Gini Nelson\’s Engaging Conflicts

September 25, 2006

Science Literacy and The Female Brain

Filed under: Theory To Practice — Gini @ 4:33 pm

Many of us are fascinated by male – female differences, or, rather, by investigations into what the differences are, if any, and, further, what the differences mean, if anything. Here, too, science literacy reigns. Or, rather, should.

A new book that has generated much buzz is also generating criticism about one of the points used to promote its premise. This from ScienceBlogs, specifically from The Frontal Cortex blog:

Factchecking the Female Brain

Category: Neuroscience
Posted on: September 25, 2006 10:36 AM, by Jonah Lehrer

It’s a shame that exaggerating the extent of brain differences between men and women can be such a boon for book sales. (Call it the Mars and Venus phenomenon.) This publishing truism has been most recently demonstrated by Louann Brizendine, a researcher at UCSF who wroteThe Female Brain. But now the backlash has begun. The Boston Globe ran a nice column dismantling Brizendine’s oft cited claim that women use 20,000 words per day while men only use 7,000.

The author of the Boston Globe column is Mark Liberman, Trustee Professor of Phonetics at the University of Pennsylvania. After reviewing what appears to be Ms. Brizendine’s source for the claim, and the existing research literature, he concludes:

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.

I haven’t read the book yet, and I haven’t reviewed the studies, but I think the Boston Globe article is interesting, and exemplifies some of generalizable themes I hope to explore through this blog’s Science and Science Literacy categories: emphasis on some divides, such as a male-female divide can be, well, divisive and a source of conflict; if we are considering classifications that can be divisive, like gender, race or religion, we may want to be particularly careful about the sources for our information and be confident they are credible; and when we do use them, we will want to be careful to use them in ways that acknowledge their limits, too. Inappropriately or improperly emphasizing a male – female difference may divert us from remembering male-female similarities, and, further, may divert us from recognizing that individual differences within a gender, and particular social settings, may explain more.


  1. I really hope sales don’t mean people believe such obviously contrived stuff.
    But the acceptance of all that anatomically false left-brain right-brain nonsense by so many reminds us that the public is so gosh darn stoopid that a simple explanation
    with two parts is as complex a theory as their minds can hold. For cultures like this one where they can’t count past two to three, keep it simple.

    Comment by Skeptical Public — November 28, 2006 @ 10:12 pm | Reply

  2. *Sorry about commenting after two years, hopefully you’ll still check back on comments, and I’m wondering if you have read it since?*

    Working in a library, I simply saw this book come in on the delivery and found the front cover and blurb interesting. I was excited to read it and read it one day. I was very disappointed. I thought the author was biased, and her conclusions to be sweeping generalisations. I had a lot of *fun* reading the book, but I decided to not believe any of it. I wrote a review for it on my blog and seeked out any other opinion on it. Turns out that it has many discreditors, and I’m not surprised.

    It’s biggest problem apart from the lack of confirmed credible research is that it focuses only on the stereotypical, twenty-first century, western females. Personality and environment does not come into it. I’m very far from a stereotypical female, so I found that the book alienated me in many areas. As an introvert, you can imagine how I shook my head at the chapter that states that all females require tight female friendships, and the pleasure they get from them is second only to the orgasm (I find female company exhausting on the most part!) Fortunately I haven’t taken the work seriously, otherwise I’d be thinking that there was something terribly wrong with me!

    Comment by Nicola — February 3, 2009 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

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