There are a number of issues involving pseudoscience that I would like to bring to light, but first I must explicate my own understanding of pseudoscience and its ubiquity. It is common for people to call upon the name of science when presenting their own viewpoints and agendas, and it is even more common for everyday people to think that their own silent beliefs and opinions are rooted in scientific evidence. If the world were perfect, no problems might arise, but in our reality Murphy’s law applies: any and all untruth is libel to creep its way into popular understanding of science and be multiplied. Because of this, it is crucial that we be skeptical and open to contrary/unwanted insight.
I use the term pseudoscience more broadly here than most people may be familiar with. Not only does it refer to questionable sciences such as phrenology or astrology, but also to any representation of science that is not actually science in its true and legitimate form. The scientific method is the core and heart of “true” science, and any purported “scientific” claim that is not founded upon proper execution of the scientific method is pseudoscience by my definition. It is worthy to note, contrary to what popular scientific opinion may be, that there are certain practices out there in the world that are not, in fact, pseudoscience, but that simply don’t have enough of a following to enter the rigorous realm of “science.” For example, some metaphysical studies have properly adhered to the scientific method, but lack sufficient evidence and experiment to advance any farther than speculation. One of the requirements of science is the ability to experiment, and this is absolutely crucial. If you cannot perform an experiment, you cannot test a hypothesis; and if you cannot test it, you cannot prove it.
Usually the problem with the general public’s understanding of science stems not from the source but from mistranslation. After all, what the average person knows about science was not taught to that person by a scientist. It was handed down and passed along through a series of mediums. In one instance (a particularly common one) a mote of scientific knowledge is taken from the scientific journal in which the original article was published and is reinterpreted by a researcher/journalist who reports on the findings in a more popular journal, like “Scientific American” or some such. The findings are again read by writers and teachers and eventually put into textbooks, which students read and summarize to their friends. It passes along the grapevine, people refer to it in non-academic articles of their own, and eventually when the original scientist who discovered it (if she is still alive at this point) happens upon a reference to her finding, she is flabbergasted at how utterly misconstrued and deviant it is to her original report.
Let me call upon some examples to better illuminate the four main problems that occur with pseudoscience. Discussions of the brain and its functioning offer some of the best examples of the mutilation and twisted use of facts. There are a vast number of brain-related subjects to critique, but how the brain relates to gender differences is particularly fun for me.
- The neurochemical make-up of men dictates whether or not they will be faithful.
- The female brain is nature’s default setting.
- Women are not prone to fidelity any more than men are.
- Mommies fall “in love” with their babies.
- No cold feet.
- The switch from the giddy intensity of romance to the calmer, less passionate long-term relationship state is nature’s way of decreasing a couple’s focus on each other so that they can care for a new child.
- The female brain is much more adept at reading subtle facial and verbal emotional expressions.
- Love hurts—literally.
- Menopause has the result of the “mommy brain” getting unwired.
- Women are only half as likely to be gay as men.
Anyone who is more up-to-date on current neuroscience than a caveman ought to clearly see that there’s a hefty amount of pseudoscience going on here as a result of mistranslation and bias, not to mention the strong possibility of causal fallacy, as I like to call it. Casual fallacy is simply the unwarranted interpolation of causation upon an observed correlative relationship. Points 3 and 8, though based upon shaky science, are sufficiently innocent and gender neutral that there is no need to tear them apart. All of the other points, however, are misguided to the level of actually being insulting to both science and intellectual integrity. As I refute Brizendine’s claims one by one, I will avoid as much as possible listing her specific factual errors and chunks of missing evidence so as not to weigh the reader down in the tedium of academic critique (for a detailed breakdown, check out Mark Liberman’s Language Log). Instead, I will try to appeal to what the reader already possesses—common sense—and point out errors in logic, which anyone can see.
