At a time when both science and feminism are under attack, there are welcome signs that neuroscience is showing new openness to critiques of research into sex differences. Mainstream journals increasingly publish studies that reveal how misleading assumptions about the sexes bias the framing of hypotheses, research design and interpretation of findings – and these critiques increasingly come with constructive recommendations, discussions and debates.
For example, we, together with other colleagues, made recommendations in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience on best practice in sex/gender neuroscience. Some of the errors and traps we identified included human neuroimaging studies with small sample sizes, and the common “snapshot” approach, which interprets neural associations with sex as a matter of timeless and universal male and female essences, without taking seriously the fact that biological associations might as easily be the effect of social differences as the cause of them.
For example, a study reporting female-male differences in spatial processing should take into account that women and men have different life experiences, on average, that can build such skills – such as practice with aiming at targets that comes from certain kinds of sports and video games. We also expressed concern about studies that draw on and reinforce stereotypes, even as they slip and slide regarding specific predictions about sex differences in the brain, and what findings might mean for how women and men think, feel, and behave.
For those who care about the quality of scientific research, this interaction is all to the good. It’s about generating better hypotheses, producing more reliable data, and considering a wider range of variables when interpreting findings. More generally, it’s how science is supposed to work: through robust debate within the scientific community, existing assumptions, models and methods are replaced with better ones. That’s why it’s important that these kinds of contributions to science are listened to in the scientific community.
But misplaced fears of the effects of feminism on science potentially threaten this. Late last year, in response to a new editorial policy by the Journal of Neuroscience Research mandating consideration of sex as a biological variable, a number of news articles reported that scientists had been ignoring medically critical sex differences in the brain, for fear of being labelled sexist.
Both before and since these pieces, we and our colleagues have been named as “anti-sex difference”, and thus some of the prime culprits in creating this situation. This is like accusing the people who invented airbags as being “anti-seatbelts”. We are all aiming for better science.
These charges would only make sense in a world without shades of grey, in which neurobiological investigation of sex – from basic cellular neuroscience to social neuroscience – is either good or bad. In this worldview, if you’re “for” investigations of sex influences, you will never criticise any of it, ever: otherwise, you’re “against” it.
Obviously, this isn’t how science works, which is what makes it science rather than dogma. The simplistic view is evident in a recent piece in Commentary Magazine, in which Claire Lehmann presents quotations from Cordelia Fine’s work criticising popular misrepresentations of sex differences in the brain – such as the claim that working mothers have “overloaded brain circuits” – as evidence that Fine is “anti-sex differences”. Lehmann maintains that we have a “wish to deny the self-evident truth that the biological differences between men and women … would have second-order effects on health, the metabolisation of medicines, and the way diseases work inside the body”. This entirely misses the point.
When previously charged with being “anti-sex differences” by UC Irvine neurobiologist Larry Cahill in 2014, we and our colleagues responded that: “[W]e all believe, like Cahill, that sex matters; that is, that genetic and gonadal sex can influence brain development and function at every level, that useful information may arise from investigating such processes, and that this may be especially critical in understanding pathological development. Indeed, numerous explicit statements to this effect can be found in our work.”
More recently, we described the new Journal of Neuroscience Research editorial policy mandating consideration of sex as “a welcome step forward”, then offered recommendations for avoiding common pitfalls. While Lehmann dismisses our work as “obscurantism”, the journal editor apparently disagreed, incorporating some of our suggestions into editorial policy.