How the News Media Peddle Junk Science

December 20, 2011

Making money, promoting an agenda and political correctness fuel media driven scientific ignorance.

Science teachers need to address these issues in the classroom- and in the newsroom.

American Journalism Review:

The idea that the brains of girls and boys are so different that they should be parented and educated in different ways and steered towards very different careers is one of the most successfully promoted media narratives of the decade.

A small group of advocates have pushed this notion so hard that it’s become the conventional wisdom. They write best-selling books, speak to large groups of teachers, parents and school administrators, and are quoted – endlessly and usually uncritically―by the news media. They claim that due to vast differences between boys and girls, the single sex classroom will improve children’s academic achievement.

But it’s not true.

In September, the journal Science ran an article by eight prominent scientists titled The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling.” They argue that “There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex (SS) education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.” The lead author on the piece was professor Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College, past president of the American Psychological Association.

The Science authors, prominent psychologists or neuroscientists, find the performance of the news media sorely lacking. “Novelty-based enthusiasm, sample bias, and anecdotes account for much of the glowing characterization of SS education in the media,” they write.

“Factoids” promoted by advocates keep appearing in news stories around the world, even though good science has disproved or critiqued them. In the past few years, the news media have promoted a series of myths that, as it turns out, have little evidence behind them. As more misinformation is reported, the false narrative of great differences grows stronger. Here are a few of the myths that power this narrative:

•Myth: Research shows great differences in the brains of boys and girls; children should be taught in single sex classrooms. The campaign for segregating public schools by gender is led by Leonard Sax, founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, and by best-selling author Michael Gurian (“The Wonder of Boys”) who heads the Gurian Institute. They keep aggressively promoting the “science” that supposedly calls for separating boys and girls. They are media darlings, endlessly quoted in news stories, with little or no skepticism. Sax has been on NBC’s “Today,” CNN’s “American Morning” and numerous other national shows, and a LexisNexis search of major newspapers turned up nearly a thousand references. Michael Gurian’s Web site says he has been featured in major media, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Educational Leadership, Time “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” CNN, PBS and NPR.

•Fact: Even though Gurian, Sax and others tout great gender differences as scientific truth, most scientists disagree. Lise Eliot, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, did an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence and concluded there is “surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.” Eliot was one of the authors of the Science article and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain.” Cordelia Fine, a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and research fellow at the University of Melbourne, finds dressed up as science in the news media propagating a dangerous new conventional wisdom. She refers to much of the gender-difference theories in the popular media as “neurosexism.”

•Myth: Boys are biologically programmed to focus on objects, predisposing them to math and understanding systems, while girls are programmed to focus on people and feelings. British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen claims that the male brain is the “systematizing brain” while the female brain is the “empathizing” brain. He has been quoted in the New York Times, in a Newsweek cover story, in a PBS documentary and in countless other major media outlets. Parents magazine decreed as fact, “Girls prefer dolls (to blocks and balls)…because girls pay more attention to people while boys are more enthralled with mechanical objects.”

This idea was based on a study of day-old babies, which found that the boys looked at mobiles longer and the girls looked at faces longer. Male brains, Baron-Cohen says, are ideally suited for leadership and power. They are hardwired for mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles.

And what of the female brain? It is specialized for making friends, mothering, gossip, and “reading” a partner. Girls and women are so focused on others that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works.

•Fact: Baron-Cohen’s study had major problems. It was an “outlier” study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless. Why?

The experiment lacked crucial controls against experimenter bias and was badly designed. Female and male infants were propped up in a parent’s lap and shown, side by side, an active person or an inanimate object. Since newborns can’t hold their heads up independently, their visual preferences could well have been determined by the way their parents held them.

Cordelia Fine says there’s little evidence for the idea of a male brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world and a female brain hardwired to understand people. There is a much literature flat-out contradicting Baron-Cohen’s study, providing evidence that male and female infants tend to respond equally to people and objects, notes Elizabeth Spelke, codirector of Harvard’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Inter-faculty Initiative. But media stories continue to promote the idea of very different brains.

•Myth: Boys have inherently weaker verbal skills than girls. They should be given “informational texts” to read instead of the classics or any material containing emotion, which they aren’t good at either. The media swallow this idea uncritically:

The New Republic: a “verbally drenched curriculum” is “leaving boys in the dust.”

National Review: Without “action-packed narratives..boys will be bored, disaffected and disruptive.”

The Hartford Courant:“Because boys don’t want to read books from beginning to end, informational texts are ideal.”

•Fact: Overall, there are virtually no differences in verbal abilities between girls and boys. In 2005, University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde synthesized data from 165 studies on verbal ability and gender. They revealed a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless.

Boys have a just-about-equal aptitude for reading and writing, but their actual performance can suffer if they are not encouraged to read or are given unchallenging material. The more the news media run stories about boys not being “hardwired” for reading, the more parents and teachers will believe it.

•Myth: Females are the talkative sex while males are naturally strong and silent. This idea plays into the whole theory that men and boys are not naturally good or comfortable with words, at which girls and women excel. In her bestseller “The Female Brain,” author Louann Brizendene claimed that a woman uses 20,000 words per day, while a man uses only 7,000. Brizendine’s book got incredible media play, including on ABC’s “20/20″ and “Good Morning America.” a Q and A in the New York Times Magazine Ideas Issue, Newsweek, O, The Oprah Magazine, a front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle and pieces in the Los Angeles Times, Toronto Star, Baltimore Sun, St Louis Post-Dispatch, Columbus Dispatch, Oakland Tribune and more. Hardly any news stories mentioned the fact that the authoritative British journal Nature savaged the book, saying it “fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance,” is “riddled with scientific errors” and “is misleading about the processes of brain development, the neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general.”

•Fact:James Pennebaker, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, coauthored a seven-year study of men’s and women’s speech. Of the male-female gap, he says, “It’s been a common belief, but it just didn’t fit.” In fact, both men and women use approximately 16,000 words a day…

Read it all.

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