Rationally Speaking #239 - Saloni Dattani on "The debate over whether male and female brains are different"Rationally Speaking Podcast
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- 3 Sep 2019
Several recent books have argued there's no difference between male and female brains. Saloni Dattani, a PhD in psychiatric genetics, discusses some of the problems with the argument, and what we really know so far about gender and the brain.
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Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderland between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Gillard, and my guest today is Saloni Totani.
Saloni is a Ph.D. in psychiatric genetics at King's College, London and the University of Hong Kong, and I enjoy following her on Twitter. So I've been looking for a good excuse to do an episode with her.
And this week she provided me with one in the form of a book Review of the Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon. Actually, it wasn't just a review of that book which just came out. It was more of a discussion of the cluster of books that have come out in the last decade or so on whether there are innate differences in male and female brains. Like, for example, Cordelia finds delusions of gender, which, rationally speaking, actually covered an old episode like eight years ago.
Now it feels like a lifetime. And I found Saloni discussion of this whole debate's really clarifying. So that's what we're going to talk about today. Saloni, welcome to rationally speaking. Thank you for having me. So when I try to follow this debate on differences between male and female brains, I keep feeling like the claims are so slippery and hard for me to pin down exactly what people are disagreeing about. Like, you know, sometimes it seems like people are disagreeing about are adult male and female brains different?
Sometimes it seems like they're disagreeing about are there differences that are kind of hard coded in our genes that make male and female brains come out differently? What is your impression of the actual claims under dispute here? Yeah, that's my impression as well, I have the feeling that people are making contrasting claims that are not necessarily in contradiction with each other. So one claim that people make is that any sex differences that exist between males and females are the result of socialization or gender roles and expectations that people have in society.
And the opposing claim is that no, instead they are caused by genetic or sort of innate differences that that emerge over time. But for some reason, sometimes people who claim the former that gender differences and in the brain are socialized will also argue that there are no sex differences in the brain or that there are very few of them. So that's one thing that I find quite confusing.
The thing that you find confusing is that they the people arguing that sex differences are socialized or due to culture will sometimes also allow that there are differences hardcoded into the brain, just not as much or no.
So sometimes people will say there are sex differences and they're caused by socialization. And other times they'll say actually there are no sex differences in the brain or that they're so small that they're insignificant.
So those are two different hypotheses. One, both of which kind of quote unquote blame culture, but one of which is that the brains are the same. We just behave differently because we're responding to different incentives, you know, like what people reward socially or punish. And then the other version of the hypothesis is we're socialized differently, which actually changes our brains. And our brains are different men and women. Yeah, but that's the fault of culture. And it didn't have to be that way.
OK, great. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go on three. And then there are also different complaints about whether hormones affect our brain development. So people will point to evidence about women who have something called androgen insensitivity syndrome, where they don't respond to the hormone of androgen and therefore they don't develop genitalia in the same way that typically developing females do. So they'll talk about specific hormonal claims and how that relates to our biology. And one thing to remember about that is that hormones are not necessarily a purely innate factor.
They can be affected by our nutrition and medication as well. So there's not necessarily a reason to have so much dependence on that claim for the overall question of innate must be true.
OK, so what do you think our priors should be like? How surprising would it be? A priority of male and female brains were not different due to some innate factor. Like whenever people argue about one of the two hypotheses you were just describing that that attribute all of the observed differences to in one way or another, to culture. Whenever people argue that, it always strikes me as kind of apriori, unlikely for various reasons. Like, you know, all these other features we observe that differ between men and women are our genetic.
And, yeah, you know, just the evolutionary pressures were different for men versus women. You might expect that to have a difference. And so it's that's not, you know, conclusive. But it just seems like a priori we should be suspicious that there would be no differences between male and female brains. What is your sense of of what a reasonable prior would be?
