Why the “Male Brain vs Female Brain” question is Nonsense —which leads to nonsense of a more mundane sort by the Press
For those who are curious about how bad logic leads to bad science…which leads to even worse news coverage: the current media inflation and then apparent deflation of the “Male Brain” vs the ‘Female Brain”
“Our results”, says a recent widely publicized study “ demonstrate that regardless of the cause of observed sex/gender differences in brain and behavior (nature or nurture), human brains cannot be categorized into two distinct classes: male brain/female brain.”
But,.there is all the difference in the world between saying a male has a brain that is generally different from a female’s brain and saying that the male has a “male brain”and the female has “female brain”
So from the start.. the question which is posed by the superficial sex dimorphism research which we here discuss is a silly question that can only lead to an even sillier answer. We don’t comment on the ‘mosaic” they find, because that is found everywhere in all such investigations.. And that too is saying nothing and making it seem like something. So, sure enough, they mean what they say. But what they say means very little
The authors actually say the following (two pieces of obviousness )
Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic
They say: (1)
“Here we show that, although there are sex/gender differences in brain and behavior, humans and human brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males.”
Of course, why wouldn’t they? That is a truth known by anyone who has lived more than a day on our planet and in our society. But then they go on to follow a phantom connection to their “pot of fool’s gold” at the end of some rainbow
They then say:
(2) “Our results demonstrate that regardless of the cause of observed sex/gender differences in brain and behavior (nature or nurture), human brains cannot be categorized into two distinct classes: male brain/female brain.””
The first statement is the stating of the ultimate obviousness and the second statement “nonsense ” in the logical sense — and a non sequitur —in its implications that are drawn– from the first
And that of course is just enough of a careless spark for the madness of a sex obsessed and “correctness obsessed” press to start a veritable forest fire of further foolishness in the media and among the medical paparazzi
The problem with the research may be that it allows itself to be promoted through their institution PR department and an almost illiterate media is that it is grounded in a glaring inability to “think logically” and makes errors in its statements that would lead to failing an introductory college “logic” course. But the buck must stop somewhere and that has to be with the researchers who allow this mad tea party to go on.
Recently, we were pleased to actually come across a less barbaric appraisal of the situation by David Schmitt in Psychology Today. They say, with the same kind of astonishment we feel here when we came across this bit of intellectual barbarism by Joel et al:
“In contrast to the growing evidence of psychological sex differences, in a recent study Joel et al. (2015) examined sex differences in personality traits, attitudes, interests, and behaviors” (as well as, brain features) and concluded, rather forcefully, that men and women are hardly different at all, arguing in the that “there is no one person that has all the male characteristics and another person that has all the female characteristics” and consequently that we should give up entirely on using sex as a variable in sexual science.
The Joel et al. (2015) study was certainly impressive, involving a remarkable collection of datasets across a wide variety of variables. Unfortunately, the specific techniques Joel et al. (2015) used for determining whether a sex difference is “real” were highly problematic.
For instance, Joel et al. defined a sex difference as occurring only when it had “a high degree of internal consistency in the form of the different elements of a single brain (e.g., all elements have the “male” form).” (Joel et al., 2015, p. 1). That is, for a sex difference in the brain to “really” exist, men must have relatively masculine brains in each and every respect, and women must have relatively feminine brains in each and every respect. Otherwise, no sex difference. Really?”
Of course, then what do we get from this kind of ‘nonsense” then but an avalanche in the media, as the research claims unsurprisingly the just roll down the path of least resistance; Einstein once famously said,
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
Of course he did not know about today’s digital medical media press. Here are a just of the few headlines from the trickle down effect when it reaches (via Press release) all the way down to the minds of the Medical Paparazzi:.
The brains of men and women aren’t really that different, study finds
Men are from Mars….and so are women! Scans reveal there is NO overall difference between the brains of the sexes
Male vs. female brain? Not a valid distinction, Israeli study shows
Male and female brains are the same, but people are all different – and that gives me hope
There’s No Such Thing as ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ Brain
Men are from Mars, women are from Venus? New brain study says not
Male and female brain? Research says they’re unisex
Study reveals there’s no such thing as ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains
There’s No Such Thing as a Male or Female Brain ,When it comes to sex traits, brains are consistently inconsistent
Wittgenstein said way back around 1920 that “Nonsense” is a combination of words when it cannot possibly be understood, because no sense is or can (except trivially) be accorded it.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say- that’s the same thing, you know.” “Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter.
“Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” [Alice in Wonderland, pp. 68-69]
No matter what data or what analysis such science researchers delving into the proposed two ideal categories of human brains might come up with, the study, from the outset, only rides a wave of the kind of nonsense in our society today that derives from a lack of training and education in logic, mathematics or history of science
Lewis Carroll simply stated :that Logic, “will give you clearness of thought – the ability to see your way through a puzzle – the habit of arranging your ideas in an orderly and get-at-able form – and, more valuable than all, the power to detect fallacies, and to tear to pieces the flimsy illogical arguments which you will so continually encounter in books, in newspapers, in speeches, and even in sermons, and which so easily delude those who have never taken the trouble to master this fascinating Art”.
“Logically,” as the Psychology Today reaction immediately notes,
“the Joel et al. (2015) view on real sex differences would even argue men’s and women’s faces are not really different from each other because not all men’s faces are entirely masculine and not all women’s faces are entirely feminine (and not all facial attributes perfectly co-vary together).
But this interesting point should not be mistakenly viewed as suggesting men’s and women’s faces are, on average, identical. They are not.”
What is the reaction of the poor man or woman in the street, who knows much better than the Joel group would apparently want them to know, when they see this mass of media raving come raining down on them from the sacred temples of the Press. Surely that is yet one more reason that the press is dying.
They might as well be out there shouting the “The Earth is not Flat”…but offering nothing more than that by way of saying anything useful about how to navigate it. A few centuries too late to be interesting and with an abrupt end and no place to go after than a world of grays and some vague talk about a “mosaic”
What is true for loaves of bread is not so for “ideas”, A half of an idea is not better than a whole one.
This very same basic and misleading mistake ingredient in our unwitting entrapment by our own language was covered in depth by mathematicians and logicians, including Bertrand Russell about a hundred years ago and led to Russell’s famous “theory of types”.
About 100 years ago, Bertrand Russell started a concerted effort by mathematicians and logicians all over the world to remediate this “flaw’ in our way of speaking, Although Russell was not successful in salvaging our civilizations previous blind faith in the ultimate coherence and completeness of the logic on which all our speaking and thinking was founded, it led to massively important re appraisals. including Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems and a further refinement by Church.
Here is what Russell, who has been compared by those who knew men as somewhat of a “Mad Hatter” himself, said during the first decades of the twentieth century (It should sound awfully reminiscent of this inadvertent “nonsense” by the researchers in this study:
“Suppose that we suggest the definition
A typical Englishman is one who possesses all the properties possessed by a majority of Englishmen.
It is clear that most Englishmen do not possess all the properties that most Englishmen possess.
Therefore, a typical Englishman, according to this definition, should be untypical.
The problem, according to Russell, is that the word “typical” has been defined by a reference to all properties and has been treated as itself a property.
What Russell and others who considered this roughly stated was as follows: We can say Napoleon was a great general insofar as he had the properties which go into making a great general. But we cannot say that one of the “properties” he possessed was ‘THE property of having ALL the properties’.
Here is where the interested reader can see the history and impact on all twentieth century thought and science that Russell discovery of the paradoxical nonsense in our ordinary ways of speaking led to his efforts at a Theory of Types which led ultimately to Godel and more.
The inadequacy of our ordinary ways of speaking goes all the way back to the original Academy and Plato, and the very first instances of the use and dependence on what would be called “naive set theory” . For Plato, so naive in his set-building, each set comprised of the obvious aspects of everything was the outcome of our seeing the manifestation of the Ideal form. For everything we experienced or encountered in this everyday life, there was thus a perfect form of “chair” or “cat” or everything that the mind could articulate in language.
That notion stuck with us …and even does now in thinking such as this research…and has haunted the advance of science over the years.
Indeed one of the remarkable aspects of the Darwinian handling of the problem of “species” was the brilliance in circumventing this classic Greek mode of categorizing. It is not at all coincidence that our word “species” in “(είδος”) and the word for idea) both come from the same root “to see” as in the ideal from which insight can only glimpse.
After all, how could we envision the historical or evolutionary relation of one species to another when they were all understood only in terms of an eternal form the abstraction of their surface taxonomy down into some presumed “essence”?
For Darwin, the strategy was to bypass completely the entrapment by that logic and to, instead, deal with the underlying “varieties” as causative of the emergence of what we then classified as different “species”……and not to succumb to thinking from the top down in terms of the nonsense of the “ideal form”. Indeed, the gambit of the Origins is to speak of all those varieties and how they relate to each other, competitively and selectively, and to never try to explain the origin of species themselves.
As Darwin discusses the distinction between species and varieties, he highlights uncertainties in science’s systems of classification which derived historically from the same superficial system of classifications. It is all the more impressive that he was able to look down beneath the superficial taxonomies and realize that on a deeper, more fundamental level of structure, there were functional differences that accounted for what was observable on the surface.
But the question for a true scientific pursuit of an answer to a genuine question, rather than the formulation of a nonsense question, is how indeed we work with that “mosaic” to come to understand what we see on the surface without the benefit of all the marvelous instruments and technology that allow us to see down deeper and much, much more?
