Why Gender Differences Don’t Matter (and Other Myths)

Cross-posted at Queereka.

A few days ago, Harriet Hall wrote a post on Science-Based Medicine titled “Gender Differences and Why They Don’t Matter So Much.” The article left a bad taste in my mouth for a number of reasons.

Aside from what I feel is a gross misrepresentation of various criticisms of Michael Shermer (which I will leave to Ophelia and PZ to deal with as they see fit), the bulk of my issue with her post deals with how she discusses gender, particularly the blatant conflation of sex and gender.

Hall says:

No one can deny that there are real differences between men and women.

This is a truism—no one can deny that there are real similarities between men and women, either. So what? This tells us nothing and gets us nowhere.

She continues:

Women have chest bumps; men have dangly bits. Women menstruate, get pregnant, and lactate. Men have more testosterone and can grow beards. Women have two X chromosomes; men have one X and one Y.

This is where it becomes obvious that Hall does not understand the difference between sex and gender. The terms “women” and “men” are terms for gender; “female” and “male” are terms to refer to sex. She confusingly uses sex traits to describe gender differences. We certainly assign meanings to these different biological traits, but what Hall is explaining above turns out to be an excellent example of how sexed bodies come already wrapped up in our understandings of gender. Hall’s understandings of what it means to be “man” and “woman” (gender) affect how she categorizes bodies (sex).

Let me deconstruct this a bit further: having breasts, menstruating, getting pregnant, lactating, and having two X chromosomes are not inherently “womanly” things. Those are things that are more common to female-bodied individuals, but a person who identifies as a woman may go through her life not having or doing any of those things. Because “woman” is a cultural category, not a biological category.

Biologically speaking, Hall’s dichotomy is still way too neat. There are plenty of examples that further demonstrate how Hall’s idea of the clear-cut division between male bodies and female bodies is not so simple. For instance, people with androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) who are born with XY chromosomes develop female bodies because their cells are incapable of responding to androgens like testosterone. These individuals are not men simply because they have XY chromosomes! Some of them may be men, but others may not be. Regardless, their bodies develop externally as female bodies (they may have internal undescended testes and lack a uterus). But the thing is, however their bodies develop, that does not necessarily tell us anything about their gender.

What Hall is doing here is playing into a biological reductionist view of sex/gender, where the thing that is most important in determining gender (and the differences among them) is biology. This sort of reductionist thinking was shot down back in 1975 when Gayle Rubin introduced a categorical split between sex and gender. Of course, gender theories have moved away from this split as a nice and neat division of nature and nurture (a false dichotomy for humans if there ever was one). The latest theories concerning sex/gender are biocultural (looking at the ways that biology and culture work together as opposed to privileging one over the other). This is quite evident in work by people like biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling and medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis.

Aside from Hall’s obvious ignorance of what gender is, I am also disturbed by what appears to be a blind acceptance of research on sex/gender differences in brains, various developmental and health issues, and standardized tests:

Science has shown numerous less obvious differences. For instance, men’s brains are larger (but for intelligence as for penises, size doesn’t matter). The information in the Scientific American article about other brain differences is fascinating; you might want to read it now and then come back.

Boys are more likely to be autistic, to be dyslexic, to have Tourette syndrome, and to have ADHD. On standardized tests, boys have better spatial skills and girls have better language skills. Women are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Heart attacks tend to cause different symptoms in men and women. The effects of drugs can be different in men and women; this is why there has been so much criticism of drug trials that were done only on male subjects.

Some of these are innate differences grounded in genetic, anatomic and physiologic realities. And epigenetics tells us that environmental factors can influence how genes are expressed, not only in the individual but in the offspring.

She touts a 2005 Scientific American article that discusses some of the conclusions of the neuroscientific research that had been conducted on sex/gender differences in the brain up to that point. The article draws on Simon Baron-Cohen’s research, which has since been heavily criticized by many people, including neuropsychologist Cordelia Fine and sociomedical scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young.url-2

The differences that Hall presents as settled to be innate are actually far from it. If Hall is truly concerned with a scientific understanding of sex and gender, I would strongly urge her to read Fausto-Sterling, Fine, and Jordan-Young and stop promoting innate sex/gender differences as settled science. She should refrain from presenting gender differences as innate or hardwired because that position is not supported in the scientific literature. As Jordan-Young argues, the consensus behind the “hardwiring” paradigm in sex/gender studies “is both unscientific and unethical.” Further, it demonstrates a misunderstanding of human development—our bodies (including our brains) do not cease developing at birth. And we are not free of cultural influence while in the womb.

As an aside, Hall’s focus on breastfeeding as the penultimate form of bonding also does not jive with the scientific literature. According to this review of the literature, positive relationships resulting from breastfeeding is an assumption in the literature that is not supported by empirical evidence. While there are certainly health benefits, it remains an unsubstantiated claim that breastfeeding leads to stronger bonds between mother and infant. Moreover, claims like this tend to stigmatize parents who cannot breastfeed due to any number of circumstances, which can be detrimental to parental and infant health.

As far as Hall’s claim that she doesn’t “foresee a day when as many men as women choose that occupation” (I assume she means the “occupation” of primary caregiver for children), I’m not so sure. Again, this is Hall speaking from her own biases, blithely unaware of the fact that the number of stay-at-home dads in the US has doubled over the last 10 years. This is a pretty massive shift in a short amount of time. While stay-at-home dads still only make up 3.4 percent of stay-at-home parents, I don’t think it is fair to dismiss the idea that at some point in the future men and women might be equally willing to be the primary caregiver in their family.


