June 19, 2007

Blinding us with science

Andrew Sullivan joins David Brooks in concluding that the movement for sex-segregated education has "brain research backing it up". He quotes approvingly from an article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle (Janine DeFao, "Single-gender education gains ground as boys lag"), which in turn quotes approvingly from Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax, the main promoters of pseudo-scientific arguments for single-sex education.

Many of their criticisms of current educational policies seem reasonable to me. However, their arguments from neuroscience are exaggerated, not to say completely bogus.

Misleading appeals to the authority of "brain research" have become the modern equivalent of out-of-context scriptural fragments. Andrew Sullivan wouldn't accept a politician's bible quotations uncritically, and he should learn to be just as skeptical of psychologists.

About a year ago, when David Brooks began promoting the single-sex education movement, I looked into some of the "science" presented in the movement's central texts: Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters, and Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens' The Minds of Boys. What I found was shockingly careless, tendentious and even dishonest. Their over-interpretation and mis-interpretation of scientific research is so extreme that it becomes a form of fabrication. If you care about such things, read the posts listed below, and then go back and re-read Janine DeFao's article in the SF Chronicle:

"David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist" (6/12/2006)
"Are men emotional children?" (6/24/2006)
"Of rats and (wo)men" (8/19/2006)
"Leonard Sax on hearing" (8/22/2006)
"More on rats and men and women" (8/22/2006)
"The emerging science of gendered yelling" (9/5/2006)
"The vast arctic tundra of the male brain" (9/6/2006)
"Girls and boys and classroom noise" (9/9/2006)

(A list of links to other relevant posts is here.)

I believe that the pluralistic nature of American education, fostered by local control and the mixture of public and private institutions, is a good thing. Single-sex schools surely deserve a place in the mix, and perhaps it should be a bigger place. And science is obviously relevant to the discussion. But a handful of ideologues like Sax and Gurian are trying to pass their own convictions off as scientifically demonstrated truth. Their opinions deserve to be heard, but their false invocations of scientific authority should be condemned and rejected.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 19, 2007 10:01 AM