Pseudoscience: Misunderstanding, Misrepresentation, Misattribution, Predisposition

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.

Check out this article summarizing one reader’s impressions from the book “The Female Brain” by Louann Brizendine, M.D. I will restate exactly the bolded bullet points here:

  1. The neurochemical make-up of men dictates whether or not they will be faithful.
  2. The female brain is nature’s default setting.
  3. Women are not prone to fidelity any more than men are.
  4. Mommies fall “in love” with their babies.
  5. No cold feet.
  6. 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.
  7. The female brain is much more adept at reading subtle facial and verbal emotional expressions.
  8. Love hurts—literally.
  9. Menopause has the result of the “mommy brain” getting unwired.
  10. 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.

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9 Responses to Pseudoscience: Misunderstanding, Misrepresentation, Misattribution, Predisposition

  1. towardabetterworld says:

    Hi there,

    Jonah here. I’m just finally getting around to reading your blog entries. I agree with most of what you say in this post. Fundamentally, most people who use scientific jargon exhibit the same level of rigor in their thinking as fundamentalist Christians. There’s a nice blog post about this that I read one time but I don’t remember where it is – I’ll let you know when I find it.

    Concerning your specific criticisms, I agree with you except about #6 and #7.

    I think that the idea raised in #6 is at least a reasonable hypothesis (even if there’s no rigorous proof). A conspicuous pattern is that the intensity of initial romantic love tends to die down after a few years. I’m not sure if I know of a single example of a couple where the members have exhibited intense romantic love for 20+ years. The reason for this _could_ conceivably be cultural in origin, but if this were so I would expect to have heard of some cultures or subcultures in things were otherwise. So I suspect that there is a biological explanation, and it seems to me like the most likely one is the one given in #6. But let me know if you have another idea.

    Concerning #7, my subjective impression (and that of a number of my friends) is that at least in America, on average, women are in fact better at reading people than than men are. (But I agree that the claim that men can’t tell that women are upset unless they’re crying is absurd.) I’ve never heard anybody argue that men are better at reading people than women are. Could it be that the apparent effect is borne of socialization? Maybe. But the idea that there’s a biological difference does sort of make sense from an evolutionary perspective – e.g. historically women played more of a role than men did in child rearing and maternal instincts may correspond in part to greater ability to tell what an infant or child needs, which in turn may correspond to heightened ability to read facial and verbal cues.

    • blakerivers says:

      Hey Jonah! Thanks for the wonderful comments, I really appreciate your questions and interest. Let me address the issues with #6 and #7 that you raise.

      I did not say that biological explanations for certain patterns in romantic love are unreasonable or even unlikely. Instead, I want to stress that defaulting to biology to find the “most likely” explanation is not necessarily logical. The sheer abundance of possible explanations aside from biological ones makes it very difficult to say which theory is more correct. Just because most cultures exhibit similar sorts of patterns does not mean that biology is the most probable explanation. All cultures came to utilize the wheel, but does that mean that designs for the wheel are somehow imprinted genetically into the human brain like the ability to make webs are in spider’s brains? No. There is another explanation for why humans everywhere display similar tendencies.

      Remember that the human brain is (supposedly) predisposed to find patterns, whether they actually exist or not. Just because an evolutionary explanation seems to make sense does not make it likely. Of course, it may be true, but assuming that it’s true and then building further ideas off of an unproved assumption is dangerous. The reason you’ve never heard that men are better at doing XYZ stereotypically feminine tasks is probably because it goes against the mainstream paradigms. But even if it is true, which it certainly may be, does that mean it’s biologically based? Consider this: in a recent (fictitious) survey women are shown to be better than men at applying make-up. Scientists conclude that the ability to apply make-up must be genetically encoded into females.

      I think the above example makes it clear that there are a large number of things that women may be characteristically better at than men that don’t actually stem from DNA. DNA is one possibility among an infinite number of others.

  2. towardabetterworld says:

    Here is the blog post that I mentioned: it’s titled “Science As Attire” and is available here:
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/ir/science_as_attire/

  3. Pingback: Pseudoscience: Biology and Behavior in Gender | Blakerivers's Blog

  4. towardabetterworld says:

    “Instead, I want to stress that defaulting to biology to find the “most likely” explanation is not necessarily logical.” — Totally agree.