Oh, and by the way, there is ethnographic evidence of male “breastfeeding” among the Aka of central Africa, who have been dubbed “the best dads in the world.” Also, many trans men can breastfeed.

Ultimately, it is pointless to argue that either biology or culture is more important in human development. Culture does not simply elaborate upon already existing biological qualities; culture and biology are co-productive. They both play a significant role, and they both interact with and influence one another. Culture affects how our brains develop—if there is a “hardwiring” for something like gender, how are we to tell that it happens pre-culturally? I cannot think of an ethical way to test this hypothesis.

Hall is right that it is problematic to apply understandings of differences among groups to individual qualities or abilities. But she’s wrong that gender doesn’t matter. To those of us who are gender variant and do not adhere to the very strict binary that Hall and most Western societies espouse, it is rather offensive to tell us that gender does not matter. Would Hall ever tell people of color that race doesn’t matter? Would she begrudge queer people or people of color joining together in solidarity in the same way that she poopoos on people identifying as “women skeptics”? Is Hall advocating for a diversity-blind society where we pretend that differences don’t exist? It sure feels that way. And I think it’s important to think about who benefits from such a worldview.

See, it’s easy to argue that gender isn’t important when you’re in a position of benefiting from a heteronormative/cisnormative gender system. It’s much more difficult to critically examine the biases that underlie your worldview. If you want to adhere to a scientific or rationalistic worldview, you should be more aware of how your culture and your lived experiences can blind you to normative biases. And you should be open to examining your position when these biases are pointed out to you.

ETA (2/9/2013 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time): It has come to my attention that Harriet Hall has already answered my question if she would begrudge queer people or people of color joining together in solidarity. The answer is yes. On Brian Engler’s Facebook post (screenshot) promoting Women in Secularism 2, Hall wrote:

I don’t see the need for a separate conference, any more than we need a separate conference for African Americans or for men or for LGBT. I would rather attend a conference with a mix of prominent men and women secularist speakers. I think men have a lot to say about women in secularism, too. Efforts like this tend to divide the secular movement. Why can’t we all just get along and cooperate on our mutual goals? I think conferences like this only tend to postpone the day when the sexes will truly be treated equally and no one will pay attention to whether a person has chest bumps or dangly bits.

Hall is clueless. These conferences are not mutually exclusive–it is not as if WiS or AAH erase all the other conferences where straight white men get to speak up. These conferences do not erase straight white men’s voices from the movement. Rather, they provide a space where those voices are not privileged by default. The idea that minorities joining together in solidarity to speak about issues important to them is somehow divisive is horseshit. What Hall deems “mutual goals” aren’t actually mutual–they are the goals of a certain segment of the population, and for her to pretend that the goals she sees as important are the goals of the skeptical/atheist/humanist movements is not only arrogant, it’s evidence of a patriarchal bargain.


Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

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  1. Maybe the problem is answering the question: Gender doesn’t matter — to what?

    That is: gender — however the heck it is constructed — should make no difference to me when I am performing a vector sum. Or hammering nails. Or building a particle accelerator. None of those situations would be affected by gender unless you are taking the position that for people who aren’t in the gender continuum 2+2 suddenly doesn’t equal four or hammers in the hands of some individuals magically become ineffective.

    It matters a lot tho, when you talk about who becomes a scientist or carpenter in the first place. About social norms. About all the messy stuff that people do with each other. This is why the argument that “women” shouldn’t be in the military is simply silly — if a woman fires a bullet at me I am just as dead if it hits me in the head as if a transgender person does it or a man or whatever category you want to use. It’s also why it’s important when discussing why we have gendered norms in the military in the first place. To put it another way: we don’t separate the task we are asking people to perform from the social norms we have built up around those tasks. They aren’t the same.

    That’s the question I wish more people would hash out — to what, exactly, are we applying the analysis of gender to? There’s a reason we don’t use it when looking at relativity: it’s just the wrong category of phenomena.

    Social phenomena, on the other hand, are where it gets important, and I think sometimes people conflate things in the way you mention — sex and gender are two different things. But it gets messy when we talk about whether gender differences “matter” because we aren’t always specific about what we are looking at.

    1. I think asking “to what?” or “to whom?” is an excellent question.

      However, I’m not sure I totally agree with your position. Performing a vector sum, hammering nails, building a particle accelerator–these are all cultural endeavors. Gender may affect them in less obvious ways. This doesn’t mean that it is necessary to use gender as an analytical frame in determining 2+2 or looking at relativity, I agree. But it also doesn’t mean that those things/activities are not gendered. Science, after all, *is* a social phenomenon. And it’s not just affected by who becomes a scientist–it’s also affected by the cultural biases of the people who practice it and the products that result from it. See, for example, Emily Martin’s “The Egg and the Sperm” or Upchurch & Fojtová’s “Women in the Brain” for examples of how gender can work its way into seemingly neutral science.

      1. This is where I always get confused, tho.

        Is science a cultural activity? Well, yes, in the sense that people do it and there are norms involved.

        But if all scientists were women would that make the speed of light different? No, I don’t think.

