December 12, 2006

Not exactly a retraction

The latest "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" show on NPR began with an update from host Peter Sagal:

We got a lot of mail from scientists objecting to our story last week about a new book on the female brain.  The author of that book [Louann Brizendine, for those of you who haven't been following the story here on Language Log] says that women talk three times as much as men do.  And further, the author says that men think about sex once every 52 seconds.  Our correspondents wrote in to tell us it's all nonsense, there's absolutely no good scientific evidence for any of that.  We apologize.  We should have known, of course, that that couldn't be true: imagine, a man going a whole 51 seconds without thinking about sex!

And then, on with the show.

Sagal says "we apologize", but manages to spin the story in a way that's likely to reinforce stereotypes about male/female differences.

First, Sagal says that the mail came from scientists, though I'm sure that a fair number of complainants were just ordinary well-informed people (of the sort who read Language Log, for instance).  Framing things this way sets things up as a dispute over "scientific truth", and that's unfortunate, because people in general tend to be suspicious of pronouncements from scientists on matters of social concern; scientists are widely viewed as having some kind of narrow "special interest" that prejudices their research on socially relevant questions.

This framing continues with the unpacking of what "it's all nonsense" means: "there's absolutely no good scientific evidence for any of that."  I'm certain that many of the complainants went further than that, saying that for the first claim (on verbosity) there is evidence AGAINST it, and that the second (on sexual thoughts) is grossly exaggerated.  I also suspect that most of the correspondents just said "evidence" rather than "scientific evidence".

Saying merely that there's no evidence for these claims leaves open the possibility that the claims could be true, just not yet proven.  And since the claims are restatements, with exact numbers, from someone presented as an authority, of widely held folk beliefs about male/female differences, a verdict of "not proven" will probably be taken as license for those folk beliefs.  The apology in no way threatens those beliefs.

Then there's "no good scientific evidence": what is "scientific" doing in there?  There's an implicit contrast between scientific evidence and some other kind of evidence.  What other kind could there be?

The evidence of our experience.  We know what we see.  And what a lot of people see is gabby women and sex-obsessed men.  Scientists might not have SCIENTIFIC evidence, but ordinary people have plenty of evidence that (to their minds) confirms the stereotypes about women and men.  Stereotypes are, in a sense, "social facts" and so are very hard to confront.  (The phrasing that stereotypes are social facts is not original with me, by the way, though I've said this for years in classes.  Unfortunately, I don't know where I got it from.  And to complicate things further, some writers explicitly contrast "social facts", in the sense of '(scientific) facts about social life', with stereotypes, which are systems of belief about social life.)

Then, of course, Sagal ends with the punch line, suggesting that male/female differences might actually be greater than Brizendine claims.  We all know that men think about sex ALL THE TIME, after all.

Not really a retraction, I'm afraid.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 12, 2006 11:51 AM