For evolutionary, theorists, the statement that no perfect exemplars of Species A as distinct from Species B exist is a truly trivial statement. That only led Darwin to conjecture, even before we thought about the genome, much less had any opportunity to explore it, that on the deeper mosaic level, there was no only confusion (which was truly located in the minds of the scientists) but that, rather, there were interplays and functional variations that allowed the observable “structures” that then struck our “eye” as being classifiable in different classes.
The ‘mosaic”, for Darwin, did not serve as a dodge to providing an answer to a conveniently posed “nonsense” question. Instead it is the means of finding a bonafide answer to a more useful question more genuinely posed.
And indeed all sorts of evolutionary “sense’ emerged by working from a hidden level within, that ‘mosaic’ , of the genome, even before we know what genes were, and being to really upon events beyond the obvious realm of observation to keep our science intact, instead of being sidetracked by our ordinary language’s entrapment in naive set theory.
Not until eighty-three years after the publication of Origin of the Species, was a clear criterion established to differentiate species from varieties. It was in that German biologist Ernst Mayr proved the modern definition of species as a group, not at all on the basis of any naive set of features which made for greater or lesser resemblances, but that was based on functional differences that could allow reproduction among its members but not with individuals of other species.
The strategy which Darwin employed in getting beyond the impasse of ideal Forms that arise from superficial everyday language description of what we see is one which applies to all sorts of “descriptions” in ordinary language upon which we tend to classify, but which, in the end, do not allow us any understanding of how events and observations are related to each other.
That is why Russell’s dealing with this problem in our very way of speaking and its reliance on naive set theory changed the course of intellectual and scientific history, and made the greatest minds of our times puzzle over the very foundations of our logic and mathematics, even while it entertained with its paradoxes that stemmed from this failure of ordinary language.
So our comments on the “issue” of perfectly MALE vs perfectly FEMALE BRAIN are aimed at very much the same goal. And the goal for us all is “Not to drown” in the inept ways of speaking of the scientists which are than amplified a hundred fold by the medical paparazzi.
In terms of the discussion of sex dimorphism to which we refer above, the situation is much the same. We can surely all agree in looking at a great number of people in our society (although not all in our current modern social matrix) and in our saying that they are either male or female, since they have a configuration of the properties of which we speak as going into the making of a female or a male., and the making of the way that they function in our world The person thus can be said to have a brain with aspects which makes him act more in our eyes as a male, or makes her act more in our eyes like a female.
There is all the difference in the world between saying a male had has brain that is generally different from a female’s brain and saying that the male has a “male brain”and the female has “female brain”
We are not, however, inclined if we want to make sense, even in ordinary language, to speak as if we were living 2000 years ago in Plato’s time and in his Academy, of an ideal Platonic form of female brain versus an ideal Platonic form of male brain, against which each of these was patterned and whose appearance on this earth was destined by some higher power.
It is not valid in the least bit to say that he or she had the ‘quality of having ALL the qualities that going into making the brain of a male or into making the brain of a female”. The latter quality“of having ALL the properties” is not a quality that can be ‘had” or, as Russell, pointed out, can be sensibly talked about. It is an instance of a class mistakenly being designated as a member of itself.
We can see today in much of our science how ordinary language is running roughshod over the brains of the neuroscientists studying the brain. They have a surface level which they attempt to describe in ordinary language terms…not just male and female, but ‘memory” and “decision” and “experience” , “identity” and so on.
This reliance on ordinary language notions is precisely what prohibits neuroscience from advancing at the rate it ought to, given the astounding explosion of knowledge and technology in the past few decades.
All we seem to have is more “facts”..each of them a flicker of interest, somewhat provocative, but leading only to more accumulation of yet other facts and not to any framework for understanding the brain.
Staying in a Platonic mood, let’s imagine a dialog between two scholars in the old Academy:
Scholar 1: This seems to be a “chair” and that seems to be a “table”. Each fully embodies the form of the eternal ‘Idea”, the first that of “chair” and the other, that of “table”
Scholar 2: But surely they are not so different. Aren’t both made of wood, Don’t both have four legs. Indeed can’t I sit on the table and can’t I just as easily lay out my food on a chair and eat that way? There is no such thing as a difference between chairs and tables. There is only a mosaic of shades of grey between one and the other.
Scholar 1: But something must be amiss here. We all know that there is some evident difference in the way a chair function and the way a table functions I would not want to invite you to a dinner party
Once we accept a world of false dichotomies:, ‘blacks and whites”, and then witness the defeat of our efforts to truly understand and are forced to retreat to the “smart” response, we are then left with nothing but all sorts of shades of grey. On no, they say, ” it’s all a checkerboard of ‘grays” Yes, something like a “mosaic”.. indeed ! !