        That’s the problem I always had trouble with when discussing science in particular as “gendered.” Because I can’t come up with an alternative that works better for figuring out how the world works. It reminds me too much of those “ways of knowing” arguments that imply a) non-whites and women can’t do science because of — something, it’s never quite clear what and b) that quackery, to name one phenomenon, is just as valid as scientifically-based medicine. (I know, I know, there are all sorts of issues that come up with that, but stuff like antibiotics and vaccines work. Saying prayers to the deity or mystical principle du jour does not).

        I’m not just trying to derail, here, I’ve really always struggled with how the laws of physics are somehow affected by gender(?) but I get the sense that isn’t what you are saying.

        I get that science is affected by cultural biases — lord knows the whole history of anthropology, to name one, is rife with those kinds of problems. But I am less in agreement with the argument that this kind of stuff affects the physical sciences as much, because when you get down to it stuff there either works or it doesn’t. My gender politics or gender don’t matter a whit to a radioactive decay sequence. Electronics don’t suddenly stop working in the hands of trans people, you know?

        That doesn’t mean that gender politics doesn’t enter science — the story of Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin or Sophie Germain attest to that. And here are plenty of examples of different cultures using technology differently for all kinds of reasons. But that’s kind of a different issue, at least to me. But I admit I might be one of those hopelessly empirical thinkers, and may have been scarred by more than one semester of gender studies discussions :-)

        1. You’re correct that I’m not saying that the laws of physics are affected by gender.

          What I’m saying is that the ways that we go about practicing science and presenting scientific information can be (but are not always) gendered. And this can affect how we understand different phenomena. If you check out the examples I gave, you can see that the implicit gender biases of scientists have affected how they talk about things like sperm and egg that have obfuscated our understandings of those processes.

          By the way, the “ways of knowing” arguments can be quite complex. And I’ve never seen it stated as indigenous people not being able to do science, but that the ways that they generate knowledge about the world are not always so antithetical to scientific findings and can often compliment and enhance scientific understanding. I certainly do not think science is the only way to generate knowledge; for me, it is just one really good way of generating knowledge about certain phenomena, and it can’t be used to answer every epistemic question we raise.

          So you and I don’t seem to be in disagreement so much as focusing on different aspects of science. ;)

  2. The whole problem with Harriet Hall from the start is that she trivialises a complex issue. It is now apparent why she hold such a view because she doesn’t seem to understand the underlying complexity of gender.

  3. I predict that male lactation is a future Mothering Magazine-esque crunchy parenting fetish;)

    Stating the obvious: societal markers of gender matter because gender perception determines status and power. Even among skeptics who should know better than to discriminate. I’m going to copy/paste my slightly ageist comment from the SBM thread here because I’m curious about how age might factor into the current endless skeptical shitstorm:

    From here on the periphery, it looks to me like one thing that’s happening is that the entire gamut of sexism gets conflated with the very worst rape threats etc. So milder instances, like tone-deaf “it’s a guy thing” comments get conflated with rape threats. And mild, “guys don’t do that” comments get conflated with being accused of rape.

    I’m wondering (broadly, larger-societally) if there’s some sort of age-related disconnect with sexism where younger-ish folks are more likely to call out mild background-radiation type sexism and older-ish folks are less likely to know what the hell they are talking about. (I count myself in the enlightened older-ish cohort.) Anecdote: I attended a public lecture series at a teaching hospital. In opening the first lecture, a silverback doctor told a sexist joke about the cognition of teenage girls. Because they’re so emotional… har har. I’m pretty sure his fourth-year students who were not that far removed from their own stints as teenage grils found it appalling. The audience reaction broke down exactly as I described. The only people who laughed were his age and older. Women seeking status and what not. I sent a private, back-channel email identifying the joke as sexist and explaining why it made me uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure he had no idea what I was even talking about. Still, I did not get rape threats in response.

    1. “I predict that male lactation is a future Mothering Magazine-esque crunchy parenting fetish;)”

      I don’t know about a fetish, but there are devices out there that men can wear to simulate breastfeeding. (I would never let that guy near a baby to breastfeed though–he looks like he eats babies!)

    2. So milder instances, like tone-deaf “it’s a guy thing” comments get conflated with rape threats. And mild, “guys don’t do that” comments get conflated with being accused of rape.

      Oh. The “they are both awful and overreacting!” argument. I don’t buy it. irst, what’st he context of “It’s a guy thing”? Also, the fact that it’s likely a RESPONSE to the actually sincere “guys, don’t do that’ is, you know, IMPORTANT.

      Yeah. Ageist. That’s what’s wrong with your comment.

      1. ” irst, what’st he context ”

        Apparently, I need to clean out my keyboard.

        “First, what’s the context…” :)

    3. And to clarify, I take issue with the implication that women who took issue with “it’s a guy thing” were first, conflating it with rape threats, or overreacting, though I’m sure it depends on context. And either way, without knowing the example, I somehow have a feeling “it’s a guy thing” is highly problematic. Could you provide context?

        1. And I don’t know where ‘conflated with rape’ is coming from.
          Maybe Anthropologist Underground could point out where that happened?
          There’s a lot of posts devoted to Shermer’s faux pas, so maybe I missed it.

    4. I see the targets of the criticism conflating “Hey that was sexist” with “OMG you’re a rapist.” It’s part of what makes this conversation so frustrating. There’s no room allowed for a friendly discussion that starts off with pointing out sexism. Over and over again feminists try to explain that pointing out sexism does not mean that the person doing the sexism is a Dastardly Moustache-Twirling Evil Villainous MIsogynist, but this message doesn’t seem to penetrate very far.

