January 28, 2007

Cerebro de El Pais

¿Hay diferencias relevantes entre el cerebro de hombres y de mujeres? ("Are there significant differences between the brains of men and women?") That's the lead of Mónica Salomone's article in today's El País ("Cerebro de mujer", 1/28/2007). This is of course a review of "el libro de una prestigiosa neuropsiquiatra norteamericana", Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain. And like several other articles on Brizendine's book, this one starts with a joke:

Un señor con una esposa muy habladora lee en el periódico un estudio científico que asegura que las mujeres usan cada día unas 20.000 palabras, mientras que a ellos les bastan 7.000; el hombre enseña la noticia, feliz de poder demostrar que ella es un loro. “¿Lo ves?”.“¿Y no será porque tenemos que repetir mucho lo que decimos?”, dice ella. “¿Cómo?”, responde él.

The version from mistupid.com that I reprinted back in August ("Sex-linked lexical budgets", 8/6/2006) goes like this:

A husband looking through the paper came upon a study that said women use more words than men.
Excited to prove to his wife that he had been right all along when he accused her of talking too much, he showed her the study results. It read "Men use about 15,000 words per day, but women use 30,000".
The wife thought for a while, then finally she said to her husband "It's because we have to repeat everything we say."
The husband said "What?"

So far, we're more or less on the same track as many of the other reviews in the popular press.

But things pick up from there. The article cites the work of Melissa Hines on toy preferences; it sketches the debate between Pinker and Spelke over the Larry Summers flap; it describes Ben/Barbara Barres' article in Nature. And near the end of this long (2,100-word) article, we get:

La obra ha sido superventas en Estados Unidos, pero varios científicos han puesto serias pegas. La autora ha tenido que admitir que algunos datos de la primera edición de El cerebro femenino no son correctos. En concreto, los relativos al lenguaje. Según Brizendine, ellas usan al día unas 20.000 palabras (y hablan el doble de rápido), y ellos, 7.000. Mark Liberman, especialista en fonética en la Universidad de Pensilvania, buscó las fuentes de tal afirmación “y simplemente no las encontré”. Sí halló, en cambio, varios trabajos que muestran que no hay diferencia alguna en aptitud lingüística. Brizendine aceptó la crítica y eliminó las cifras de ediciones posteriores. No obstante, Liberman –autor de un blog donde aparece el chiste del principio– teme que acabe siendo otro caso de desequilibrio informativo que ayuda a fortalecer un tópico: decenas de titulares han recogido el 20.000 vs 7.000 de Brizendine, pero no su rectificación.

The work has been a bestseller in the United States, but several scientists have raised serious questions. The author has had to admit that some data in the first edition of The Female Brain are not correct. Specifically, those related to language. According to Brizendine, women use about 20,000 words a day (and speak twice as fast), while men use 7,000. Mark Liberman, specialist in phonetics at the University of Pennsylvania, searched for the sources of this assertions "and simply did not find them". Instead he found various works that show that there is no difference in linguistic aptitude. Brizendine accepted the criticism and eliminated the numbers in later editions. However, Liberman -- author of a blog where the joke at the beginning [of the article] appeared -- fears that this ends up as another case of information imbalance that helps to strengthen a cliché: tens of publications have repeated her 20,000-vs.-7,000, but not her retraction.

I'm not sure whether Dr. Brizendine has really retracted the numbers. According to Stephen Moss in the Guardian ("Do women really talk more?", 11/27/2006),

When I reach Brizendine, just as she is crossing the Golden Gate bridge, she tells me that she has accepted the criticism of the numbers quoted in the book - on both volume of words and rate of speech - and will be deleting them from future editions. Nor will they appear in the UK edition, to be published by Bantam in April.

But in an interview with Deborah Solomon in the NYT Magazine ("He thought, she thought", 12/10/2006), Dr. Brizendine said something different:

Q: Your book cites a study claiming that women use about 20,000 words a day, while men use about 7,000.

A: The real phraseology of that should have been that a woman has many more communication events a day — gestures, words, raising of your eyebrows.

The "communication events" version seems to be equally unsupported -- see "Sex differences in 'communication events' per day?", 12/11/2006, for some discussion. In any case, the copies in the bookstores around here haven't changed, so whatever the change, it seems that Ms. Salomone should have written eliminará rather than eliminó.

And unfortunately, it's not just the language-related numbers in this book that are suspect -- see for example ""Every 52 seconds": wrong by 23,736 percent?" (10/13/2006). The review in Nature (Young and Balaban, "Psychoneuroindoctrinology", Nature 443(7112), p. 634, October 2006) says that the book "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".

But overall, the El País article strikes me as an excellent piece of science journalism. I don't just say this because it cites me -- being mentioned in the press, even favorably, can be a trying experience if the writer gets things mixed up, as happens all too often. Unlike some of the journalists who've written about this book, Mónica Salomone is not just re-wording half-understood jacket blurbs and press releases. She's obviously done a good deal of independent research -- reading as well as talking with experts -- and tried to integrate the results in a thoughtful way. It's a bit more even-handed than the topic perhaps deserves, but that's a common journalistic stance with respect to controveries where both sides are viewed as socially licensed.

Ms. Salomone writes frequently about scientific topics for El País, and I'll look for her byline in the future.

[Tip of the hat to Martin G.].

[Update -- Anatol Stefanowitsch writes:

For a while I was on the lookout for Brizendine-related German press reporting. Most of the stories repeated her figures without giving them a second thought (like Thomas Klebl, "Frauen reden mehr", Hamburger Abendblatt, 12/03/2006).

I stopped paying attention after a while, but this month ZEITWISSEN, a popular science magazine published by the staff of Die ZEIT, ran a story about male-female differences that mentions her figures in passing and also mentions that they are wrong ("Frauen sind auch nur Männer", Zeitwissen, 01/2007).

Your posting today also reminded me of a much earlier story from Die Welt, published in October, which presents her claims at length but then mentions that these claims are "contested", they even cite you. In case no one has told you about this story yet, it is Axel Bojanowski, "Der feine Underschied", Die Welt, 10/16/2006).

Keeping up with the international Brizendine industry would be a full-time job, so I'm afraid that the only German-language story that I've read was the later -- but much more credulous -- one by Heike Stüvel, "Das Schweigen der Männer", 12/22/2006, which I discussed in an earlier post ("The silence of the men", 12/29/2006). But I'm interested to learn that Stüvel's failure to do any fact-checking extended to failure to check the recent archives of Die Welt itself. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 28, 2007 09:36 AM