Thursday, September 6, 2007

Gender Delusions and Gaps

About a week ago, Nancy Jane Moore posted on what, following Gwyneth Jones, she calls “The Great Divide.” Today, Mark Liberman has posted The "Fiction Gap": Empathy, Prestige, or What? on the Language Log, showing just how far the obsession with gender differences can go. (With thanks to The Mumpsiumus for the link.) Liberman begins by noting recent reports that the women purchase 80% of books of fiction and men 20%. His post surveys various explanations for this apparent gender gap.

Theories attempting to explain the “fiction gap” abound. Cognitive psychologists have found that women are more empathetic than men, and possess a greater emotional range of traits that make fiction more appealing to them.

Apparently the theories for explaining the “fiction gap” even wander into the territory of “mirror neurons.”

The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.

Liberman summarizes a study of gender differences in mirror neurons based on magnetoencephalography and discusses whether or not its results (based on a sample of ten young Taiwanese men and ten young Taiwanese women) are statistically significant and then moves on to the 2004 NEA report on reading and decides that since the differences between racial and ethnic groups were as large or larger than the differences between males and female that the argument that gendered differences in empathy explains the gap is dubious.

What strikes me as really weird about the various “theories” Liberman cites is their apparent failure to notice that if this gap actually does now exist in present-day US, Britain, and Canada (and Liberman notes that he’s by no means certain that it does), it is a reflection of a particular cultural juncture and not a hard-wired biological imperative controlling the behavior of men and women. I seriously doubt that the 80/20 split (if it’s real) has always existed for as long as fiction has existed and I would be surprised if the same results were reproduced in other cultural milieus. That any cognitive psychologists or neuroscientists could entertain for a moment the idea that women are hardwired to read fiction and men aren’t stinks of nineteenth century pseudo-sciencethe kinds of “science” that used calipers to “prove” that Caucasians are intellectually superior to non-Caucasians and that men are intellectually superior to women. I find myself wondering why these people are so obsessed with “the Great Divide” that they are apparently unable to ask reasonable questions. It shouldn’t be possible for someone still cherishing such discredited assumptions to get an advanced degree in any science. The amount of time and money spent trying to demonstrate hardwired sex differences for shoring up the credibility of the Great Divide is scandalous.

If I were certain there was a “fiction” gap between men and women (and of course I’m not), what I’d write about what it might mean in light of the domination by male critics and reviewers, male tastes, and male values of all literary discussion. The critic gap certainly exists: we all know that. But that’s not the kind of gap anyone but women are interested in thinking about, explaining, and discussing, is it. And certainly not the relation between the critic gap and the “fiction gap.”


Steven Shaviro said...

Yes, this is the question that absolutely *nobody* asks... WHY these scientists are "so obsessed with the 'Great Divide'," as you say, that they will research the alleged gender differences accompanying every conceivable human characteristic, and trumpet whatever results they come up with regardless of how statistically insignificant they are, to the exclusion of so many other possible forms of inquiry. What are their motivations? Why are they so invested in the most retrograde cliches about gender difference?

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I'm glad you posted this, Timmi -- I was going to do it yesterday but ran out of time. Language Log has devoted a lot of posts to debunking ridiculous but supposedly "scientific" claims on gender differences in language use, including the common one that women talk more than men. (Actual scientific studies indicate that either men talk a little more than women or that both genders talk about the same.) They've devoted a lot of space to debunking a book by Louann Brizendine called The Female Brain, which got a lot of press because it claimed to tie gender differences to brain differences. In fact, LL gave Brizendine their award for the worst linguistic nonsense of 2006, as contributor Geoffrey Nunberg says here.

It shocks me that a woman scientist would be pushing the Great [Brain] Divide, but, assuming she really believes all this crap and isn't just using it as a cynical way to promote her career in a world that would prefer to believe in major gender differences, it probably supports Gwyneth's view that no one really wants to give up the Great Divide.

I don't know if there are quantifiable gender differences in reading patterns, but If there are some, cultural differences provide a much more logical explanation than half-baked brain research. While most of the people I know (male and female) read fiction, I have met more men than women who "only read nonfiction" or who "don't have time to read." I don't think it would be hard to find a cultural explanation for those attitudes.

But no one wants to talk about cultural issues as a cause of gender differences these days. I suspect that's because we're now pretending that our culture isn't giving us constant reminders that men and women are supposed to be different. Plus culture can change -- if we ascribe most gender differences to culture, and the culture shifts (and it certainly has shifted a great deal), then we will be forced to confront the concept that men and women aren't all that different.

Or maybe even recognize that each person is a unique individual rather than someone easily defined by membership in a group set by biology.

Josh said...

Steven, "absolutely nobody"? What about Sandra Bem, or even the late Stephen Jay Gould?

Anonymous said...

A more likely explanation especially for young men is that they're playing games.

If gaming were to entirely disappear and were not supplanted by another form of entertainment then it's just possible that reading might return as entertainment.