      1. Yes, this is what I was referring to. Where someone says something sexist, feminists respond by pointing out that it was sexist, and the person who said something sexist flips out and interpets even the mildest criticism of the sexism with rape accusations.

        *backs slowly the fuck away from this conversation*

        1. Thanks for the clarification – you were saying the opposite of what I was hearing.
          Maybe I need to candle my ears for better reading comprehension.

        2. When I start feeling defensive, I do need to back the fuck away b/c either I’m wrong and need to rethink my position (likely), or I’m not making myself clear (also likely). Either is frustrating, and the more frustrated I am, the harder it is to achieve clarity. I do think that the sound and the fury surrounding the major players makes it really hard to have productive conversations. I didn’t come here to be a jerk. I’m completely willing to listen to the (probably many) reasons why I’m wrong, but I was taken aback by what I perceived as unwarranted attacks.

          The ongoing shitstorm feels very polarized and dichotomous (again, not trying to give cover to the misogynists, just speaking to the difficulty of making headway) in a GW Bush kind of way, and shouting louder at each other doesn’t seem to be normalizing feminist values and/or marginalizing misogyny.

          Speaking of lack of clarity: I also wonder if the over-the-top responses surrounding these issues is in part the result of aspirational status-seeking. (I have a major personal bias-possibly wrong-that when people behave stupidly, there is likely a strong underlying motivator of status/power seeking.) So that while I can understand how a guy like Shermer could let slip a stupidly sexist comment. Whether he personally believes it or not is kind-of a separate issue from the fact that he said it out loud in public. In some ways this kind of thing just reflects the background radiation of gender bias in larger society and is probably correlated with his age and silverback status in the skeptical community.

          When he got called on it, perhaps he perceived it as a challenge to his status and that might partly explain the idiotic over-the-top nonsense that he spewed forth thereafter. Maybe owning up to it an apologizing felt to him like a personally risky, IDK. OR maybe he gained greater status/power with Old-Guard Skeptics(OGS) by doubling down. Again, speculating.

          Both Shermer and Benson enjoy status and recognition within the skeptical community greater than the majority of their commenters. I wonder if the worst misogynists fling themselves into the fray and passionately ally themselves w/Shermer (or whatever iteration of the current flare-up) not only because he’s giving them cover, but also because they can self-ascribe status by doing so. They’re just like Michael Shermer. It’s almost like he’s a friend of theirs. Attacking other prominent skeptics like Benson, et. al. also is a way of self-ascribing status. Maybe they think it elevates their personal status above that of the prominent feminists. Perhaps they think that the OGS will always be in power. Because they always have been.

          On the flip side, those of us who feel marginalized in the skeptical community and in larger society might tend to be very quick to passionately ally ourselves with Benson (or whomever the kerfuffle du jour involves). I totally agree with opposing the misogynists and defending feminists and feminist values. I wonder if there might be more to it than that on our side as well, and if this undermines our ability to penetrate OGS. Nygbrus had a comment in the SBM article that offers more clarity than I can: “It almost seems like we are trying as hard as we can to “out-skeptic” our brethren, be “more feminist” or something. Make sure everyone knows how incredibly egalitarian and skeptical we really are.” [/rambling]

          1. Both Shermer and Benson enjoy status and recognition within the skeptical community greater than the majority of their commenters.

            Well maybe, but certainly not to the same degree. That’s one thing I found somewhat surprising about Shermer’s reaction – the fact that it never seems to have crossed his mind to pull his punches a little on account of his silverback status. It seems just a little like an abuse of that status.

          2. Ophelia Benson: I suspect that you pose more of a threat to the status quo than you give yourself credit for. Shermer could have simply ignored you.

            Maybe by the time I finally finish writing my Grand Unifying Theory of Status and Power, we will live in a society that doesn’t reward people who abuse their power. I’m a very slow writer, so it’s possible;) Part 1.a. of GUTSp states that, “Status and power are cultural constructs. To a significant degree, people in power enjoy power because those with less power collectively confer that power.”

  4. Mari, I attempted to frame my comment as questioning rather than statement of fact. Because I don’t actually know. I’m wondering about the larger-societal context of sexism as it impacts skepticism. And whether or not age factors into who is more likely to give voice to and/or excuse sexism and whether age factors into who is more likely to respond to gentle calling-out of sexism with rape threats. Again, just curious. Not making any sort of meta-claim. Not attempting to give cover to the misogynists. I do think that the current endless shitstorm discourse doesn’t seem to be making headway, so I was trying to think about other angles to address the problem.

    1. Anthropologist Underground, I recall clearly an incident very similar to your anecdote, except it was a small work meeting. Those old silverbacks wield enormous power and in medicine they hang around forever. I guess somebody brought up in the forties is likely to have different views on sexism to somebody from the sixties, eighties or noughties. In fact though, I suspect that if you plot sexism vs DOB you could find that it comes and goes in waves depending on whether ones formative years coincide with one of the waves of feminism. Of course I have no data to support that other than that some people have commented that things went backward in the eighties.

      1. Jack 99, I’m wondering if there will be less sexism once the silverbacks finally age out of power. I’m really curious about the typical age of the cohort that is constantly spamming feminists with rape threats.

