Ideas and Insights, Inquiries and Investigations
A Lively CSICon 2012 Nashville Eyes Latest Trends in Science, Pseudoscience, and Belief
NOTE: CSICon3 is only 3 months away! Join us for CSICon3 October 24-27, 2013, part of the CFI Summit, a joint conference with CSI’s sister organizations, the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. Find out more at cfisummit.org.
Our CSICOP group (now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) originated the skeptics’ conference. So it was refreshing when, after a multiyear hiatus, CSI got back into the conference scene in October 2011 with its CSICon conference in New Orleans. That proved a fun intellectual idea fest (see reports in our March/April 2012 issue). It was good to be back. For the 2012 conference (October 25–28), CSI moved the CSICon site north to Nashville, another lively location, and the talks, symposia, and surrounding events garnered generally great reviews from participants.
The irrepressible Richard Wiseman, the U.K. psychologist and CSI Fellow, emceed throughout the conference with his usual effervescent wit. Many speakers were CSI Fellows; all were knowledgeable experts. Chief conference organizer and CSI Executive Director Barry Karr didn’t speak but was everywhere in evidence. The Halloween party again was a big hit. There was a midnight séance to call up Houdini (he didn’t show). The whole thing concluded on Sunday with a lively first-ever full-audience interactive discussion with members of the CSI Executive Council.
CSI dedicated the conference to our founder and former longtime chairman, the philosopher Paul Kurtz. Kurtz died the weekend before at the age of eighty-six (see our January/February 2013 issue for tributes). In the opening remarks, committee CEO and President Ronald A. Lindsay and I, representing Skeptical Inquirer and the CSI Executive Council, lauded Kurtz’s powerful legacy in creating the modern skeptical movement. Many speakers over the next days likewise remarked on Kurtz’s key role in creating the first organized movement to advance critical inquiry, the scientific attitude, and informed scientific criticism of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.
A live-audience two-hour taping of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast followed. The Novella clan (Steven, Bob, and Jay), Rebecca Watson, and Evan Bernstein showed why their weekly science-and-skepticism show is so popular. George Hrab then entertained with his unique combination of guitar and skeptical wit.
(All this was preceded by two preconference workshops, one by the Skepchicks applying skepticism to everyday nonsense, one on conducting investigations.)
The conference was off to a fine start. I was able to hear most sessions (I missed a couple of individual speakers). Some highlights I found memorable follow.
Biologist P.Z. Myers is most known for his outspoken attacks on religion, but at CSICon for the second year in a row, he surprised many by giving a straight science talk. The first part dealt with differing rates of evolution. “Selection works best in very large populations with a low mutation rate,” he said. “Small populations with a high mutation rate are dominated by chance.” Lest we think humans are numerous in biological terms, he quickly disabused. Humans have “a small population,” about 73109. In contrast Pelagibacter, which make up half of all bacterial plankton in the ocean in summer, number about 231028. “So in humans, selection is not the prime pressure for change.”
Recent research into the gorilla genome shows, to the surprise of some, that “in 30 percent of the genome gorillas are closer to humans or chimpanzees than the latter are to each other.” He then described how that agrees with calculations in what’s called coalescent theory, a population genetics model for tracing genes back to common ancestors. The anti-evolution Discovery Institute, Myers said, claims that the gorilla genome research messes up the human genetics connections to the great apes. “That’s hilarious,” Myers said. “These people don’t have a goddamned clue about evolutionary biology. They are dead wrong.”
Psychologist James Alcock led off a session on Belief and Memory with a survey about belief, noting that beliefs are a dynamic production and can be produced very quickly. Some beliefs are based on reason and carefully assembled evidence, but many are based on social constructions (we rely on the perceptions and reactions of others we trust) and feeling. The “feeling of knowing” is an emotion and is not tied to knowledge and may have nothing to do with reality. As for belief and disbelief, assessment is a two-stage process. We automatically believe new information before we assess it. Judging it comes later, if at all. The brain processes content information and veracity information separately. He revisited “The Belief Engine” he wrote about in SI many years ago (“we are a belief-generating engine”) and ended by emphasizing again that some beliefs correlate with reality, and some do not.
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus noted that beliefs can begin to feel like memories, “then we have false memories.” She described some of her and colleagues’ ground-breaking experiments demonstrating that beliefs can be implanted. She also gave examples of prominent political figures recalling false memories, noting, “no one is protected from having false memories.” She also emphasized the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony, noting the Innocence Project has used DNA evidence to overturn 225 wrongful convictions, “most based on faulty memories.” She facetiously proposed that the oath administered to witnesses testifying should be changed to: “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever you think you remember?”
