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American Journalism Review
How the News Media Peddle Junk Science  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2011/January 2012

How the News Media Peddle Junk Science   

Mon., December 12, 2011

By Caryl Rivers & Rosalind C. Barnett
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers ( and Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center are the co-authors of “The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About our Children.”            

The idea that the brains of girls and boys are so different that they should be parented and educated in different ways and steered towards very different careers is one of the most successfully promoted media narratives of the decade.

A small group of advocates have pushed this notion so hard that it's become the conventional wisdom. They write best-selling books, speak to large groups of teachers, parents and school administrators, and are quoted – endlessly and usually uncritically―by the news media. They claim that due to vast differences between boys and girls, the single sex classroom will improve children's academic achievement.

But it's not true.

In September, the journal Science ran an article by eight prominent scientists titled "The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling." They argue that "There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex (SS) education improves students' academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism." The lead author on the piece was professor Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College, past president of the American Psychological Association.

The Science authors, prominent psychologists or neuroscientists, find the performance of the news media sorely lacking. "Novelty-based enthusiasm, sample bias, and anecdotes account for much of the glowing characterization of SS education in the media," they write.

"Factoids" promoted by advocates keep appearing in news stories around the world, even though good science has disproved or critiqued them. In the past few years, the news media have promoted a series of myths that, as it turns out, have little evidence behind them. As more misinformation is reported, the false narrative of great differences grows stronger. Here are a few of the myths that power this narrative:

•Myth: Research shows great differences in the brains of boys and girls; children should be taught in single sex classrooms. The campaign for segregating public schools by gender is led by Leonard Sax, founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, and by best-selling author Michael Gurian ("The Wonder of Boys") who heads the Gurian Institute. They keep aggressively promoting the "science" that supposedly calls for separating boys and girls. They are media darlings, endlessly quoted in news stories, with little or no skepticism. Sax has been on NBC's "Today," CNN's "American Morning" and numerous other national shows, and a LexisNexis search of major newspapers turned up nearly a thousand references. Michael Gurian's Web site says he has been featured in major media, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Educational Leadership, Time "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," CNN, PBS and NPR.

•Fact: Even though Gurian, Sax and others tout great gender differences as scientific truth, most scientists disagree. Lise Eliot, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, did an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence and concluded there is "surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children's brains." Eliot was one of the authors of the Science article and the author of "Pink Brain, Blue Brain." Cordelia Fine, a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and research fellow at the University of Melbourne, finds dressed up as science in the news media propagating a dangerous new conventional wisdom. She refers to much of the gender-difference theories in the popular media as "neurosexism."

•Myth: Boys are biologically programmed to focus on objects, predisposing them to math and understanding systems, while girls are programmed to focus on people and feelings. British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen claims that the male brain is the "systematizing brain" while the female brain is the "empathizing" brain. He has been quoted in the New York Times, in a Newsweek cover story, in a PBS documentary and in countless other major media outlets. Parents magazine decreed as fact, "Girls prefer dolls (to blocks and balls)...because girls pay more attention to people while boys are more enthralled with mechanical objects."

This idea was based on a study of day-old babies, which found that the boys looked at mobiles longer and the girls looked at faces longer. Male brains, Baron-Cohen says, are ideally suited for leadership and power. They are hardwired for mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles.

And what of the female brain? It is specialized for making friends, mothering, gossip, and "reading" a partner. Girls and women are so focused on others that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works.

•Fact: Baron-Cohen's study had major problems. It was an "outlier" study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless. Why?

The experiment lacked crucial controls against experimenter bias and was badly designed. Female and male infants were propped up in a parent's lap and shown, side by side, an active person or an inanimate object. Since newborns can't hold their heads up independently, their visual preferences could well have been determined by the way their parents held them.

Cordelia Fine says there's little evidence for the idea of a male brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world and a female brain hardwired to understand people. There is a much literature flat-out contradicting Baron-Cohen's study, providing evidence that male and female infants tend to respond equally to people and objects, notes Elizabeth Spelke, codirector of Harvard's Mind/Brain/Behavior Inter-faculty Initiative. But media stories continue to promote the idea of very different brains.

•Myth: Boys have inherently weaker verbal skills than girls. They should be given "informational texts" to read instead of the classics or any material containing emotion, which they aren't good at either. The media swallow this idea uncritically:

The New Republic: a "verbally drenched curriculum" is "leaving boys in the dust."

