Cordelia Fine and Feminism in neuroscience

When I first started my PhD in neuroscience, a philosophically-inclined friend of mine started expounding on Feminist critiques of science. To most people, this would seem irrelevant to the science I was investigating: theory and modeling on a computer, before moving to hermaphroditic C. elegans. No females or males were being studied here! But the ideas are both insightful and important:

Emily Martin examines the metaphors used in science to support her claim that science reinforces socially constructed ideas about gender rather than objective views of nature. In her study about the fertilization process, for example, she asserts that classic metaphors of the strong dominant sperm racing to an idle egg are products of gendered stereotyping rather than portraying an objective truth about human fertilization. The notion that women are passive and men are active are socially constructed attributes of gender which, according to Martin, scientists have projected onto the events of fertilization and so obscuring the fact that eggs do play an active role.

Martin describes working with a team of sperm researchers at Johns Hopkins to illustrate how language in reproductive science adheres to social constructs of gender despite scientific evidence to the contrary: “even after having revealed…the egg to be a chemically active sperm catcher, even after discussing the egg’s role in tethering the sperm, the research team continued for another three years to describe the sperm’s role as actively penetrating the egg.”

Concepts are linked in our minds, consciously or not; the metaphors that we use matter (think of a Hopfield network). It would behoove all scientists to think deeply about Feminist critiques and their broader implications. The above example is canonical for a reason: the difference between two interacting agents (sperm, egg) with one decision-maker (sperm) is very different from that of two decision-makers (sperm and egg). But preconceived gender notions prevented us from noticing this simple fact!

Cordelia Fine is the most prominent scientist articulating these views in neuroscience today. This month, she has had two good interviews. If you take one big point away, it is that males and females may have different population means (though this interacts with social circumstances), but there is substantial population overlap. But humans like to see things in binary opposition so we either simply don’t recognize the amount of overlap that exists or blow up small differences.

One is with Uta Frith:

Cordelia: Happily, the perspectives are definitely not that polarized. One thing that’s worth stressing though is that criticisms of this area of research don’t stem from a belief that it’s intrinsically problematic to look at the effects of biological sex on the brain. But implicit assumptions about female/male differences in brain and behavior do influence research design and interpretation. They do this in ways that can give rise to misleading conclusions that additionally reinforce harmful gender stereotypes….

Cordelia: Yes, and long before the buzz about neuroplasticity, feminist neurobiologists were writing about this ‘entanglement’: the fact that the social phenomenon of gender (which systematically affects an individual’s psychological, physical, social and material experiences) is literally incorporated, shaping the brain and endocrine system. One of the recommendations of our article is for researchers to attempt to incorporate the principle of entanglement into their research models, including more and/or different categories of independent variables that include ways of capturing the role of the environment.

And with the Neurocritic at the PLoS Neuroscience community:

With regards to sample size, different implicit models of sex/gender and the brain will give rise to different intuitions or assumptions about what is an adequate sample size. According to implicit essentialist assumptions, there are there are distinctively different ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. But non-human animal research has shown that biological sex interacts in complex ways with many different factors (hormones, stress, maternal care, and so on) to influence brain development. Because of the complexity and idiosyncrasy of these sex influences, this doesn’t give rise to distinctive female and male brains, but instead, heterogeneous mosaics of ‘female’ and ‘male’ (statistically defined) characteristics…

As for publication bias for positive findings, this has long been argued to be particularly acute when it comes to sex differences. It’s ubiquitous for the sex of participants to be collected and available, and the sexes may be routinely compared with only positive findings reported. As Anelis Kaiser and her colleagues have pointed out, this emphasis on differences over similarities is also institutionalized in databases, that only allow searches for sex/gender differences.

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