December 01, 2006

Contagious misinformation

If you're interested in how the press expresses, validates and amplifies popular prejudices, you've got a great opportunity. It starts in the "Femail" section of the Daily Mail on 11/28/2006, where Fiona Macrae reviewed Dr. Louann Brizendine's book The Female Brain ("Women talk three times as much as men, says study"). Macrae focused especially on two of Brizendine's quantitative bullet points:

[W]omen talk almost three times as much as men, with the average woman chalking up 20,000 words in a day - 13,000 more than the average man. [...]
Studies have shown that while a man will think about sex every 52 seconds, the subject tends to cross women's minds just once a day.

Now, just for the record, Dr. Brizendine has never done any research on either of these topics, and none of the sources that she cites provide any support for either the talking numbers or the sex-thoughts numbers. And the scientific studies that actually have counted words find that men and women appear to talk about the same amount, on average, with men sometimes a bit ahead; and the one study I've found that counted sexual thoughts reports that the frequency for males was every 12,300 seconds on average, compared to every 19,200 seconds for the females. If you care about the science, you can read about talking here and sexual thoughts here, and more on the science (and pseudo-science) of all sorts of sex differences here.

But this post is not about the science of sex differences -- we're talking about the epidemiology of influence. And in that respect, Macrae's Daily Mail article contained two pieces of information of great value to science. First, Macrae misspelled Dr. Brizendine's first name as "Luan" (instead of "Louann"), and second, she cited the book as The Female Mind (instead of The Female Brain). These scribal errors are as good as a fingerprint or a hyperlink, and they will allow future scholars of media influence to track the flow of misinformation from Brizendine via Macrae to all sorts of places around the globe, simply by text search.

The rhetoric of the reactions is fascinating. I've cited some in an earlier post, from reader comments on the Daily Mail site and from, where the dominant reaction was "Why spend money on studying the obvious?" This is a deliciously ironic reaction, since the numbers were apparently invented without any studies being done, and the generalizations based on them appear to be false, and the only fiscal flow has been from the public to Dr. Brizendine and her publisher, Bertelsmann/Random House/Morgan Road.

But it's not just Joe and Jane Sixpack who have reacted in that way. Emil Steiner, blogging at the Washington Post, crafted a more sophisticated version of the same viewpoint in a post on 11/30/2006:

Women talk too much, and men only think about sex. You might expect to find such "high-brow" observations in the pages of Maxim, right next to the "A-B-Cs of B-R-As" column. But in her new book, The Female Mind, clinical psychiatrist and self-titled feminist Dr. Luan Brizendine seemingly uses science to prove what stand-up comics have been telling us for years. [...] Taken together, her work seems to indicate that in inter-gender communication women talk, and men zone out and think about sex. And you need a PhD to work that out?

(Actually, I believe that Dr. Brizendine's degree is an M.D. -- not that it matters.) I was able to find Steiner's post, and to be sure that he got his misinformation via The Daily Mail, because he misspells Dr. Brizendine's first name as "Luan", and calls her book The Female Mind.

I already knew that Ann Althouse had blogged about the Daily Mail article, because she also linked to one of my posts, and so I saw referrals from her site in our server logs. Her commenters are a couple of intellectual steps up from the gang at, but (as with Steiner) this mainly changes the way they express themselves, not the opinions they express:

So. This scientific study suggests women like to talk and men like to fantasize about sex?
This is news?
I once told my wife
"your capacity to talk exceeds my capacity to listen"
Telling the truth CAN get you into trouble.
[timeout to fantasize about sex]
Anyway, sometimes science needs to prove the obvious, at least to give us guys some cover.
They needed a study to tell us this?

However, one wag among Ann's commenters manages to mix in an ethnic stereotype, with only six well-chosen words:

Doctor Benzedrine niver met'un Irishmun.

If someone can figure out how to add racial stereotypes in a similarly pithy way, they'll win a sort of Trifecta of Received Opinion.

