Creative Destruction

October 3, 2006

Louann Brizendine’s “The Female Brain” Is Incredibly Bad

Filed under: Feminist Issues,Science — Ampersand @ 7:13 pm

On the Family Scholars Blog, Brad Wilcox writes:

Linda Hirshman, call your office. A slew of books have been coming out from (mainly female) scholars discussing the way in which sex differences are linked to differences in social behavior and perceptions among men and women, with a big focus on the implications of sex differences for family life. Scholars who deny this biological reality are increasingly coming to look like fundamentalists who deny evolution.

As his sole example, Brad quotes a very favorable Washington Post review of Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain. But – as Linda points outThe Female Brain is incredibly crappy science. Linda refers to this post from the right-wing blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, but relies mostly on an remarkable series of posts on Language Log. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a list).

Mark Liberman, a blogger at Language Log (and a professor at Upenn) has been looking up all the citations Brizendine uses to support claims “that deal with speech, language and communication.” What he’s finding, more often than not, is that her supporting citations simply don’t support her claims. For example, Brizendine claims:

A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week [of pregnancy] will turn this unisex brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers.

Brizendine provides only one citation to support this claim: A 2005 article in Science entitled “Patterning and plasticity of the cerebral cortex,” which Liberman reads and finds to be “a fascinating review of recent research on cortical development.” However:

But there’s absolutely nothing in this article about sexual differentiation. Specifically, there’s no mention whatsoever of the concept that “[a] huge testosterone surge … will turn this unisex brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers”. The terms “sex”, “male”, “female”, “testosterone”, “Y chromosome” don’t occur in this paper; and Brizendine offers no other support for this claim.

Liberman isn’t cherry-picking; he’s simply checking every one of Brizendine’s citations related to Liberman’s field. And problems like the above — Brizendine’s citations frequently don’t support her claims, and sometimes actually contradict her claims — crop up again and again. I really recommend reading the whole series.

In an email to Linda Hirshman, which Hirshman (I hope with permission) quotes on her blog, Brad Wilcox admits that Brizendine isn’t a reliable source:

I have to admit you win this battle. The more I hear about Brizendine the less I like. Too sloppy with the facts.

But as Hirshman correctly points out, Brad’s retraction belongs on his blog, where his readers will see it, not just in an email.

(More by Hirshman on Brizendine – including Brizendine’s extremely thin academic accomplishments – here).

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