        1. I guess we will only find out the latter when a few are charged and brought to trial. I will gladly contribute to a fund to enable that!
          In short though, I think sexism may well be related to age, but not necessarily in a simple way, that is, gradual progress over time, but with large peaks and troughs in between.

  5. When I read her piece, I felt it was reasonably obvious when she says gender doesn’t matter she is saying it in the context of it being used to judge your abilities as an individual, with science.

    Seems like a bit of a strawman at the heart of this critique.

    1. Did you even read what I wrote? I specifically said that she is right about that: “Hall is right that it is problematic to apply understandings of differences among groups to individual qualities or abilities.” Right there, in the original post.

      What I’m criticizing is the way she’s framing gender. It’s wrong and unscientific. I’m also criticizing her horrendo promotion of diversity-blindness. If you don’t feel that’s what she’s advocating, read the edited portion of the post.

  6. It is just lazy thinking all around from Hall. Simplistic thinking on gender, even worse on diversity… she’s a tool of the status quo, and apparently she’s proud to be that.

  7. Ugh, Simon Baron-Cohen. Did anyone see his review of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, which he actually calls “strident” and insists is a “polemic” — unlike, of course, his utterly neutral, unbiased, d00dly outlook?

    1. Yeah, I did see it. She also has a great response on her website here. And apparently he responded to that (though I cannot find it) and made some concessions, which she addresses here (“No Cloak of Objectivity” p. 80-81).

  8. Hey Will! I’m reading the ongoing debate about gender politics within the skeptical movement with a lot of interest. I’m not closely associated with any organization, but the goals of scientific skepticism regarding improving scientific literacy strike me as being important, and I see myself as being more involved in the future, so I feel like a something of a stakeholder in how this conversation progresses, because gender equality matters to me too. I can’t read all of the backstory, as far as knowing how Hall has represented her views in forum comments beyond what you’ve quoted, but I did read the post you have criticized here, and she did expound on the idea that there is much more to be learned by science about the interplay of sex and behaviour. Example, she mentions a study that counters the common narrative about the like between male sex and violence. Do you feel like your criticism fairly reflected this? As time allows me, I’ll try to follow the links to the studies you’ve listed. Cheers!

    1. Yes, she does acknowledge that there are some areas where the science isn’t settled. That’s not really my concern, though. What I’m concerned with is that (A) she doesn’t seem to understand the distinction between sex and gender, which leads to her reducing gender to biology; (B) she presents some “common sense” (i.e., heteronormative and cisnormative) ideas about gender as settled science; (C) she is actively promoting the silencing of diversity.

      The latter part is a political concern of mine. The first two are both scientific/academic and political concerns of mine. And as someone who writes for Science-Based Medicine, I would hope she would be willing to read up on the literature some more before writing posts that are grounded not in science but in the normative beliefs of her society.

  9. To paraphrase Michael Faraday:

    “Evolutionary Psychology is the thing that explains everything in society to those who don’t understand Evolutionary Psychology.”

  10. Great post, thanks. I’m shocked at how terrible that was. I mean, first, it’s beyond me how an educated, *secular* medical doctor in 2013 could write something like that. It’s something I’d expect from a Jr. High student in health class, or maybe a particularly sheltered High School student who has yet to learn about intersex or trans* individuals. Or *maybe* from a conservative religious medical doctor who was trying to promote gender binary thinking for ideological reasons. But from a woman with Harriet Hall’s background? And for a site like SBM to publish it? No excuse. And it makes me sad, because I love SBM and get a lot of information there. I don’t know that I’m ever going to be able to really trust them again, if they would publish something so obviously medically untrue.

    1. I wouldn’t dismiss all the writers at SBM. It’s a good site with mostly valuable information. I’d just be weary of anything Harriet Hall writes, especially concerning sex, gender, sexuality, and diversity.

    2. We’re ALL vulnerable to bias, ignorance, and fallacious reasoning. Even doctors, scientists, and skeptics. There are no exceptions. From time to time, we all fall short. We can’t ever trust a source or authority unquestioningly, especially when they confirm our beliefs. By the same token, we can’t dismiss someone the moment they show human weakness. If skepticism were the process of iteratively identifying and purging those who fail to think critically, we could save a lot of time by expelling the entire population. Skepticism is a process and a discipline. You can’t ever be a skeptic, but you can be skeptical. We can go on the journey, but we never arrive at the destination.

      Seeing Hall’s blind spot so transparently exposed is embarrassing and disheartening. But if being “skeptical” means anything, it’s that we should engage her misconceptions with patience and compassion. There but for the grace of God go we.

  11. Thanks for responding Will, and I’ll think about what you’ve said. One of my sentences above should have read, “…the link between male sex and violence…”, not that it matters too much.

  12. Ah, yes, the old “men do better at spatial relationships”. I took the ASVAB in 1975 at an all girls, Catholic hugh school. When the scores came back I was called into the counselor’s office because my scores on the spatial part of the test were “too high” for a girl. I thought the test was easy, but I had been helping my dad do house and car repairs since I was little, and had just spent the previous summer helping rebuild our house after it was hit by a F5 tornado. When they “questioned” my score I asked what they were getting at. Did they think I cheated? Off who? It was an all girls school! Idiots.

  13. Will, thanks for sharing your insights into Hall’s article. I was also bothered by it, but I couldn’t quite articulate some of the objections you raised. Your perspective is incredibly valuable, and your writing is crystal clear.