Yeah, I agree. I think that we should have a prayer that there will be some sex differences. I do think that sometimes are exaggerated. But some of the reasons that I think we should expect there to be differences primarily is the sort of existence of sexual selection in lots of organisms. And there are lots of sexually dimorphic traits that people will already agree with. So physical traits, for example, are highly sexually dimorphic, such as height or genitals or breast development or something like that.
But then there are also other parts of like hormonal changes that occur during our lives that people will agree, at least I think are different between the sexes. So, for example, the level of hormones across our menstrual cycle, for example, is influenced by our hypothalamus. And so this is in the brain. And so you would expect there to also be other differences in the brain that affect these levels of hormones. Right.
The argument that sexual selection that we observe in the animal kingdom and that we assume human faced as well should shape the Pryors that we have or what differences we would expect between male and female brains. How do the people arguing that there are no innate differences in male and female brains deal with that fact? Do they claim? You know, yes, it would be surprising apriori, but the evidence just is strong enough that we should conclude that in the case of humans, it didn't actually turn out that way.
Or do they dispute the fact that sexual selection exists or that it should shape brains or how do they deal with that?
I think the primary argument against it is that. Culture plays so much of a role that a lot of a lot of our behavior is affected by the environment, and that's not something that other organisms have to face in the same way. But how would that take?
It seems like the sexual selection, you know, called the arrow would still be feeding into the the way human brains would develop. And then you could culture on top of that and expect to get a very different result in the end. But that doesn't take that doesn't, you know, eliminate the fact that we have this causal arrow from sexual selection, that we would expect it to have some influence. Right? Right.
Yeah, I agree. I don't think they they really tackled that question.
OK, so in the in the review that you wrote of of Gina Rippon's book, The Gendered Brain, she's arguing against the if I'm understanding correctly, she's arguing against the claim that there are structural differences in the brains of male and female babies that, like brains, come out differently, you know, from birth. So she's she's tackling that version of the differences are hardcoded. Right. Is that is that actually a central claim that the people who argue that male and female brains are different are relying on or is that more of a straw man?
Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is actually an argument that people who claim gender differences are innate will use. So a lot of brain development in humans takes place before birth. And so you would expect there to be sex differences present at birth if they were innate, for example. Got it. But you would also expect sex differences to emerge over age. So if they do emerge over age, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're a result of socialization.
Yeah, that was one of the central points of your review that I that had not occurred to me before. And that was sort of clearly true when I read it. And it was like, oh, I wish this was a more prominent part of the discussions. Can you elaborate on why sex differences that we only see later aren't necessarily due to socialization?
Yeah, so so just generally when we think about innate causation. So if you think about, for example, somebody with Huntington's disease, they will have a gene mutation and the Huntington's gene that doesn't emerge until they're in their mid thirties or so. But just because it's happened later on in their lifespan doesn't mean that it's not something that they're innately predisposed to. And in the same way, when we're talking about gender differences, like puberty happens when people when kids are in their adolescence, and that clearly creates a divergence of physical traits.
So you would expect that there are certain traits that will emerge over time in a predictable, innate way because of genetics. And I think that people might find that confusing because they have this impression that your DNA is sort of stable throughout your life span and that it doesn't change even in its expression. But the reality is that even though your your DNA is pretty much fixed, the expression of those genes is and the timing of the expression is kind of also partly predetermined.
And how much of the model of innate sex differences would we expect to be structural? Like how much would we expect to emerge in the brains of babies and how much would we expect to be kind of dormant until puberty or other hormonal events?
That's a good question. I'm not really sure. I do know that there are that there are brain imaging studies of children and adults and they both find sex differences. And I know that, for example, most brain development occurs in infancy, but then also during puberty and there's a lot of neuronal pruning that occurs. So lots, lots of neurons are proliferate that are then pruned and not needed later on in life. So you would kind of expect there to be some patterns that would emerge over time.
But I'm not really sure if there are any big studies that have looked at those predictable differences.