Neuroscientist Indre Viskontas praised the value of storytelling as a memory aid (“to remember details of a past event make them part of a great story”) but noted that remembering is a reconstructive process and remembering is often the functional equivalent of imagining.
In “Is Paul Dead?” investigator Massimo Polidoro gave one of the most entertaining talks, a multimedia feast of imagery and music and sounds playfully exploring the persistent idea that Paul McCartney of the Beatles is dead. “What is going on here?” Polidoro asked. “There’s no evidence of a preplanned hoax. . . . You start with an idea, and you look for proof. It can be anything. And it always works.”
Another hilarious session featured Richard Wiseman, Jon Ronson (author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, made into the movie with George Cooney), and Rebecca Watson recounting their CSI “Paranormal Road Trip.” In this journey earlier that week by car from CSI headquarters in Amherst, New York, to the Nashville conference site looking for “paranormal” adventures they encountered a lot of “haunted houses” but nothing paranormal. Wiseman did find himself gobsmacked during a visit to the underground lair in Kentucky of a leading collector of magic memorabilia (“a cave full of magic”). There, neatly shelved eighty feet underground, he found one of only fifteen first editions of a 1902 book, The Expert at the Card Table, by someone known only by the pseudonym S.W. Erdnase. The book was far ahead of its time, said Wiseman, “the best sleight of hand ever.” “We still don’t know who wrote that book,” Wiseman said. “It is a real mystery.” The group’s planned visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky didn’t happen. Recounted Watson: “They said yes, you can film. But you can’t make fun of us. We ended up skipping it.”
That evening, at the CSI Halloween Party, Wiseman was presented his earlier-announced CSI Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking (SI, September/October 2012), for the best skeptical book of the year, Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There. On first thought the CSI Halloween Party might seem a strange venue for awarding Wiseman his prize. But maybe it all does fit. He seemed to relish it.
Sara Mayhew, the writer/illustrator of Manga-style graphic novels (see her cover article in the March/April 2012 Skeptical Inquirer) gave another entertaining talk, illustrated with her drawings. “I want to create a fandom-type feeling for skeptics and scientist heroes,” she said. She noted that these comic versions of anime are a multimillion-dollar art form with a high female readership, about 70 percent in the U.S. “Good role models present a variety of different people. Manga does that. Having more female role models is good for young men and males as well.” She said one can apply the same goal to science role models.
“My goal is to combine my love of science and critical thinking with this emotional art form for people to connect.” Like Indiana Jones (“a cool scientist role model”) or the women in her stories, “We need more of these epic stories,” but instead of “faith” and “believe” as themes, seen too often in other epics, “we can have a message of, ‘How do we know about the world?’ in an honest way. We need heroes who think their way out of crises, who care about the truth.”
With two strong statements—“Just because you call something science doesn’t make it so” and “There is no scientific evidence against evolution,” Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education began her report on the current status of evolution-creation disputes. At their root is that creationists mistakenly believe that “evidence against evolution equals evidence for creation,” thus their continual attacks on evolution and their evolving strategies for undermining its teaching.
Statehouse legislatures are a prime target. About forty “Evidence Against Evolution” bills, also called “academic freedom” bills, exist in various stages. Two have passed, in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Creationists are masters at distorting the meaning of words. “If you see ‘balanced’ and ‘evolution’ on the same page, you know you are looking at a creationist document.” Other euphemisms to look out for are “full range of views” and “teach the controversy.” Says Scott: “To miseducate young learners does them no favors.”
Most all these latest bills avoid mentioning religion, stress free speech, advocate teacher protection if teaching “alternatives” to evolution, and use permissive language (“allow” not “require”). “They are very clever the way they set up these bills.”
What to do? Inform yourself, pay attention to your legislature and state and local school boards, and support good science standards and teaching. As for the court cases so far, the news is good: “One hundred percent of the case law has been in favor of evolution.”
A symposium on science and public policy was actually an update and elaboration of a controversy played out in recent issues of the Skeptical Inquirer: social science research into political beliefs as described in SI contributing editor Chris Mooney’s 2012 book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, his SI article “Why the GOP Distrusts Science,” and the ensuing controversy (letters in SI and Ronald A. Lindsay’s somewhat critical review of Mooney’s book in SI.) My introduction was a shorter form of what became my editorial “Can We Have Civilized Conversations about Touchy Science Policy Issues” in our January/February 2013 issue.