    “Of course, it may be true, but assuming that it’s true and then building further ideas off of an unproved assumption is dangerous.” — Agree, but one needs to operate under _some_ unproved assumptions and I think that basing one’s unproved assumptions on evolutionary speculation often gives a more accurate world view than forming one’s unproved assumptions in other ways.

    “Consider this: in a recent (fictitious) survey women are shown to be better than men at applying make-up. Scientists conclude that the ability to apply make-up must be genetically encoded into females. ” — Clearly the ability to apply makeup is not genetically encoded into females, _but_ the fact that women are better at applying make up than men are seems very likely to be indirectly caused by genetic differences between men and women. There appear to be definite genetic reasons why (on average) men want physically attractive partners more than women do. In light of this, one expects women to care more about their physical appearance than men care about their physical appearance, so the fact that women are better at applying make up than men is not surprising. Could one imagine a culture in men were better at applying make up than women? Sure, but the genetic factors make such a culture less likely than the existing ones.

    The statement “women are better than men at applying make up because women evolved to care more about their physical appearance than men do” is merely shorthand (requiring unpackaging, suitable interpretation and qualification) but I still think it has more content and is a closer approximation to the truth than a statement like “women are better than men at applying make up because of a complex combination of environmental and genetic factors which we don’t understand.”

    • blakerivers says:

      Well, sure, it is useful or even necessary sometimes to operate under unproved assumptions for the sake of making headway. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s just in practice and popular culture people forget that these things are tentative and mistake them for truth. Even scientists become blinded by presupposition.

      And, of course, there will be a combination of environmental and genetic factors behind the use of makeup (or other gendered behavior) so complex that our current understanding of it can only be limited. Certainly biological reasons have their place here, but one underestimates the power of other factors.

      Remember that focus on male beauty versus female beauty can shift over time or across cultures. As I understand it, there have been many ancient cultures in which the young, strong male body appears to have been valued more highly as a model of beauty. It’s hard to say exactly, but it’s possible that the use of makeup and bodily adornment as well as the focus of attraction once rested on the males of many cultures. But, over time, values shifted for any number of a quintillion reasons. I offer this as a suggestion that maybe what appears obvious (namely, that women are nature’s chosen objects of sexual desire) is not actually obvious, but is an assumption that seems obvious because of shortsightedness.

      Again, your conjectures may be correct, but your calculation of their likelihood is dubious in my opinion. I decline to agree that human beings are as simple as you suggest. Perhaps this is just a matter of differing opinions.

      • towardabetterworld says:

        Yeah, so I think I was overstating my case – I should be more careful. What I have in mind is that

        (a) a woman’s fertility depends on her age more than a man’s fertility does (so that to the extent that good looks are a signal of youth, there’s pressure toward men being more influenced by good looks than women are)

        (b) Pregnancy is long and childbirth is difficult in humans. For this reason it’s plausible that a woman’s physical health plays a more direct role in a baby’s future than a man’s physical health in his ability.

        (c) I believe that there are studies indicating that at least in America, gay men place more weight on physical appearance of a prospective partner than lesbian women do.

        These things suggest the possibility of genetic reasons for men being more influenced by the physical appearance of a prospective partner than women are. But you’re right that the evidence that I’m aware of is not sufficiently strong to warrant a high degree of certainty on this point. In particular, I don’t know of much data collected from other cultures. Do you know of cultures where the situation is reversed?

        Concerning ancient Greece in particular, the focus on the male figure that one sees in statues may reflect the tastes of homosexual men rather than heterosexual women. (It seems that at least in the western world, throughout history many artists have been gay.)

  5. blakerivers says:

    Let it be known that I don’t disapprove of Ms. Brizendine’s general messages or the helpfulness of her book to many people in promoting acceptance for and love of the female gender. I merely disagree with some of her specific methods and arguments.

  6. cassiemannes says:

    This book…I completely agree…jumped to conclusions about pretty much every scientific fact she stated. It was like…pseudo-science chick-lit. Just…not what I was hoping, even though I have no idea what I was hoping it would be.

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