Have any of the authors arguing against the sex differences hypothesis like Rip on or Cordelia Fine. Have any of them addressed the claim that we should expect some sex differences to emerge in puberty or other hormonal events, or are they just talking about the structural difference?
Yeah, actually, so I didn't notice that from. So Gina Rippon and Cordelia. Fine, don't mention those as far as I know. But another writer that I read from Lisa Elliott, she talks about this pink brainwork in your brain and tongue twister. So she she talks about puberty and also this mini puberty that occurs. When infants are about six months to 12 months of age, that involves like a hormonal surge, that can then affect how they respond to different environments because it changes their neural organization.
I mean, and what does she say about it? Is she. I thought the thesis of that book, which I haven't read, was that there aren't sex differences between male and female brains. So she she, you know, rebutting the hormonal argument.
I was quite surprised by that because I have noticed that in the public reviews and commentaries she's written, she seems to take a very strong view against any.
Yeah, I actually have a quote from her that I was going to bring up in a nature article she wrote. She said, The brain is no more gendered than the liver or kidneys or heart. That seems pretty strong to me. So, yeah. What did she say about. But in the book, she's actually very open to agreeing that there are lots of differences. She says that they've been exaggerated or that we are ignoring socialized.
This is what I mean. This is why this debate is so slippery to me. Like I just claim that seems very clear cut about the brain not being as gendered, you know, just like kidneys. And then the actual details includes all these allowances, which seem like like they're sort of treated as caveats or footnotes or something, but they seem extremely central, like didn't you concede the main point we're debating? Why is it so confusing? Yeah, yeah.
I think it is a slippery it's a slippery debate. And that's one of the things that I mentioned in my review, that people seem to behave as though they have to take really strong positions on either side for every single evidence and their argument.
Yeah, I've been thinking about this just in general, like in as a feature of disagreements and, you know, quote unquote discourse in general, that one of the things that might make it so frustrating and unproductive is that maybe when people are giving their arguments or stating their position, what they're doing unconsciously probably is not trying to state exactly what they think the truth is, but they're trying to state something that will move the overall consensus closer to what they think the truth is.
So, like, it's sort of like if everyone was voting on how they wanted money to be spent or something in the budget. And I actually thought that we should spend a quarter of the money on education, but everyone else thought we should spend only 10 percent. I know that my vote isn't going to count for much. So in order to get us to a quarter, I have to say that we should spend 90 percent on education or something and everyone is doing that.
And so, you know, when you listen to what people think the divide between innate and socialized differences is or something, they're not quite saying what they really think, or at least their topic sentence. The headline of their position is not saying what they really think. It's saying the thing that they think and move the debate towards the right thing according to them. And it makes things so confusing. Yeah, yeah, I agree, I think I've noticed that as well.
OK, so to go back to the the structural differences in babies brains, part of the hypothesis space, I remember it's been a long time since my episode of Cordelia Fine. But I remember discussing a study, I think it was by Simon Baron Cohen on male and female babies showing differences in their brains in terms of like spatial perception or the way the male versus female infants respond to human faces or something that female babies were more empathizing and less systematizing.
I think this is that Cordelia Fine talked about how that study was poorly conducted and we shouldn't update from it, basically. Do you agree with that? And are there other studies showing differences between male and female baby brains that you would consider better evidence?
So so I'm not actually sure if any big studies that look at babies brains, apart from the one that you mentioned. And I think the difficulty with doing neuroimaging on babies is that they move their heads very often while they're in the Wiler and then your imaging machine. And that makes studies very difficult. So it means that researchers have to kind of add a lot of adjustments to the imaging that helps them to pull out signals from random noise or movement. What do you mean by adjusting that imaging?
So, for example, you might have to sort of decide on the thickness of the cortex cortical region that you want to look at might have to decide on the time frame that you want to repeat every image. You might have to decide on the size of the voxels, like the little pixels that you look at in the imaging that comes out. And so there are a lot of like things that researchers can do to find differences that don't exist. So I do think that like especially with neuroimaging on babies brains, that becomes quite difficult.
