January 29, 2007

A lesson in the sweet science

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the next ... Well, Dr. Louann Brizendine is selling books, not running for political office. But judging from a transcript that Geoff Nunberg just sent me, she could give even 21st-century politicians an advanced course in how to deal with a difficult interview.

Here's the background. One of the punchiest of the impressive factoids in Dr. Brizendine's book The Female Brain was this one: "A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000." But Dr. B has never done any research herself on this topic, and none of her book's references backs her claim up with any research results. And in fact, the scientific literature on the subject of sex differences in communication finds that the differences between men and women are small compared to the variation among men and among women; and the small average differences between the sexes are as likely as not to favor men.

I went over this issue in an article in the Boston Globe ("Sex on the Brain", 9/24/2006), and in more detail in a series of weblog posts.

Since then, your more conscientious journalists have been questioning those numbers, or at least citing the controversy. So when Beverly Thompson interviewed Dr. Brizendine on Canadian television ("In utero brain alternation makes women more chatty than men", 11/29/2006) Dr. B was in a tough spot. The host apparently hadn't done any background research beyond reading the publisher's press kit, and what she wanted to talk about was exactly that problematic (because non-existent) "research" about how women really are gabbier than men.

The way that Dr. B handled this challenge is a classic of the rhetorical art.

THOMSON: Men and women alike think ladies have the gift of gab. And that theory is confirmed in Dr. Louann Brizendine's book, "The Female Brain". It turns out, women say about 20,000 words a day, while men only utter 7,000. To talk a little bit more about this, I am joined by Dr. Brizendine.
Good morning.
BRIZENDINE: Good morning, Beverly. How are you?
THOMSON: I'm well, thank you.
Tell me what made you decide to actually carry out this research. It's certainly something anecdotally that most people would say, oh yeah, that sounds right, women do talk a lot more than men. But what made you decide to actually go and research it and come up with the findings?

Now, at the moment that her book was published, back in August, the honest answer would have been "Actually, Beverly, I've never done any research myself. In this case, I'm relying on some numbers that I found in a pop-psychology book by Allan and Barbara Pease, 'Why Men Don't Listen & Women Can't Read Maps'. And frankly, I'm not sure where they got those numbers. They don't tell us, and for all I know, they just made them up."

And after her interview with Stephen Moss, a couple of days earlier, it would have been honest to add "A critic called these numbers into question, and I found that I was unable to substantiate them. So this claim will be removed from future editions of the book, as I recently explained to a reporter from the Guardian."

But actually answering the questions that an interviewer asks you is the route to oblivion, whether you're selling books or running for office. When direct and honest answers would be embarrassing -- or even boring -- you need to avoid the question and shift to less problematic and more entertaining talking-points. In this case, Dr. B handles the transition magnificently. Her response:

BRIZENDINE: I think, Beverly, one thing that's interesting to know, that's fascinating about the brain, is that when we are in utero the fetal brain is all female in both males and females, up until eight weeks old. And then the tiny testicles in the male fetus start pumping out testosterone. It goes up into the male brain, changes the female-type circuits of the brain, and then basically increases the size of the cells in the male brain for things like sexual pursuit and other male-brain circuits. And by the time we're all born we are born with a male-type brain or a female-type brain.

Beverly Thompson goes along with the neuroscience theme, while steering the conversation back to female gabbiness:

THOMSON: So, what is in the brain that, because I know in part of your research and your findings you say that women actually get a buzz, if you will, off talking a lot.

This one is easier -- Dr. B just needs to resist the temptation to explain that she hasn't done any research on how "women actually get a buzz .. off talking a lot", and no one else has either. And since the delicate issues are a bit out of focus at this point, she can edge in the direction of honesty by bringing up context and individual differences:

BRIZENDINE: Yes, it's interesting. Females like to do lots of what is called overlapping talk and will get together with each other. And in the social setting, in the home and places where women feel comfortable in a social setting with their friends, that is the context in which women tend to speak a lot more -- or speaking on the phone with their mothers or their girlfriends and lots of overlapping speech.
However, you've got to remember that if you are out on a date with a guy for the first time and he's trying to impress you, what will happen is that the guy will be talking, talking, talking and the girl may not get even a single word in edgewise. So, it's the context that counts. Sometimes then men will overtalk you completely.
THOMSON: Well, and certainly, as you mentioned, there's exceptions to every case. I mean, you might just get a chatty man.
BRIZENDINE: I think men in the media in particular, they've chosen that field because they tend to be more chatty than the average guy.

This kind of qualification isn't in her book, but putting it in interviews is both truthful and also (given the challenge that's out there, even if Beverly Thompson hasn't gotten the message) self-protective. However, after a joke at the expense of one of her co-workers, Ms. Thompson heads right back to that troublesome word-count business:

THOMSON: Did you hear that, Seamus? [laughter] Sorry.
Tell me how you did the research, though. Because when you think about it, 20,000 words? Did you sit there and record women over a period of time?

Uh oh. This is the most direct test yet of Dr. B's interview-fu: a simple yes-no question, inviting elaboration on an extremely embarrassing topic. Alas, she never recorded anyone, and she never counted any words in anyone else's recordings, and neither (apparently) did the people she took those numbers from. If it had been me in that CTV studio, I'd have been done for.

But not Dr. B! With a speed and confidence reminiscent of Muhammad Ali in his early fights, she brushes aside the question, flicks a stinging little reference count to distract the interviewer, and does a quick shuffle-dance backwards into evolutionary psychology and spousal spats:

BRIZENDINE: Actually all of the studies -- I reviewed 1,008 studies for my book, "The Female Brain", that looks at all kinds of aspects of how we behave as females and think as females differently than the male.
And you've got to remember that only about one-percent differences turn up. Because the male and female brain are more alike than they are different. So, the interesting part of that is that for millions of years we have evolved in a slightly different niche. The female niche has been more being pregnant, having babies, raising what we call nonverbal infants. So, the female brain tends to be better at certain things like picking up nonverbal cues and social cues, emotional cues.
And the female brain actually remembers the details of emotional events much more than a guy. For example, I don't know about you but many, many women will describe an event where they know some big argument that they had with their husband 10 years ago he doesn't remember at all. And she remembers every single detail. [laughter]
THOMSON: Oh boy. And that's a whole other study I think, Doctor.
BRIZENDINE: Absolutely.
THOMSON: Thank you very much for your time. I'm not sure Seamus heard us because I think he was talking behind me back there. [laughter]

Wow. Talk about your Sweet Science. As Ali once said about himself, she's not the greatest -- she's the double greatest.

Truly, a worthy recipient of the prestigious Goropius Becanus Prize.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 29, 2007 06:30 AM