Posted: Jul 12, 2012 2:30 am
by Mr.Samsa
Each side makes really good points, I sometimes feel the nurture side brushes off any suggestion that nature plays some role, but they seem to do it in a way that says until you bring "acceptable" evidence we really don't have much to say. Which is fair, but you would think the newborn study by Baron-Cohen would be somewhat acceptable?

Some of the people on the "nurture" side of the video had obviously been picked because they were a bit more extreme than the average researcher, and/or their comments were selectively edited to make it seem like there was a stronger position being advocated. It's important to remember that there has never been a field or approach to science which has been blank slatist, so the idea that major fields like sociology or areas within psychology believe or promote a blank slate approach is absurd. The general position is that nature obviously plays some role but we have to be careful about speaking beyond our data - not only for important scientific reasons (as speculation can dilute the validity of your results and lead you on wild goose chases), but also because the research in areas like these obviously have a real social impact. This obviously doesn't mean we should ignore any results or not report them, but it does mean that if our data or methodology is flimsy, we should be careful to present our results as tentative, or gather more data to support our conclusions.

There's a good discussion here by two researchers who discuss and criticise research like that of Baron-Cohen's, which a reference to their books (both of which are great, generally fair and scientifically accurate, resources).

I've only had time to watch the first episode, but I made some notes as I went through so here are my thoughts (any quotes I make are approximate):

"I thought if society was equal, then they would get the same jobs".

The whole section at the beginning about Norway leading the world in gender equality was so irrelevant to the whole episode, I don't understand why the host spent so much time discussing it. Leading the world in terms of fairness in employment, and pay, and law, etc, does not equate to equality in terms of how the genders are treated on a social level. Just look at all the people on the street that he interviewed, promoting the same ideas of girls liking to talk and play with dolls, boys liking trucks and playing rough, etc. Even if there were absolutely no biological basis, this kind of thinking would necessarily generate some difference.

Another point I found interesting was that none of the Norwegian scientists interviewed promoted a blank slate ideology. It was hard to tell with the editing and the sound bites we got, but the woman was mostly basing her position on the fact that gender differences were largely explained by environmental studies and that there was no need for a biological explanation. This is importantly different from a blank slate view. The host shows a clip of her saying that she's not interested in brain differences because she doesn't think they're relevant, as if that suggests she's holding a sort of blank slate view, but obviously it doesn't. No matter what side of the fence you sit on in this debate, brain differences are of course irrelevant. If we know that men and women behave differently, then there must necessarily be brain differences unless you believe that behaviors come from somewhere other than the brain. Similarly, we can show that liberals and conservatives have different brains, atheists and theists, rock fans and emos, etc. Showing a neurological difference tells us absolutely nothing.

Lorentzen also doesn't claim that there are no differences, but simply suggests that there are "basically" no differences. The qualifier is important because it means he accepts there is some variation, but he doesn't believe that the biological and innate component is significant enough to warrant the claims made by some people. He also claims that the American studies are speculative, most likely talking about the evolutionary psychologists from the Santa Barbara church of psychology, like Pinker, Buss, Cosmides etc, and he's certainly right - they are speculative, and that's why their work is not overly influential in science, even in evolutionary psychology.

The first study presented is the survey of over 200,000 people which demonstrated that there are differences in preferences of jobs in men and women. Well, we already knew this. That's the gender difference we're trying to explain. It doesn't tell us whether it's innate or learnt (or a mixture of both).

Lippa then suggests that if these differences were learnt, then we'd expect them to change across cultures, and he points to a graph with two constant, unchanging lines, and says that this is evidence that something biological is going on. Obviously it isn't. It's evidence that there is a common underlying variable controlling both, which can be biological or learnt. This is the problem with most people's interpretation of cross-cultural studies, they ignore the fact that cross-cultural behaviors can also be explained by species-specific environmental constraints which produce universal learning. As an example, look at the fact that all individuals, across all cultures and generations, eat hot soup from a bowl. Amazing, must be innate, right? Clearly not, there is no "eating-soup-from-a-bowl gene", and instead the common behavior is there because the guy who tried to eat it off a plate or flat leaf or whatever burnt his nutsack. The common factor of gravity produces this learnt effect. This isn't to say that the behavior is learnt, but that it's something that needs to be ruled out, not just shrugged off.

The next study found that there were clear differences in the toy preferences of 9 month olds. Obviously, both biological and learning explanations predict this.

Simon Baron-Cohen then presents us with another study where newborn babies look longer at mechanical devices than they do at faces. This is interesting, except that we find that this difference disappears when the person holding the mechanical device (normally a mobile) or showing their face, doesn't know the sex of the baby. That is, the responses of the babies change, and the sex differences emerge, as a direct result of the person interacting with them treating them differently. In other words, the studies that find the differences are not blinded.

Campbell, the evolutionary psychologist, suggests that it would be surprising if evolution hadn't equipped women (who give birth and generally look after children) with some kind of innate mechanism that made such actions pleasurable. Of course it's not surprising. We build bonds with people we spend time with, and we build a sunk-cost fallacy into the way we behave as a result of our learning, and so carrying something around for 9 months generally results in us being pretty protective of it, and rationalising to ourselves that it's a good thing. It would be surprising if we needed extra innate mechanisms on top of this.

She then quotes a study which finds that men prefer to be alone when stressed - this again only describes a gender difference we already knew existed, it doesn't tell us whether it has a biological or environmental cause. And she concludes her interview with an argument from incredulity; seemingly baffled by the idea that subtle changes in our behavior can significantly affect the behavior of a baby (whose brain is literally exploding with neural connections and associations, picking up on every tiny thing and strengthening and culling millions of connections)..

Lippa, who told us that cross-cultural studies and unchanging opinions demonstrate that there is a biological cause, then explains why some cultures (the non-egalitarian ones) differ from others. In other words, cross-cultural studies always support the biological cause, whether they show consistent results, or divergent ones..

Campbell makes the standard evo psych fallacy, of pointing out that our brains are evolved organs and then trying to conclude that our behaviors (specifically whatever behaviors are currently being discussed) must have evolved as well. This obviously isn't true. It's probably true for at least some behaviors, but it's also possible that the evolution of the brain was to push it entirely into a domain-general processor, meaning that we can accept the evolution of the brain and conclusively reject the claim that evolutionary theories must have a role to play in sex differences.

Lorentzen makes the good argument that he's not a blank slatist, he just accepts that there is currently no good evidence of a biological link - and he's entirely correct here. There are some studies suggesting it, and the studies are getting better and more interesting, but it's still a leap to accept that position from what we currently know.

Baron-Cohen concludes with:

It's a moderate proposal to say it's a mixture of biology and culture.

This is the golden mean fallacy; the idea that it's reasonable to presume that the two extremes of a position are wrong, and that the middle ground is likely to be correct. Of course, since the evidence is largely in favour of a cultural explanation of gender differences (mostly due to the longer history, and the ability to perform more rigorous experiments), it is an extreme position to suggest that gender differences are equally influenced by biology and culture.