And I would probably agree with her that some of the research is not done ideally. But I think I remember in Rippon's book she actually mentions this as well. And she concludes that there are small differences in infants, responses to gaze and attention, I think, and spatial rotation. She just says that they're very small and that there aren't any other differences. Huh.
I guess I it would be unclear to me how significant like the literal size of the difference between I don't know how long female babies stare to face versus male babies. I don't know exactly what they're measuring, but the literal size of those differences, it's unclear to me how significant we should think a difference of, you know, one and a half seconds on ages, Legrange, because they're just babies. That doesn't it's not maybe like a difference in one and a half seconds of staring at a face as babies translates into, you know, a 50 percent difference in an empathy as adults or in, you know.
Right. Preference for nurturing or whatever. So I don't know how we would measure that.
Yeah, I'm not sure either.
I don't know very much about that study in particular, so let me see if I correctly understand the different possible causes of these sex differences that we observe in adults, men and women. So cause no, these are not mutually exclusive, so because no one is brain structure is hard coded differently in a way that you can see just in an infant. So the causal structure here would be genes called the difference in brain structure, which then causes a difference in observed sex differences.
So one, two would be hormones that are hard coded, cause brains to develop differently over time between males and females so that that causal structure would be genes cause different hormones. The hormones change the brain structure and the brain structure changes or causes the observed sex differences that we see. So those two hypotheses are both. They're both innate. And then number three would be males. And females are socialized differently, are they? They face different kind of cultural influences and that causes their brains to develop differently over time, like maybe female children get more attention.
So like the empathizing part of their brain or whatever gets stronger and bigger. And that causes the observed sex differences we see in adults. So that would be socialization causes a difference in brain structure, which causes the difference in observed sex, you know, behavior.
Right. So that's not there's no innate factor there. That's just, you know, same brain, same genes, but different cultural influences. And then the last one on my list is male and female brains are the same. But cultural influences just as adults causes people to behave differently. So that's just like socialization causes is different observed sex differences. There's no like difference in brain structure of hormones. And I guess those last two were the two you were distinguishing between at the beginning of the converse.
Right. Right. So, yeah. So that's for. Theory is, the first two are in, the second two are socialized. Does that feel like the whole space? I think so, yeah. Maybe one I didn't account for is when you were earlier talking about it's tricky with hormones because environmental factors can affect hormones, too. Could that be could we also have like a causal path that goes from like different socialization causes, triggers, different hormones, which changes the brain better?
Yeah, I think I haven't actually noticed any of the sort of feminist authors who argue against gender differences. I don't think I've actually noticed them saying that. But that's that's definitely another.
Yeah, I feel like that would be one of my if I if I was motivated to find an explanation for observed sex differences that didn't rely on anything innate, I feel like that would be a go to if that was scientifically plausible, I would lean on that. Right.
So can you help me understand the role of hormones better? Like, why can't why is it not straightforward to just be able to tell how hormones change the brain?
So so basically males and females diverge in the Y chromosome, which has a gene called the Y gene. And this gene causes the production of testosterone in males and also this other hormone called the military conduct inhibitory factor. And both of those then cause a long pattern of development that causes boys to diverge from girls. And I think the reason that it's difficult to tell how how it acts in the brain is that many of these changes use the same hormones, even though the organization is sort of determined very early on.
So you might have subtle differences in your anatomy when we're infants, but those subtle differences are then acted on by the same hormones and the same hormone receptors. So it seems as though there isn't that much difference in men and women. But because of the initial change in neural organization, there can be large differences in what you observe afterwards.
So how would we distinguish between the hypotheses where hormones are hard coded to change male and female brains versus the hypothesis where environmental factors change hormones which change the brain? And that's a good question.