    I do want to make one point, though: gender and sex have been colloquially used as synonyms for a very long time. Using them with distinction is a recent shift in vocabulary, which is understandably outside of Hall’s experience. I’ve been reading her writing over at SBM for a long time, and I think she might be open to change on this. But you’d have to be patient with her. If you can forgive her for conflating gender and sex while expressing the difference firmly, you might get some traction with her.

    1. I’m fairly certain Hall isn’t just an out-of-touch old lady who is having trouble getting what all the kids are talking about these days. And she doesn’t need anyone to slow it down and walk her through it gently.

      1. I’m fairly certain you’re correct. I’ve tried to parse her comments and actions over the past couple of years and get more and more confused as to what her intent is or to what level she misunderstands or is just clueless. At a minimum she is often not helpful and appears to actively encourage conflict at other times which I don’t understand.

    2. When you are basing an argument on a simplistic and arguably false concept of sex and gender, and do so in a skeptical context, you have to be prepared to get challenged on it. Ignorance is no longer an excuse when you present your opinion like Harriet Hall just did.

    3. If by recent shift you mean since 1975 (as I noted in my post), then sure! If nearly 40 years is not long enough to get the memo, how long should we wait?

      I’m not convinced that Hall will be open to the change or even care. I’ve laid it out pretty plainly here, and there’s assloads of literature on it. It’s up to her to educate herself and get with the program. If she chooses not to, perhaps she should cease writing for a science-based website.

      1. No, we have to be patient! Hold her hand! We have to take the time to educate her! We must, we mut! Otherwise we’re big meanie-head Skeptics.

        *eye rolle*

        I don’t know why we don’t just insist she take the fucking time to educate herself. It’s not my job!

    4. And … why do we need to be patient with her? And why do we need to “forgive” her? These concepts are not hard. Maybe it’s SHE who needs to take the time to learn. It’s not our job to educate her, though clearly people have been trying.

  14. I think you misinterpreted what Hall meant, and maybe you did so because she didn’t put it very elegantly. Her article should have been called: “Sexual differences and why they shouldn’t matter at all”. Her examples may be simplistic and overly specific. But all she is trying to say is that it would be highly unreasonable to suppose that there are no biological differences in brain development of the sexes, and that at the same time this should not matter (at the moment it clearly does, which doesn’t get across in her article). I accuse many social scientists of following an ideological approach to gender and sex: “It can’t be what must not be.” As if acknowledging biological differences should have ANY political implication. Actually, the tendency of denying average biological predispositions (even by lack of interest) is, in my view, highly damaging to the cause of equality because it attributes far too much value to these potential predispositions. This importance is enforcing those who want to base politics on the category of “the natural”. I don’t see how the stance of social science in favor of nurture helps. For example, isn’t “homosexuality is nurtured by society” incredibly close to those evangelicals who say that it can be “treated” psychologically? Would it not be much easier if being homosexual would fall in the same category of being red-haired or left-handed, i.e. not of any real importance in any political context? Emancipation of all sort is the liberation of the individual from boundaries set in the past due to alleged average biological predisposition. What we have to change is the opinion that what seems “natural” has to be protected and should serve as political guideline. It clearly doesn’t have to, it is self-sustaining. Nature should neither be ignored nor enforced but challenged. But to challenge it, you have to know it. And this is what I think Hall is trying to say here.

    1. EDIT: I messed up my comment by putting in some greater than and less than symbols and some text disappeared. I’ve tried to fix it!

      Or, perhaps I read exactly what Hall meant because she’s ignorant of the science on this topic.

      “all she is trying to say is that it would be highly unreasonable to suppose that there are no biological differences in brain development of the sexes, and that at the same time this should not matter”

      That’s not all she’s trying to say. If it was, she would not have started off with the quoted litany of biological differences as if they are settled science. It’s almost as if she’s engaging in a straw argument–she never indicated where people have denied that there are biological differences among people.

      “I accuse many social scientists of following an ideological approach to gender and sex: “It can’t be what must not be.”

      Ah, yes. It is only us "soft" scientists that allow ideology into our work. No, it's never biologists or neuroscientists or biomedicine, right?

      Your bias is showing!

      “As if acknowledging biological differences should have ANY political implication.”

      Should it? No. Does it? Yes. And if you think that the public will magically understand biological differences with any sort of nuance like the people studying these topics do, you’re delusional.

      “I don’t see how the stance of social science in favor of nurture helps.”

      Go back and re-read my post. I never took a position in favor of nurture. I said nature/nurture is a false dichotomy. The work that is going on in this field now is biocultural, taking into account the complicated ways that biology and culture are co-productive.

      “Nature should neither be ignored nor enforced but challenged. But to challenge it, you have to know it. And this is what I think Hall is trying to say here.”

      And I think you’re giving Hall wayyyyy too much credit.

      1. I study “soft” science, too. Art history, which might very well be the softest of all soft sciences to the point that it’s unbearably soft. My impression is that there is a tendency of just not being interested in the findings of natural science. The examples that you linked to are a completely different story, though. They are not examples of scientific bias but of discrimination in scientific fields of work and sexist terminology. Idiotic terminology does not make findings invalid. That is a completely different story. I am fully aware that there are many, many ways you can be biased even when reading the cleanest, best set of data. But in many cases, social scientists seem to shoot the messenger instead of pointing out potential flaws in scientific practice when findings from the “hard” sciences don’t fit with their models.

