What I’m Reading: Cordelia Fine – Delusions of Gender

I do not read much in the way of non-fiction books any more, and even back when I did, it was almost all either literary criticism, philosophy or history, pretty much in that order both of amount read and importance attached to it. I have only ever been interested in science when it was paired with fiction, so reading a non-fiction science book, even if it is popular science like this one, is quite unusual for me (it might even be the first time ever, but after several decades of reading I’m a bit hesitant to make such a claim). What drew me to Delusions of Gender in spite of all this was (apart from the mention on Steven Brust’s blog which directed my attention to it in the first place) the memory of countless frustrating debates about gender differences supposedly being innate, and this book promised a closer and very critical look at the studies making that claim.

To sum things up, the book was not quite what I expected, but definitely not in a disappointin way. A large part of Delusions of Gender is indeed dedicated to the critique of studies on gender (and the popular books referring them), and I openly admit that most of my enjoyment in reading that part stemmed from sheer Schadenfreude – Schadenfreude at seeing the “It’s Science!” cudgel bludgeoned over the heads of those who are so fond of wielding it themselves, and Schadenfreude at the hollow sound resulting from that encounter.

An even greater part of the book, however, concerns itself with a related, but markedly disinct problem – it not just asks whether perceived gender differences are innate or acquired, but also explores the sexism inherent in the concept of the female brain being different from the male one, which supposedly leads to women thinking differently than men. Cordelia Fine points out quite correctly that even if we accept the first as true, the second does not necessarily follow, and that even this presumed difference is as yet far from being a proven fact. She also shows how the arguments in favour of an innate gender difference seem to repeat established clichés with an uncanny regularity, and in fact echo very closely supposedly scientific proofs of the inferiority of females that scientists have been writing from the nineteenth century onwards – their methods and results are simply risible today (and Fine quotes them to great comic effect), but their ideological impetus is not really any different from contemporary books that tell us how men excel in mathematics and science while women are good only at the touch-feely stuff.

I am not a scientist myself, and don’t necessarily agree with everything Cordelia Fine states  – I am, for example, not at all sure whether the way she explains the implicit influence of sexist clichés on various test results (e.g., the apparently harmless question for the testee’s genders automatically leading to one gender testing worse than the other) always escapes an overly simple Pavlov-style concept of stimulus and response. Fine does try to avoid that pitfall by explaining it as certain stimuli playing into a given cultural context, which at least prevents the connection of being viewed as a natural one, but it seems to me that even with that explanation she still remains inside the behavourist model.

Anyhow – as I was saying, I’m not a scientist myself, but even I can see that basing your study on a tiny empirical foundation of just a handful of test subjects is not how science is supposed to work, that not applying Occam’s Razor just because you like the results of your study is intellectual laziness, that not being aware of your own prejudices and ways they might be falsifying your results is shoddy work, or that any other of the many (sometimes outrageous) flaws and omissions Delusions of Gender finds in the studies it examines has no chance to lead to results that could be considered valid. And yet – again, Cordelia Fine quotes a lot, and with obvious relish – just a mere shout-out at “Science!”, no matter how thin the argument or how flimsy the actual empirical data –  can give justification and weight to even the most hare-brained and reactionary sexist theories about so-called “hardwired” (and Cordelia Fine gets extra brownie points from me for dissecting the use of that highly annoying term) gender differences.

Delusions of Gender is not without problems of its own in that regard, though. The main issue I had with it is that after heaping example on example of how questionable the basic methodology of the majority of those supposedly scientific studies is and how none of  their results stands up to close scrutiny, Cordelia Fine then proceeds to merrily quote studies using the identical methodology to support her own argument, leaving the reader to wonder just how those studies are different from the ones she just criticized. In fact, one cannot help but wonder – considering the huge amount of empirical evidence pointing  in that direction which Delusions of Gender presents – whether the methodology is not inherently gender-biased, or, to put at its most bluntly, whether science is not intrinsically sexist. Fine unfortunately does not go there, but this does of course not invalidate her criticism, and I think even people skeptical about the whole innate gender differences thing will take some new and valuable insights from this book – it very convincingly shows how even in our enlightened and emancipated society, there still remain vestiges of sexism that may be all the more pernicious for being implicit and so well hidden that even convinced feminists can end up speaking in their favour. Even beyond the particular cases its presents, Delusions of Gender sharpens the reader’s sensibility for inherent gender bias in many aspects of contemporary society, and for that alone it is well worth reading.


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