I think one I think one good way to look at that would be to look at individuals who don't produce those hormones or who have like hormonal receptors that are insensitive to the hormones. So, for example, some some girls have androgen insensitivity syndrome, which I mentioned before. And that means that even with the same hormones that they can receive from, let's say, the environment or from their hypothalamus, they still won't respond to that stimulus.
But they might be different in other ways, too. Right. Unfortunately. Taking a step back for a moment, what's your take on our current best guess of what's going on?
I sort of don't see a lot of the arguments as incompatible with each other. I would expect there to be innate differences, especially in things like sexuality or sexual orientation. Those are large ones. And then certain things like physical traits, physical aggression, things like that, and then maybe some other psychological differences sort of taken as a whole or often different in men and women. But there you can also see lots of other cultural factors or like environmental factors that make men and women more similar or different from each other in different contexts.
So I kind of agree with both of the views. I think that they can sort of affect the brain and sex differences at different times and at different levels. But how much of that picture that you've just painted is based on, like common sense priors and how much of it is based on evidence that we've collected?
So I think most of it is based on sort of priors from other organisms. Or so we're looking at just predictable gender differences that occur universally with different countries and things like that.
OK, and out of the evidence that we have collected, is there any that I guess one type of evidence you mentioned that seems solid enough is some studies showing small differences in the structure of male and female baby brains, or I figured if it was the actual structure of the brain or if it was their behaviors, like how long they look at a stimulus, I think it's the I think it's the case behavior that is OK.
That's reliable. Got it.
Are there any other studies that give us evidence that bears on this debate that you think is reasonable enough to update on?
Actually, it sounds like it should be, you know, a vast amount, like there's so many things. So much so many books written. But when you really zoom in, it's hard to like when you really narrow it down to stuff that you that helps you distinguish between these different hypotheses in a reliable way. It's pretty thin.
Yeah. So so, yeah, there there's a lot of cherry picking, there's a lot of very sort of shallow evidence. One example of that is people looking at prenatal testosterone and how that is correlated with differences in adults. So like in the home. Yeah. And it's very difficult to measure prenatal testosterone accurately, firstly, but also people tend to use proxies to catch those things out. So, for example, people will look at your digit ratio, which is a lot of stuff, your ring finger to the length of your index finger, and that that supposedly correlates with the level of testosterone you had in the prenatal environment.
But it seems like a lot of that literature is very contradictory. And when you look at large meta analysis of the research, they don't find any differences or they find very tiny effects. So it's it's difficult to really know.
I think why can't we just measure the amount of testosterone in the womb? Is that too hard to do medically?
I can't remember. I think that it's something to do with that, but I'm not sure.
OK. And the books that, like Cordelia, finds weapons and leaves, I forget her last name. Pink Brain, Blue Brain, at least. Elliot Elliot, thank you. So I know they're kind of trying to debunk studies that purport to prove innate differences. Are they making a positive case as well? Like, are they are they just arguing? You can't prove there are no you can't prove there are any differences. Are they arguing?
I can show that there are only cultural differences.
And so what a lot of a lot of the claims that they make are for socialization, especially in Rippon's Ginsburg. She uses examples like like stereotype threat or sort of role models. And she's she says that children respond differently to socialization and that's reflected in their brain activity. And that's how we know that cultural effects are responsible for any sex differences that we see.
There was a big leap in that last link in that regard. Yeah. Also, wasn't stereotype threat of a victim of the replication crisis range? I don't think she noticed that or she didn't pick up on it in her book. Huh.
And just for the listeners who haven't heard of it, what a stereotype threat, supposedly.
So stereotype threat is the idea that if you know that people have a negative stereotype of your performance on some task, then that makes you feel bad or in some way it makes you perform worse on the tasks that you think you're supposed to perform. Bafflegab. Got it, and the general claim is that that there are stereotypes about women, for example, that girls are bad at math or bad science, and that when they hear these claims about about their gender, they will then perform differently.