National Review: Without "action-packed narratives..boys will be bored, disaffected and disruptive."

The Hartford Courant:"Because boys don't want to read books from beginning to end, informational texts are ideal."

•Fact: Overall, there are virtually no differences in verbal abilities between girls and boys. In 2005, University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde synthesized data from 165 studies on verbal ability and gender. They revealed a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless.

Boys have a just-about-equal aptitude for reading and writing, but their actual performance can suffer if they are not encouraged to read or are given unchallenging material. The more the news media run stories about boys not being "hardwired" for reading, the more parents and teachers will believe it.

•Myth: Females are the talkative sex while males are naturally strong and silent. This idea plays into the whole theory that men and boys are not naturally good or comfortable with words, at which girls and women excel. In her bestseller "The Female Brain," author Louann Brizendene claimed that a woman uses 20,000 words per day, while a man uses only 7,000. Brizendine's book got incredible media play, including on ABC's "20/20" and "Good Morning America." a Q and A in the New York Times Magazine Ideas Issue, Newsweek, O, The Oprah Magazine, a front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle and pieces in the Los Angeles Times, Toronto Star, Baltimore Sun, St Louis Post-Dispatch, Columbus Dispatch, Oakland Tribune and more. Hardly any news stories mentioned the fact that the authoritative British journal Nature savaged the book, saying it "fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance," 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."

•Fact:James Pennebaker, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, coauthored a seven-year study of men's and women's speech. Of the male-female gap, he says, "It's been a common belief, but it just didn't fit." In fact, both men and women use approximately 16,000 words a day.

•Myth: Women use both sides of their brain more symmetrically than men. The larger corpus callosum in women explains female intuition and the ability to "multitask" and tune in to emotions. Brizendene made this claim, as did stories in Parents' Magazine, the Daily Telegraph, the Ottawa Citizen, Cleveland's Plain Dealer, Elle magazine, the New York Times and many, many more.

•Fact. A meta-analysis of 49 studies found no significant sex differences in the size or shape of the corpus callosum. Lise Eliot says, " For the record: the corpus callosum does not differ between boys and girls."

Another media myth that is rapidly taking shape is the idea that we are seeing "The End of Men' as males lose power and women take over. An Atlantic cover piece with that title (which generated an upcoming book) goes so far as to suggest that women will replace men in the "broad striving middle class" that defines society and provides leaders.

Is this true? Not really. The research group Catalyst reports that among graduates of elite MBA programs around the world, "women continue to lag men at every single career stage, right from their first professional jobs. Reports of progress in advancement, compensation, and career satisfaction are at best overstated, at worst just plain wrong." A Sloan Foundation-funded report puts it this way: "Women lead in College but not in the Workforce." "Women's earnings, relative to those of men, have not kept up with their gains in educational attainment. Part of this difference reflects the higher concentration of men in higher-paying fields, including the natural and physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering. At the college level, fewer women than men take courses in science-related fields."

The "End of Men" scare stories are predicated on the female edge in college classes, but if the past is any guide, women will continue to lead in college but not in the workforce.

* * *

Media stories are not just written on the wind. They can have enormous staying power. In 1980, stories about a male "math gene" were rampant in the news media. A study of highly gifted math students in a special program found that boys outperformed girls.

Since both sexes shared the same classrooms, it was suggested that girls' poorer scores must be due to their genetic makeup, not to cultural factors. But critics pointed out that boys and girls did not share the same experiences. Parents of talented boys bought their sons special toys and books to heighten their math skills and encouraged them to pursue the field. Parents of talented girls, on the other hand, did not take such actions. The "math gene" faded from scientific view. But a longitudinal study published by University of Michigan researchers five years later found that the math gene notion had legs. Mothers who knew about the articles lowered their expectations of their daughters' math capabilities.

Sadly, the news media are suckers for people who oversimplify science, creating opportunities for sexy headlines and nifty graphics. As Mark Liberman, a University of Pennsylvania linguist, notes: "You can do it too, if you want―just choose phenomena that emphasize differences, leaving out the ones where the sexes are more similar; pick studies that find stereotypic differences, leaving out the ones whose results disagree; and in all cases, talk and write as if (even relatively small) differences in group averages were essential characteristics of every member of each group."

Then peddle your wares to the news media. All too often, you'll find an uncritical audience that will help you spread scientific nonsense.



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