At the other end of the sophistication food chain, the now-familiar reactions are expressed in a slightly different way at the forum at ("K-pop for the masses")

Women talk more than men, what else is new?
hrmm... why am i not surprised...
lol no kidding. Is this even news?
i always thought it was higher than 3 times

And it's not just the Anglosphere. Brecht de Groote writes:

I have read your recent contributions to Language Log on Luan Brizendine's The Female Brain with interest. When a post about the Daily Mail's credulous journalism cropped up, I felt the storm approaching. Surely, worldwide press would not for the umpteenth repeat the ancient vice of treating English newspapers like the fount of knowledge? A quick check on Google News Belgium, France and Germany netted no results. I should have known better.

As I was skimming through today, I chanced upon a link to newspaper article. The link read, "Vrouwen worden soort van high van praten", which is a rather bizarre way of translating "Women get sort of high of talking". Following the link, I am led to a newspaper article in the Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. (link: ) The article, proudly proclaiming "women speak three times as much as men", citing as its references Daily Mail and Headline News.  Now Het Nieuwsblad is not exactly the pivotal point of quality journalism in Belgium.

But the news is spreading. On querying for "Brizendine" on (Flemish) Google, no less than three hits come up. It appears Het Volk and De Standaard have joined the in-crowd. I was not to astounded to see Het Volk, another vestige of ignorance, joining in. I had expected more of De Standaard (link) , however, which is ranked as one of the better-quality papers with normally thorough fact-checking.

It won't take long for other newspapers to chime in with the leading press. Other news agencies across Europe will just suppose the fact-checking has already been done for them. Mischief, thou art afoot...

PS: While writing this e-mail, someone asked whether I had already read De Standaard. On replying I hadn't, the person was so kind as to quote the article on Brizendine at tedious length. See?

So far, only knows about one pickup in French ("Les femmes sont trois fois plus bavardes que les hommes!"), but of course several French media outlets have sued to prevent Google from indexing their news feeds.

[For readers who might have missed it, I should note that Stephen Moss of the Guardian reached Louann Brizendine by phone, for his 11/27/2006 story on sex differences in talkativeness -- and she (with considerable grace) retracted her book's assertions about word counts and speech rates. But the interesting point here is that I have yet to see any other media outlet pick up Brizendine's retraction, during the period that Macrae's sloppy replication of the original misinformation has been picked up by (at last count) more than 60 periodicals and several major broadcast organizations.

Now, can some enterprising journalist persuade Dr. Brizendine to retract the "52 seconds vs. two days" business? Probably, since it's equally unsupported, and she seems to react honestly and forthrightly to being challenged on the facts. And will anyone notice? Probably not, since in this case, the truth is not nearly as much fun as the fiction.]

[Update -- Alex Baumanns observes that the news briefs from the Dutch e-zine, expertly edited by "Marc van Oostendorp (Genootschap Onze Taal) en Ludo Permentier (Van Dale Lexicografie bv)", did pick up the Daily Mail piece, with a one-sentence description "Vrouwen praten driemaal zo veel als mannen". As Alex says:

It must be said that the section Taalnieuws usually contains all kinds of odd bits of news. Still, it now had the Stamp of Approval of bona fide linguists. Where will this end?

From the point of view of the public's beliefs, I suppose that it'll end pretty much in the same place that it started, but with a kind of dim collective memory of scientific support for popular prejudices.]

[Update -- the meme is spreading through the quiz shows as well. Nicholas Waller writes:

You may be interested to note that the women-say-3x-as-many-words-as-men "research" made it to a sort-of question on BBC1's comedy news quiz "Have I got News For You?" last night (1 Dec 2006). The contestants knew the "answer" as stated in the papers, but not any subsequent debunking from Language Log (and neither did the host, nor indeed the question-setter). But that round was on newspaper headlines.

Regular team captains are Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, the fortnightly satirical mag, and Paul Merton, a professional comedian, and the guest host this week, fyi, was Tory parliamentarian Ann Widdecombe, aka Doris Karloff.

And Arnold Zwicky, among others, informed me that both the more-words and the more-sexual-thoughts claims were retailed as facts/discoveries on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" 12/2/2006.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 1, 2006 09:45 AM