August 27, 2007

Spreading the brain-sex gospel

This letter from Charles Raymond arrived yesterday. I've posted it in its entirety, with his permission. He mentions some earlier Language Log posts on on Brizendine, Sax and Gurian: a list of links is here.

I am a teacher in an independent school near San Francisco, and an occasional reader of the Language Log. I want to draw your attention to the rapid spread of workshops and talks pushing the "sex-difference" gospel about brain development in the private school world.

I completely understand your effort to counter Brizendine, since the public impact of her bestseller is substantial. I noticed your discussions of Sax and Gurian, but I am very curious if you or anyone you know has followed JoAnn Deak, author of Girls Will Be Girls (her next title, according to her website, will be The Brain Matters). Her writing is in the "expert-advice" genre, rather than the pernicious popular-pseudo-science mode of Brizendine. Deak, however, has built a wide following on the speaker circuit for educators, and she spreads virtually the same line, and drapes herself with the same "backed-up-by-the-latest-science" mantle. She spoke for three hours at our opening faculty meeting, and the presentation was impressive.

Her connections run deep with the schools for girls, for whom she advocates on the basis that biologically determined brain differences are the bedrock reason why many girls need unisex educational settings (completely in line with Sax, the difference being that she has a much larger existing "market" for her services). But she has built her "educational advisor" credentials much more widely than that: she speaks at conferences attended by heads of schools, and apparently receives many invitations to speak at individual schools.

I won't go into the detail -- you are familiar with the pattern -- but I will say that I laughed out loud when I read your description of Deena Skolnick's study ("Distracted by the brain", 6/6/2007). Deak's presentation could be exhibit A for that phenomenon. She was very entertaining, but "neuro-speak" was the hammer in her hand. So much of what she had to say was good and true when it came to practical advice, but the assumed authority of her voice was explicitly her willingness to absorb and accept the NewTrue science, and then to digest and translate that for us as the new gospel of pedagogical practice. Her acceptance of the science ("undeniable facts") was, by the way, really posed as a very "manly" exercise, if I may say so, in putting aside what she would "rather" have believed about men and women. In order to be true to our kids, we need to be "hard-boiled" about our biology. That rhetorical approach was so incredibly disarming and yet also intellectually intimidating at the same time.

I will attach some links on this subject below, but please do let me know of any other communication you might have had about her. I am trying to put together some materials to counter this sort of thing in my professional community, but I'm afraid it's like fighting the tide. The very day after her talk, an email went around notifying us all about a talk by Brizendine at a local bookstore. The appetites were whetted, so why not go to the source?

I should add that I support the modest growth of unisex education, but not because I believe that the biologically determined differences in cognitive development or learning styles are so salient that we need to redesign our institutions and practices around them. There are sufficient cultural and psychological arguments for different school settings. It's too bad some people feel the need to appeal to false or exaggerated biological determinism, and in a way that I believe may ultimately harm the cause of gender equity.

Some links:

Deak's own website makes it clear that she is making the rounds of independent schools.

The National Coalition of Girls' Schools endorses a similar view in a booklet that prominently cites Deak.

And individual girls' schools feature her name in various ways.

Here is Brizendine herself giving a talk quite similar to Deak's at the 2006 NAPSG meeting (the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls).

This Canadian article (Anne Marie Owens, "Boys' Brains are From Mars", National Post, 5/10/2003) pairs Deak with Sax, and it gives an excellent description of what her rap is like.

[Guest post by Charles Raymond]

[Comment by Mark Liberman -- I found one passage from that National Post article especially striking:

The brain maps are intriguing, but what is more compelling is the sea change that must have taken place to allow these experts to show such slides in benign cookie-cutter conference rooms, pointing out the differences with clinical detachment, without any hint of confrontation or controversy. Doesn't talk of brain differences conjure up images of Canada's own Philippe Rushton and his racial brain delineations? Substitute blacks for boys in these talks and surely these speakers would have been drummed out of such a respectable gathering.

But there is no hint of quackery here. Here's an Ohio feminist with A-list credentials, a female psychologist specializing in girls' empowerment, and she's using the gendered brain maps. Here's a Maryland pediatrician, whose articles have been published in leading academic journals and who is a known champion of advancing boys in school, and he is using the gendered brain maps, too.

These were the ideas that thousands of educators from North America's most elite private schools were talking about by the end of last month's conference of the National Association of Independent Schools: What should we make of the science-based differences between boys' and girls' brains? What are the practical implications for educating boys and educating girls? Do traditional single-sex schools need to reinvent themselves to take advantage of this new knowledge? Can co-ed schools continue to make the case for mixed-sex programming in the face of this scientific evidence?

This explicitly makes the connection to old-fashioned racist anthropology and physiology, and to the recent work on sociobiology of racial differences by Rushton and others. That work has been extremely controversial, and has made relatively little headway in the culture at large, as far as I can see. In particular, it's unimaginable that today's American educational elite would enthusiastically host a set of speakers promoting the view that biologically-determined differences between the races, in abilities and interests and learning style and even perceptual sensitivity, are so great that racially-segregated education is the only way to treat each group as it needs to be treated. "Scientific" support for this conclusion would be minutely examined and criticized, and independent of the science, the conclusion would be resisted on ethical and political grounds, and its proponents would be ignored if not shunned.

The amazing thing is how far the brain-sex movement has gotten while raising hardly any controversy at all, despite its generally shoddy, misinterpreted or even fabricated scientific foundations, and its affinities with 19th-century gender stereotypes. (If you're not clear about this, read the links here.) I believe that this is because the brain-sex movement has learned to make its pitch in ways that appeal to feminist prejudices as well as patriarchal ones.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 27, 2007 06:43 AM