        By the way I did not mean that you favor nurture over nurture but that if you ask people in gender studies questions like “Are gender traits/sexual orientation/etc. biologically influenced?” the reactions range from a “No, period.” to ridicule for being such an old-fashioned square. When the correct answer probably should be “Yes, to a varying degree we only start to understand.”

        “Should it? No. Does it? Yes. And if you think that the public will magically understand biological differences with any sort of nuance like the people studying these topics do, you’re delusional.”

        You are right. They won’t. But the key is to make them understand that biology is no justification for discrimination or justification for political agendas. Trying to disprove biology to silence the ones that make it their doctrine is futile. The notion that “nature” is good and has to be protected from “unnatural” social progress is an ideological one anyway, bordering on religion. But you can’t let science be influenced by the fear of the overly simplistic coverage that scientific topics get in mainstream media. I only say that “What is the current state of human evolution and why?” and “Where do we want to go as a society?” are two different things that should be kept apart.

        You MAY be right that I am too kind to Hall because she holds my view that biology IS a determinant in human life that should not be underestimated. And that we can only avoid being driven by it as society by understanding where and how it influences us. As I said, I found her writing much too simplistic. I’d be interested what she has to say about the criticism voiced here.

        1. Art history is a science? =P

          It seems that you and I are not really disagreeing that much. I do agree that dismissing biological factors in studying sex/gender/sexuality is absurd. Are there pure social constructionists in the social sciences? Absolutely. But they’re as delusional as strict biological reductionists. To ignore the role of culture in biology and to ignore the role of biology in culture are equally problematic and neither one will get us any closer to the truth.

          “I only say that “What is the current state of human evolution and why?” and “Where do we want to go as a society?” are two different things that should be kept apart.”

          Why should those things be kept apart? The current state of human evolution is not a simple biological fact. It is a biocultural fact–see the Jonathan Marks article I linked to in the OP. The decisions we make about where to go as a society impact and are impacted by the current and future state of human evolution. These two questions are not so easily separable.

          “You MAY be right that I am too kind to Hall because she holds my view that biology IS a determinant in human life that should not be underestimated.”

          I don’t disagree that biology is an important factor in human life. I don’t think it’s *the* factor, nor even necessarily the most important factor (depending on what we’re looking at). I also am in the literature enough to know that the things she presents as settled to be biological are not settled–and even if they were settled as biological that does not mean that they are “hardwired.”

          1. Well, art historians are pretending it is. They hold conferences discussing the materiality of fruit in baroque still lifes, for example. ;)
            We do in fact agree on the most part, sorry for my slightly misdirected rant.

  15. “I think men have a lot to say about women in secularism, too.”
    Yes, we heard that. It wasn’t pretty. “Kitchen” and “Sandwich” featured a lot and that were about the least horrible things.
    BTW, Hall saying that men have larger brains is simply wrong. Taller people have larger brains. Men are on average larger than women, so they have, on average, larger brains.

  16. I have to say that articles like Hall’s in even progressive circles of the skeptic movement are inevitable. It seems to me that many in the skeptic community (if not the majority) don’t take seriously critical & social theory, and invariably this leads to a very naïve assumption about research practice as “pure” and obviously “objective” and entirely separated and unrelated to issues of culture and agency, especially from the physical scientists (and social scientists with physics envy). Which is funny because if we’re serious about Social Justice and Emancipation then you would think that we would take critical & social theory more seriously. Instead we just say that social scientists are “ideological”, and assume that politics has no place in science as if research can truly have a “view from nowhere”. It’s not as if we’re trying to dismantle the rational core of scientific practice, but rather noting that cultural and personal processes are intricately woven together in scientific thinking and practice.

    Also that comment about identity-based conferences was just awful, she seems to assume that erasing our identities from view will solve the problems of racism, sexism, and heteronormativity by, I don’t know, raising a generation that has never heard of a homosexual? The reason why this wouldn’t work is because there’re already culturally encoded meanings of race, gender, and sexuality that we’re socialized with, ignoring identity would rather hide the exclusionary practices we engage in because of them, rather then somehow mysteriously dismantling them. If the skeptic community is going to be divided on these issues it’s because it already was divided (and therefore always would be especially if they were ignored), not to mention these issues DO matter because they do affect what we think of as “valid science”.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out. If it wasn’t the middle of the night, I’d write something now. I’ll try to put a response together and post it ASAP.

  17. She takes you down pretty well here. For the record, I like Dr. Hall… http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/i-am-not-your-enemy-an-open-letter-to-my-feminist-critics/

    Honestly (and this is me speaking)…. the skeptical community does not get anywhere because of the ridiculous “infighting” between us.

    MEN and WOMEN are different. If we weren’t it would be a boring world. It’s not that women can’t do certain things that men can… still we are different. You may put it anyway you want, but the truth is, there are differences. And it’s OK.

    Your article is WAY OFF THE MARK regarding what she said. You look and feel like a right-wing conservative nut the way you misinterpret Dr. Hall’s article.

    Let’s spend our strengths making religious organizations pay taxes, and making sure ALL humans have equal opportunity to succeed and be educated, and forget about petty differences. That’s right, petty.

    1. “MEN and WOMEN are different” is circular logic. First you have to define MEN and WOMEN. Any such definition obviously focuses on the differences. This has nothing to do with Will’s critique of Hall’s essay.