And so the reason that we see differences in, let's say, macho performance, if they exist, then those differences are because they've been told we're conditioned to believe that they're going to perform worse on those on those tests. Right. Right. Yeah. You know, even though I do, I would be shocked if cultural differences and socialization and so on wasn't a huge part of the picture, if you try to pin down any one piece of the cultural affect, I wouldn't be confident that you could pick that up in a study or that it would be, you know, significant at all.
Like like stereotype threat is one tiny piece of this potential cluster of cultural effects. Right. There's like messaging like like the way women versus men are portrayed in movies or TV. You know, they're like, yeah, the way teachers treat their students. Just so many different things and. Right. But it seems like that makes it really hard to test because if you want to isolate something enough to be able to vary it, then you've isolated it down to the point where you no longer think that particular piece is all that important.
And it's really strange because many of these authors argue that the effects of these individual things are really large and because they have to if you only have evidence of all of these, all of these things together would make a massive aggregate difference.
Yeah, no, that's a good point when you carry that to its logical conclusion. What what study would you do, if you like, let's say you had an unlimited budget or, you know, functionally unlimited budget, let's say you had to abide by sort of normal ethical standards in research, like you can take a bunch of babies and isolate them from birth and, you know, fake environments or whatever. But you have a bunch of money and you can just kind of design whatever study you want and it can take.
Well, I guess I'm interested both in what you would do if you had, you know, 30, 40 years, but also in like what we could learn in just a few years. What what do you think the most useful kind of study would be?
That's a good question. I think it would probably be something experimental about, for example, changing the environment that kids grow up in. And like if you sort of move girls and boys to a more traditional home environment, what they act differently to like a more liberal or something like that, or trying to randomize the treatment of whatever large interaction you have between the sexes? I think maybe something like that.
Like a randomly assigned like socialization. Yeah, yeah. Exactly. OK, yeah. Because I mean, claim is that our society is extremely gendered and there are these gender roles that affect how we behave in the world. And if you could put people into a different socializing environment, would they act differently? I think that would be the sort of central claim that God would have to be fulfilled.
I mean, don't we just see men and women behaving differently in different over different periods of time and surely, like genes can't be that different from one generation to the next right in America? So that's got to be culture.
Yeah, I agree. Yeah. Why do you think it matters or why do you think people think it matters? How much of the difference in observed sex behavior comes down to innate factors?
So I think it's two things. I think the first thing is that they they believe that if you say something is innate, then that means that it's fixed and it can't be improved. So maybe you think that there's a difference between men and women on match performance that is innate, and that means that women are maybe due to be worse off maths. And like the idea that we can't improve on those things is not not an appealing one. So I think that's one reason why people are afraid of attributing things to innate causes, which is not necessarily something that we should conclude because there are lots of innate causal pathways that can still be altered by the environment anyway.
Like what would be an example, just in this particular case of math ability in men, in males versus females? What's like an innate pathway that could exist that could also be altered? That's a good question, I'm not sure about Matt's performance. I think it's another example of a textbook example of this is like people who have Short-sightedness, for example, they're predisposed to read a lot of books, maybe, for example, and then that results in short sightedness.
But it doesn't really matter because they can wear glasses or contact lenses. And if that resolves to a face.
I see. So like maybe if women just go back to the math example and speculate wildly, if it were the case that females were, quote unquote, hard wired to have difficulty with some aspect of math, like maybe the spatial like like visualizing objects, like rotating an object in the right mind or something is harder for women than men, then like if we knew that, then we could design interventions to like, you know, like glass related to like.
Yeah, yeah. Although I don't even know. It's not even clear to me why it would matter if that was in it, though, like, can we just observe that women have trouble with this aspect of math and then, like, design AIDS to help with that without ever finding out whether that difficulty was hard coded or not?