1) I was aware of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, but I didn’t know they had discovered a “fidelity” neurochemical. I never knew it was so simple. Maybe they’ll soon discover a “basketball” neurotransmitter and a “trigonometry” amino acid. Maybe it was his bad neurochemical makeup that caused him to seek other women, rather than the fact that his girlfriend treated him like crap. And I guess women are somehow born with a more faithful neurochemical balance? And scientists would know this how? How would they experiment for this? I think the laughable nature of this one is pretty obvious.
2) Oh really? Well I guess being a fish is nature’s default setting, because in the first 8 weeks that’s basically what the fetus is. Or maybe we could think of the early brain as being “human” until hormone differences start affecting it differently. She says the onset of testosterone in males kills “communication center” cells (we’ll get to that later), but similar things happen in females, and causes the areas for sex and aggression to grow, but it has been shown that estrogen actually causes these growths as well. She implies that because a female fetus’s brain experiences less visible change than a male this is somehow better? But in that same way one could argue that the male brain is more refined and developed as a result, so that’s all just silly.
4) She relates parental love to romantic love by noting the similar release of certain neurotransmitters. However, as the referenced neurotransmitter is generally associated with positive feelings, this really says nothing. Nor does it indicate that fathers don’t also experience this.
5) She lists having warm feet as one of several necessary conditions for a female to desire sex. I don’t think that women would appreciate having their sexuality so limited and pre-defined. I’m pretty sure that in BDSM cold feet are the least of a woman’s physical discomfort. How could you possibly tell someone when they can and cannot desire sex? How could you presume to understand human sexuality? I’m sure they’ve replicated every conceivable sexual situation in the laboratory and tested it. Right.
6) Or maybe “calming down” in a relationship has nothing to do with nature or DNA. Conversely, maybe calming down romantically causes couples to be more likely to separate, which is ultimately detrimental to a child. Not much scientific rigor in this department.
7) The amount of bias that goes into choosing who is better at reading another human being is startling, and is fairly unscientific. Moreover, the notion that the female brain is somehow better designed to do this is simply unsupported, unless you call upon the infamous “communication centers” argument. Furthermore, the statement that men need to see tears to realize distress is a knee-slapper. Last, but certainly not least, if the idea that “women evolved to cry four times as much in order to get through to men who don’t notice any emotional signal except tears” can be considered scientifically valid, then the idea that humans developed ears solely so that they could wear earrings and look like Oprah is also equally valid. Or maybe women cry more than men because, unlike men, none of their childhood friends called them a pathetic wuss loser who cries like a girl. Maybe it has nothing to do with DNA and has everything to do with socialization. Just maybe?
9) Even if all the scientific claims about menopause are correct, it does not translate to “unwiring” the mother part of the brain. Again, assumptions are being made that behaviors are the result of autonomous parts of the brain, and that what makes a woman motherly is controlled by some chemical. So it’s a chemical that makes girls say “awwhhh” when they see a cute, cuddly little thing? I don’t think so.
10) So now we know what it is that makes people gay! An MRI can easily show that a person is “wired for same sex attraction,” as she seems unashamed of proclaiming. I always thought that a person’s sexual orientation and preferences were a complex result of individual personality, socialization and development, and biology, none of which were well understood by scientists. But no, apparently it’s a simple result of “brain wiring” that varies predictably between the sexes. Pseudoscience is making a comeback!
In Brizendine’s book, you can clearly see all four of the main elements of pseudoscience coming into play. She misunderstands the science that she reads, and therefore makes improper assumptions. She is not true to the original sources, and therefore misrepresents the actual scientific data produced by a study. She makes assumptions that could violate causality, and thereby misattributes factors that are correlatively related (as in assuming that the special chemical balance of the female brain causes mothers to love their children and not the other way around: that parental love causes the release of dopamine, not that dopamine causes parental love). And most saliently, she is highly predisposed to bash the male brain and laud the female brain. Thus she takes every opportunity to slant the the already warped facts so that the female brain appears more different from and better than the male brain than it actually is. This is pseudoscience.