man and woman talking

According to the dust jacket of The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, published by Morgan Road Books in 2006, the book explains why

  • A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000
  • A woman remembers fights that a man insists never happened
  • A teen girl is so obsessed with her looks and talking on the phone
  • Thoughts about sex enter a woman’s brain once every couple of days but enter a man’s brain about once every minute
  • A woman knows what people are feeling, while a man can’t spot an emotion unless somebody cries or threatens bodily harm
  • A woman over fifty is more likely to initiate divorce than a man

But are these assertions in fact, well, factual? According to Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at UPenn, studies of telephone conversations actually show that men, on average, appear slightly more talkative than women. More significantly, the difference between the two groups is far less significant than variations within the two groups.

According to Liberman, The Female Brain uses the form but not the substance of scientific writing to prop up assertions that are not actually supported by science. “There are 90 pages of end-notes and bibliography in support of 185 pages of text,” he says. “And yet in the cases that I checked, the cited references offered little or no support for the sweeping and controversial claims in the text.”

Liberman’s objections are unlikely to get the media play that Brizendine’s book received. Broad assertions that reinforce (or even, sometimes, that challenge) stereotypes are fodder for lazy journalists — or for those with an axe to grind. He offers a succinct explanation of the mechanism:

1. There’s a traditional belief X, with cultural, social and economic connections.

2. Progressive social advocacy challenges X and undermines its associated social structures, while conservative social advocacy defends them.

3. There are some new scientific results bearing on X.

Everyone with an opinion about X and its social correlates now has an interest in spinning these results. If the results seem somewhat contrary to X, the anti-X faction will want to push the interpretation as far as possible to further discredit X. If the results seem somewhat supportive of X, the pro-X faction will want to push the interpretation as far as possible to bolster X and to discredit its challengers.

This is a lot like what happens in a political campaign.

Have I been too gabby? (How like a man!)


Via Language Log


Image from moriza’s photostream