So I think so. I think the question of whether there are innate relates to sort of the present environment. So, for example, somebody might say, I don't know, 30 percent of the differences between between women's performance and master's is due to innate differences. And then they might say, well, look, there's lots of there's a large role for the environment at present, which means that there are lots of environmental interventions that are already taking place that affect people's performance.
And they don't treat it as something that can change over time. So let's say we find a new cure for some some disease that affects women disproportionately and that would affect how innate the trait is later on in life when the cures discover.
Oh, so this is a different use of an AIDS then? See, this is another reason I think the debate has felt so slippery to me is that what we're counting of the AIDS is kind of contextual, right? Like in some cases, what we yeah. What we care about is like anything that once, you know, the students arrive in the testing room or something and we care about what differences we're a result of the testing environment versus whatever they brought in with them or something.
But, you know, you could zoom out further and ask, like, why did they end up with those different things going into the testing room? How much of that was due to genes versus like their childhood socialisation?
Yeah, so confusing. Oh, my God. I wish if I were Empress of the universe, I would pass a law that whenever you're writing a paper or book or, you know, blog post or whatever, whenever you're opining on this, you have to, like, draw your causal diagram of what we're talking about. Like like I was doing, you know, in the air in my head earlier with the, you know, genes effect, whatever, whatever that cause, then we might have a hope of figuring out what we actually believe.
Right. Yeah, I completely agree with you.
At the end of your review of Rippon's book, you had this kind of depressing, you know, losing my faith in our ability to discuss this way, less so because of the confusion that I was just complaining about and more about.
I think you were you were despairing because of the kind of misleading representation of research, was that right? What was the kind of despair?
So so the reason that I felt very pessimistic about that style of debate is that it is very rigid. And what it allows it allows each side to believe sort of every every single piece of evidence has to line up on one side or the other in each in the books that she's written, for example. So she would place a very high standard of evidence that she would require from some claims about innate causation. And she would not place any standard, any sort of same any of the same rigor on claims about socialization.
So and I think that that's a very common thing in in these kinds of culture war debates where people have a lot of expectation for what? For the claims that other people make and they don't really try to improve the quality of their own arguments.
Yeah, the my my favorite way to describe this phenomenon is, I think with Tom Gilovich, the psychologist who said that we have when we're evaluating something, we are predisposed to believe or want to believe. We ask, can I believe this? And then if we're evaluating something we don't want to believe, we ask, must I believe this? And just, you know, unconsciously ask. That's like the frame that we're evaluating the claim through. And I just thought that the space between Can I and must I is so big.
You have so much wiggle room to, you know, get whatever conclusion you want.
Right, exactly. Are there exceptions, though, to this, to your despair? Like, are there any writers or, you know, researchers who you think are trying to be even handed in the way they like the standards of evidence they use?
Well, there there are there have been recent discussions between Gina Rippin and Cordelia Fine and some of the sort of evolutionary psychologists who take the opposing views so that there's been a bit of back and forth on that. But I think they still haven't really they that that still doesn't translate to the popular science books that each of these groups. Right. So that's something that I'm worried about the debate through referring to.
Are they like in an article or like a symposium or.
Yeah. So there there's a back and forth some I think Psychology Today and the website. So there's so there going to feel like claims and counterclaims made from each of the groups where they address each other's criticisms.
OK, that's great. Can you send me a link to that? Yeah, sure. I'll put that on the podcast website. All right. Well, before I let you go, Sony, can you tell us about a book or other resource that influenced your thinking in some way?
Yeah. So one that I was thinking about is a book by Jerry Coyne called Why Evolution is True. Oh, yeah. That's the name of his blog, right? Yeah, that's also the name of his blog. So it's a it's a fantastic book that covers lots of different lines of evidence about evolution and how how we know that it's most likely true. So one thing that I didn't realize before was how having this theory to begin with can then lead to lots of other predictions and those individual predictions can be confirmed or just confirmed.
