to verify your account.

We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.