  18. To quote a very unintellectual victim of police brutality: “Can’t we all just get along?”. Dr. Harriet Hall is a genuine American Feminist hero. Dr. Richard Dawkins is a genuine Atheist and Freethought hero. Both have contributed hugely to the progress of humanity by undermining bad ideas and promoting good ones. Meritocracy is a Good Thing. Feminism is an essential part of Humanism which in turn is essential for continued human progress and even survival. The points of agreement among these two heros and most of the commentators here far outweigh the differences.

    These discussions remind me of my formative years 3 lifetimes ago when I was in the Trotskyist movement (most of you will have to look that one up) and was beginning to wonder about the hours, days, and years we spent discussing fine points of political dogma in smoke filled rooms instead of making any real progress toward (what I see now is the impossible dream of) the socialist utopia.

    The skeptical / atheist / atheist+ movement seems to be making real progress in holding back and even pushing back the tide of unreason which is a clear and present threat to our continued survival. Let’s celebrate that and honor everyone involved in that fight instead of getting bogged down in nitpicking minutia of what is gender and what is sex. I suspect we can all agree that people should be seen as people first and foremost and valued as such regardless of these distinctions, and that their contributions should be valued and rewarded without regard to these distinctions.

    1. Let’s celebrate that and honor everyone involved in that fight instead of getting bogged down in nitpicking minutia of what is gender and what is sex.

      Let me try something here. What if I went onto SBM and said to them:

      “Let’s celebrate that we’ve made huge medical advances and honor everyone involved in those advances instead of getting bogged down in nitpicking minutia of what is and is not medicine.”

      Do you think they’d accept that? Why should I accept your premise?

      Understanding sex and gender is important. As skeptics and critical thinkers interested in science, I find it so fucking frustrating that there are people who are saying “SHUT UP AND DO HERO WORSHIP! ACCURACY IS UNIMPORTANT!” That is not skepticism. That is not critical thinking. That is religious thinking, and I have no interest in it.

      I suspect we can all agree that people should be seen as people first and foremost and valued as such regardless of these distinctions, and that their contributions should be valued and rewarded without regard to these distinctions.

      No, I do not agree. Why? Because you live in a fantasy world. That’s not how things work–it never has been and it never will be. People will always see difference, will always divide “us” and “other” and will place importance either explicitly or implicitly in difference. The only thing that is accomplished by pretending that you do not see differences among people is erasing the very real prejudice and discrimination that people face because of differences. When you tell people who are oppressed to stop making noise and stop pointing out our differences, that is asking for our silence.

      The reasons that we speak out, the reasons that we have more specialized conferences and websites, is because our voices were not being heard. And it’s extremely telling that now that concomitant with our increased volume has been a rise in both harassment and of “do-gooders” telling us to stop rocking the boat.

      Well, I intend to flip this fucking boat over and expose its underbelly. I’m not going to sit idly by while people spout of untruths and heteronormative, cisnormative, sexist, racist, ableist bullshit in the name of science because a few people might get their feelings hurt when they’re called out on it.

  19. I was not suggesting that real differences of opinion should be swept under the rug, nor was I advocating hero worship. Dr. Hall was wrong (and has since acknowledged it) to wear that t-shirt in the context of what was happening. The skepchicks and you are wrong to demonize people with whom you have far more and more significant points of agreement than disagreement. Dawkins was shockingly wrong with his patronizing response to the IEI (Infamous Elevator Incident). Neither Dr. Hall’s shining example of what women are capable of when given half a chance, nor Dawkins’ stellar work in making the very idea of Atheism respectable — vanished due their respective mis-steps. Neither deserve to be demonized. That was my point. Not that nits should not be picked, just that they should be picked in a respectful manner, not in a manner echoing the disgusting tactics of the MRA assholes who have already succeeded in bullying at least one feminist leader into inactivity. IMHO, bullying is never justified.

    As for your voices not being heard.. I’ve been hearing them for almost 5 decades now. It may be a few centuries before your voice is heard on Faux News, but you are being heard.

    The best way to marginalize the MRA assholes and their ilk, is not to adopt their tactics, IMHO, what Dr. Hall and Surly Amy have done is the way forward. Let’s not flip over the boat. Let’s just toss the vicious elements overboard.

    1. Yeah, it’s crystal clear now that you have no idea how MRAs act if you think anything I wrote is even remotely similar to their tactics. Loudly and snakily criticizing someone’s positions is not the same thing as harassment and vile name-calling. Point out one place where I called Hall a misogynistic name. Point out one place where I called her ANY name. I engaged with her positions and pointed out that they indicate an ignorance on this topic.

      Your hyperbole is not appreciated, and your comparing loud criticism to MRA tactics makes MRA tactics seem less hurtful than they are.

      And I don’t know what you mean that you’ve been hearing “our voices” for 50 years. Pointing out heteronormativity and cisnormativity in science and medicine has not been around for 50 years and has only started to gain attention in the literature in the last decade or two. So what the fuck are you referring to?

      Plus, I don’t care if you feel that “our” voices are being heard. I don’t. You don’t get to decide that for me. I get to decide that based on the reactions I get and the cultural climate. It’s quite clear that you’re NOT hearing my voice because instead of engaging my criticisms, you’ve made this about how important it is for the oppressed not to make the oppressors uncomfortable. That means you’ve ignored the substance of my criticisms–that you, in fact, have not heard my voice.

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