And he kind of explains how they all fit together and how all of these lines of evidence converge. And was the the realization that the theory of evolution makes these predictions that can be confirmed or just confirmed, was that significant for you? Because because previously the theory of evolution had seemed. Like unfalsifiable or yeah, so I think I had the impression that it was very obviously true, but also I wasn't sure what could be used to disprove it.
Right. So tricky, isn't it, when something like, yeah, gone.
And and so I think I had read a book about evolution when I was very young, about eight or so, and it was very convincing. But I also didn't have a clear picture in my mind about how scientists develop theories and then tested them out. And this was a book that really shaped my thinking about the philosophy of science and how we should make claims and counterclaims. Yeah.
Oh, that reminds me, actually, there was a question I wanted to ask you that I completely left out.
You said this might have been in a Twitter thread about your book review, but you said that you were talking about the fact that sex differences that appear in young children are less likely to result from culture. But the opposite is not true. You said there's a vast literature in the philosophy of biology that addresses these questions, that popular science debates ignore them. And I'm just curious, how much do you think philosophers have been adding to this this discussion beyond what thoughtful scientists are are already saying when they describe the implications of their work?
Yeah, so I think there's it seems as though there's quite a large section of the philosophy of biology that addresses the questions of innate and acquired characteristics. And there also there are lots of biologists in history who have contributed to this debate, but hardly any of them feature in popular science debates in the present year for some reason. And I'm not really sure why, because when you look at those debates, they really clarify what the arguments are about the different theories of neatness are and how how we know whether some parts of them are true or false.
That sounds like what I wanted all along right under my nose.
I mean, are they so you say they don't factor into the popular science discussion. I guess I'm not shocked. That's not really what popular media is meant to do. But do they at least factor into the academic debates over this? Yeah, the academics themselves confused about what they're arguing over.
No. You know, recently the academics are it seems like their consensus is about which definitions don't make very much sense and which ones are much likelier to OK.
And the I'm just you know, when I saw you say that on Twitter, it took me back to the early days of rationally speaking, back when we were doing the Cordelia final episode and others when it was me and Massimo Pelote cohosting. And we used to get into these just constant, like recurring arguments over the role of philosophy. And and I was I was more kind of dogmatically like like straw logical positivist back then was like, look, you know, questions are either scientifically, they're either empirical.
You can answer them a science or they're just, you know, disputes over definitions. They don't actually matter. So what I would obviously like drove philosopher Masimo up a wall hand. And, you know, so sometimes you would point out, look, there are these like tricky questions about how the implications of theories and what actually constitute evidence for theory. And I would allow that. But I would say, OK, but then that's the scientists should just be arguing about that is their theory.
Why do we need a whole separate field called philosophy of physics or biochemistry or whatever to have these arguments? And I forget what he would say. I'm sure he had some good response to that. But it brought back that debate back when I was when I saw you comment about philosophy of biology. All right. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I the debates that you're referring to are the discussions that kind of clarifies specifically what the hypotheses are and what we mean by an age and what would be evidence of that version of an eight.
Right. Are those philosophers who are making those clarifications or is it. Yeah, biologists say, OK, so it's mostly philosophers.
There are a few biologists who I think have been prominent in the intellectual history of this kind of field. So think there's one called Conrad Watson who developed this theory of like the developmental landscape. So that's kind of the theory that I laid out in my article. Oh, you would look at somebody's trajectory over time. And then if they diverge from some trajectory because of environmental intervention, then that would be evidence for some cultural contribution to people's behavior. Interesting.
Oh, I'm so excited now to dig into the philosophy of bio literature, to understand. Right. I like to see the mapping of the different hypotheses. Yeah, maybe you can give me a few links to some of your shirt articles and.
Yeah, I'll put those up as well. Cool. Well, Saloni, thank you so much for coming on the show.
It's been a real fun and yes. Clarifying discussion. We'll link to your review and to your Twitter feed too, which I recommend to all our listeners.
Great. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on.
This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.