So, returning to the study on “sex differences” with which we started, what can anyone do but shrug and say “so what”. What did you really expect?
Two ideal Platonic forms of Brain? Each distinct from the other as two different ideas are distinct in the eyes of the Platonic Demiurge God? Each having the property of having ALL the properties of one sex or the other?
“Whereas a categorical difference in the genitals has always been acknowledged, the question of how far these categories extend into human biology is still not resolved
Moreover, analyses of internal consistency reveal that brains with features that are consistently at one end of the “maleness-femaleness” continuum are rare.
Rather, most brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males.
Our study demonstrates that, although there are sex/gender differences in the brain, human brains do not belong to one of two distinct categories: male brain/female brain.”
Hmmm…indeed they say no more in tackling this “strawman” (or strawwoman) than “The typical male is untypical and the typical female is untypical” And then the media have a field day.
As the Psychology Today article, to which we alluded at the outset of our journey into this paradox, states in its conclusions, “
“Every human being’s degree of masculinity and femininity is, indeed, a mosaic. No one is completely masculine or completely feminine in every possible way, and this is true of our brains, our bodies, and our behaviors.
As Kinsey noted long ago, humans are not discrete creatures, “The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats.”
These insights are a far cry, though, from the conclusion that psychological or neurological sex differences are “extremely rare” (Joel et al., 2015, p. 5) and that we should entirely abandon sex as a variable of interest in our sexual science research programs. That conclusion is, well…the word abracadabra comes to mind.”
They then go on to point precisely to the point we have made above: that it is exploring the “mosaic”which is the answer to our quest for knowledge and not simply pointing to it as an excuse for continued ignorance.
Presenting questions in the manner of the extreme ideal forms which we have seen in the Joel groups “presentation” of the issue of sex differences as merely a spectrum defined not by its panoply and multitude of colors, but instead by only its Platonic end points, is much like averting our eyes from the rainbow of colors we have with which to define and explore our world and narrowing our gaze to the one dimensional spectrum between black and white
“If one can think in terms of multiple regression and multidimensional space,” they say, “ this approach is a fairer evaluation of whether men and women differ in a particular domain (such as the domain of “personality” or “mate preference” psychology).
Indeed, the task for neuroscience today, in all its efforts, is not to be distracted by such empty discussions which only seek to ride on the froth of social waves, but to look deeper within the brain at the differences in structure on that profoundly complex and beautiful level and, thus, at the mosaic of variety within the cells and the molecules of our brains that are the genuine, multi colored mosaic which can explain what appears to our eyes on our everyday social level of experience and discourse.
It is nowhere more sadly true that where the advent of wonderful technologies and refinements of sciences have shown neuroscientists a “mosaic” within our brains on a cellular and molecular level beyond anything we might have dreamt of, and which points us to the moon and beyond, these researchers just haplessly point to the mosaic, the finger rather than the moon.
The questions to which it must address itself cannot be phrased in the terms of our ancient everyday language and its terminologies and grammar, but instead those questions have to arise out of the deeper level of cellular and molecular events that we can now see going on within our brains…male or female or both.
Esteemed researcher. Margaret McCarthy, disagrees that it might not be useful to consider sex as a variable when studying the brain. She looks at rodent models to evaluate, for example, why males are five times as likely to develop autism, or why females are twice as likely to suffer from depression. “By studying male versus female brains, we have a great tool for exploring the biological basis of those differences,”
The manner in which all paradox originates is precisely by the artful asking of the questions in a manner which lead attempts to answer to fall into failure and to result in mere puzzlement and amusement at the paradox.
The “male brain” vs “female brain” question, especially as it is asked in the study we discuss here by Joel at al, is just one such question artlessly phrased that leads to such nonsense. Or as Schmittt in Psychology Today puts it, :
“Too far, statistically contrived, and scientifically dangerous. The views of Joel et al. (2015) represent the polar opposite of where sexual science is going ), as evidenced by the National Institutes of Health’s recent declaration that biological sex differences are so large and consequential that both males and females must be included in studies involving cells and non-human animals and in preclinical research .. “
Let us hope sexual scientists keep their eyes on where science is really going, rather than the abracadabra analyses that misleadingly convey there are no important sex differences.”
Or, then again, as Wittgenstein, who was, by the way, a huge fan of Carroll’s, “Alice in Wonderland”, said, in his Philosophical Investigations:
My aim here has been ” to show you how to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.”
Just why and how people in Academia today can stumble into such nonsense is not at all clear. Perhaps we have been more than generous in speculating that the publication of such papers is due to lack of education in logic and science and, instead, there are other more sinister political forces at play.