The Tyranny of Tiny Differences

The Y Files: Hyping sex differences
Cathy Young of the Y Files has a fantastic post on the way that tiny sex differences discovered in research get inflated, by the media and often by the researchers themselves, into essentializing characterizations of men and women. “[T]he truth,” she writes, “is that on the popular level — and also among the anti-PC set — talk about sex differences often tends to lapse into unwarranted generalizations and rather egregious stereotyping.” These generalizations and stereotypes often tell us more about the political goals of the people describing the research than the research tells us about men and women.

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  • Anonymous

    I guess, as a sociologist, what I find annoying about the criticism at Y and Shake’s Sis was that these _are_ the differences we deal in. :)

    People don’t differ _that_ much most of the time. 5-20% spreads are typical.

    Yes, yes, I understand that we construct differences — I’m all about analyzing the rhetorical construction of sociological truths (Richard Harvey Brown) but I think we’d have to be fair and acknowledge that things like, say, the differences between the “red state of mind’ and the “blue state of mind’ are often similarly absent and characterized by similarly small differences — just as a for instance.

  • Anonymous

    oh, and OT. I was poking around which led me to your bio at Savage Minds where I read, ” Because of this wide range of interests, he has been declared

  • Anonymous

    See, to my mind, it’s the same problem we have with all socially constructed categories. Biological arguments about gender (e.g. boys “naturally” play with this kind of toy, girls “naturally” with the other) are geared at showing some differences “prior” to cultural conditioning, so we can say “bays are like this, girls like that”. But of course, only some boys are like this — some are like that, and some are like the other, and some are like girls. The chimp study mentioned in the post was the worst example — but even the other ones, where we’re talking about differences only 10 or 15% of the subjects have between them… Not a strong argument for biological determinism.

    Now, it may well be that, behind the scenes, there’s a strongly supported, sophisticated argument about the relationship between biology and gender being developed on the basis of these small differences — but that’s not what’s reported, which is why I was careful to talk about “descriptions of research” instead of the research itself. Science reporting is so generally bad — I see how bad it is for anthropological topics, and I wouldn’t expect the same reporters to be better in fields I’m not well-versed in — and yet it is science reporting, and not science itself, that gets integrated into debates, that gets picked up by the talk shows and nightly news, and that shapes public opinion. Which in turn makes it so hard to deal with issues of gender, sexuality, and so on, in which so many phenomena challenge or transcend the categories our folk understanding has allowed for them.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed wholeheartedly. I actually wasn’t speaking to anything you’d written here, I was just griping in general about the fact that, in this instance, Y files and Shakes Sis were bothing reporting on the reporting, but not also pointing out that, in general, the social sciences deal in pretty small differences.

    If that’s the problem, then all social research is worthless. (Which is a nasty use of logical fallacy on my part, but hey it seems to be a staple of the blogosphere.)

    I think this is where I get (surprisingly, to me) postmodern/poststructuralist and say that it’s a lot like the sex/gender analysis in Butler’s work (and others). The discourse — the critiques of the reporting — tend to assume, in spite of claims otherwise, that there’s something underneath the social construction of roles. In this case, instead of highlighting a ‘natural’ sex difference it is rather a “human nature” that would come out for all of us were we not slaves to the social processes through which differences are constituted.

    Am I making any sense? :))) I’ts late, I’ve been up for quite a long time, working on the blog, which I manage to have a grand ol’ time with yesterday and all day today. %^&@(^%&*^ Upgrading to WordPress 2.0 should have been something I put off ’til the kinks were worked out.

    On that not, excuse the typos. Though, admittedly, I don’t get much better when I actually have a good night’s sleep.


  • Anonymous

    BTW, forgot to say, I worked in Information security for about 6 years, doing technical journalism and technical writing — as well as design. One thing you learn really quickly is that almost all non-investigative journalism draws heavily on press releases that are produced by the companies, entities, organizations trying to push a product, an agenda, whatever.

    It was fascinating to get the press release feeds, read the information security news for a couple of hours, and then watch as the news “articles” came out on the ‘story.” Security vendors like to use horror stories to grab attention, so they were great for busy, underpaid reporters.

    One thing I’m apalled by is the use of Press releases by academia, think tanks, and other scholarly institutions.I haven’t studied it carefully, but the few press releases I’ve seen? They’re just as guitly of simplifying the issues and this isn’t suprising. When I worked on large research projects, we always had PR people to help promote the work. That’s what PR people do is simplify the issues — anathema to our scholarly minds — or it’s supposed to be at any rate.

    Well, it’s back to one more college try on this upgrade, then I’m going to pass out.


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