Fighting the Neurotrash… Professor Gina Rippon on fake news of sex differences in neuroscience

Tuesday, February 27, 2018 - 16:50

Ahead of WOW - Women of the World, Professor of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University, Professor Gina Rippon returns to the subject of ‘Neurotrash’ and the recurring misogyny in neuroscience of sex differences.


 

At the 2014 WOW - Women of the World, I ran a workshop to train Neurotrash Warriors. The aim was to give out tips to help ‘brain activists’ spot some of the misrepresentative, misunderstood and downright misogynist claims being made in the name of the neuroscience of sex differences. Speaking as a practising brain imager, I aimed to dispel some of the more outrageous myths being peddled in the name of the so-called truths behind map-reading men and multi-tasking women.

WOW 2014 | Fighting The Neurotrash

So, four years on, how are we doing? Have we managed to stem the tide? Are there any other rumbles in the brain imaging jungle of which we should be aware? Well, a quick Web of Science search for such outpourings since 2014 revealed 2,000 articles and over 120 books and newspaper items on the topic, so there’s still plenty of material to work with. Here are some key difficulties which continue to confront us.

Chinese Whispers problem

One of this issues for public reporting of neuroscience findings is the ‘translation’ problem. How do you extract a public interest story from obscurely titled papers full of dense methodological jargon? How does the media get to know about tomorrow’s hot brain topic? The pipeline from science to science journalist isn’t always straight-forward; sometimes diverging via press officers and journal editors, and augmented by ‘experts’ the journalists have been able to corral for comment. Add in the online science ‘trawling’ systems, which scoop up hot topic headlines and put their own spin on them, and with so many hands to pass through, stories can become completely mangled, with the final version sometimes bearing very little relation to its origins.

To illustrate this, consider the study, catchingly titled, Esr1+ cells in the ventromedial hypothalamus control of female aggression, which was an investigation into the brain correlates of aggression in female mice. The study’s findings suggested these might be different from those in male mice, though males were not tested. A journalist duly contacted a top neuroscience researcher about the potential ‘human’ significance of the study. What followed was a careful and thoughtful reply, copied in to colleagues to check her cautious view was representative of opinion in the field. Two key points were made; that the study was only carried out on females (so talking about sex differences was stretching a point) and that the participants were mice, so the human significance might be limited. So far so good.

Screenshot image from India Times article, supplied by Professor Gina Rippon for use in her article on topic of neurotrash

Which means it was somewhat surprising to get a Google alert for an India Times article about a new and exciting sex difference paper; Science Explains Why Some People Are Into BDSM And Some Aren’t, helpfully illustrated by the eye-catching image [left]. Tracking back through the tortuous chain of provenance it duly emerged this was the very same mice and hypothalamus study that had been carefully commented on earlier. An extreme example maybe, but it shows how all too often the headlines which seep into the public domain scramble the science.  

The whack-a-mole-problem – the Google memo

There are issues in sex differences research which are so often revisited, refuted, resurrected, and rescinded they take on the characteristics of the fairground game whack-a-mole’; always popping up to be quashed again. One is the notion women don’t have what it takes to do science. When I spoke at WOW 2014, there were still reverberations from the notorious Larry Summers speech of 2005, when the then President of Harvard suggested the lack of top women in science was due to an innate lack of aptitude. Many earnest discussions, debates, and even a Summers apology later, you’d think we had moved on, but no, in 2017, up pops James Damore.

For those who don’t recall; Damore, then of Google, circulated a paper round the organisation, which, along with discussions about the rights and wrongs of diversity programmes and ideological echo chambers, also misquoted sex difference research. It was clear Damore had been seduced by neurotrash, and completely missed a key neuroscience finding; that brains are plastic and differences, if there are any, can be addressed. Instead we had another prominent forum in which unjustified claims about sex differences could be aired as fact; highlighting the continued need to arm our neurotrash warriors.

Neural Looney Tunes - The Film of the Book

For an example of the worst kind of neurotrash, it’s hard to look beyond LouAnn Brizendine’s book The Female Brain. A rich source of inaccurate and/or untraceable assertions about sex differences, it has even won a Becky Award for its bizarre science claims. So, I was pretty horrified to discover that they have made a film of this book. Not a new genre of comedy neuroscience, but a rom com of the ‘why relationships go wrong’ school.

Some colleagues and I were contacted for comment on some of the neuroscience claims made in the film. We earnestly engaged with as many as possible, but some proved particularly challenging. For example, ‘Gossip is critical for building social bonds, so women’s brains have a ‘hardwired’ dopamine-reward system for gossiping’. I can only presume this links back to Neanderthal versions of Hello magazine, helpfully supported by findings from Neanderthal endocrinologists.

Everything The Female Brain gets wrong about the female brain

There were more, though I’m afraid I gave up the fight with this claim: ‘So, I know I said women seek consensus, but, if the amygdala is activated, her adrenaline can give her enough confidence to override the instinct to be cooperative’. I googled this to try and work out what on earth it was referring to, and was taken to a site on the ‘Psychopharmacology of Pictorial Pornography’ and another one on ‘Horse Behaviour’. Which I feel says it all… though both titles would perhaps offer up a more interesting film.

So yes, the fight needs to go on. No-one is denying there are sex differences – and it is really important to stress this point – or that it would be useful to study these differences with all the techniques that the 21st century has to offer. But events such as Damore’s Google memo story reiterate just how and why we still need to be on the lookout for fake neuronews.


 

Professor Gina Rippon

Professor Gina Rippon joined us at Southbank Centre for this year’s WOW - Women of the World on Sunday 11 March, where she was part of the panel for Inferior - How Science Got Women Wrong

WOW - Women of the World 2018 took place at Southbank Centre from 7-11 March

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