Mooney, knowing he was much the target of the ensuing two talks, began by noting that he is a science journalist covering the research on the subject. “I’m reporting on the research. So if you don’t like the conclusions, don’t blame me, blame the science.” He reiterated that those studies show that “there’s something unique about Republicans’ view of science,” and it involves “not just denial of science” but “denial of reality.” He maintained that liberals and conservatives “have different personalities.” Without even considering political content, key conservative traits are conscientiousness and order and stability while a key liberal trait is openness to new experience and new ideas. These traits explain much about the different parties’ political views and their attitudes toward science. In his view conservatives’ need for “cognitive closure” and a tendency toward authoritarian certainty and black-and-white views is antithetical to scientific thinking.
Dan Kahan, a professor of law and of psychology at Yale University, was first up. The essential problem all are concerned about, he said, is “the failure of valid and amply disseminated science to persuade.” He offered “one good explanation” and four “not so good” explanations.
The good explanation, said Kahan, is what he calls “identity-protective cognition.” It is simply this: “People have group allegiances that make them interpret science findings in different ways.” Those ways consistently go in the direction of the values that protect their group identity. Other, not-so-good explanations include science denial, misinformation, a rationality deficit, and authoritarian personality. Science denialism fails as an explanation because views are divided along lines consistent with their group. People of each party “count someone as an expert when he has positions consistent with their cultural outlook.” Both parties believe in being guided by a scientific consensus, “but they disagree on what that consensus is.”
Lindsay recounted the evidence he amassed in his SI review calling into question Mooney’s key conclusions. He concluded that one problem is that many of the studies Mooney cited may actually not be measuring conservatism.
Unfortunately the session’s time ran out before Mooney could give any real response, other than to say that he disagreed with virtually all of Lindsay’s criticisms. Nevertheless, after the session they were seen sitting at a table together in what seemed amiable conversation, so perhaps, in this setting at least, the civility sought in the title of my SI editorial prevailed.
In his “The Science of Medicine” column in the November/December 2010 Skeptical Inquirer, Yale School of Medicine physician Steven Novella wrote tellingly about “The Misunderstood Placebo,” and in his talk he returned to that topic.
The so-called placebo effect is a subjective-only effect, he said, not an objective one. It is manipulated by psychology only, not physiology. Most placebo effects are illusory effects that depend upon belief in getting traction. As for the often-vaunted “mind-body” connection? “Well, yeah,” said Novella, “because it’s the same option. What other option is there?” So-called “placebo medicine” exploits the confusion about placebos. It makes vague use of the term “healing” and plays into the branding and marketing of “complementary and alternative medicine” (see sidebar about the pseudoscience in medical schools). An example of the exploitation of placebo confusion is the often heard statement that “Acupuncture works—as a placebo.” That, said Novella, “just means that the outcome was negative.” So what’s the harm? Extolling a placebo is “installing bizarre, unscientific, mystical, nonscientific beliefs in patients.”
In case you didn’t know it, the world was supposed to end on December 21, 2012. The myth of an impeding apocalypse on that date—drawing on everything from the Mayan calendar to supposed Sumerian or biblical predictions, to worries about comets or the nonexistent planet Nibiru, to pole shifts, planetary alignments, and solar flares—infected credulous websites across the Internet and worried the hell out of a significant share of the world’s population (10 percent of Americans, according to a Reuters poll). Things got so bad that in the first week of December the Russian government put out an announcement that the world would not end later that month, and in the United States NASA did much the same thing.
Come to think about it, as I write up these notes in mid December, it’s probably all for naught, but in the oft chance the world continues after the winter solstice, I’ll continue. Planetary scientist David Morrison, as SI readers know, has been at the forefront of trying to rebut these rumors, providing accurate scientific information through NASA’s “Ask an Astrobiologist” website, CSI’s website, and in articles and other forums. He spoke at CSICon Nashville.
The whole thing would be silly and laughable except that Morrison gets pained messages from children so caught up in these beliefs that they tell him they are contemplating suicide or killing their pets to spare them from the devastation.
Morrison recounted some of these messages and the “conflation of a variety of threads” of non-fact-based belief about all of it.
“None of these ‘facts’ is true,” he emphasized. “No scientist supports any of these claims. None of these stories is covered in newspapers or TV.” It has been almost entirely an Internet phenomenon.
As for a supposed galactic alignment, “I don’t know what an alignment is. It’s not a term used by astronomers. There is no alignment in December. There is no core of fact to this. These things are not going to happen.”
Says Morrison: “It’s all part of a mindset that believes in prophecy.”
Morrison labels this new outlook “Cosmophobia—the fear of the end of the universe.” People who believe it are getting all their “information” on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet. The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that “science shows on cable TV have gotten a lot worse.” Assuming short attention spans, the trend now, even on mainstream channels, is to be “hyper-exciting,” with explosions, impacts, and so on every ninety seconds.
The conspiracy meme doesn’t help, says Morrison. “People afraid of the government in one area have spread it to every topic.”
Sharon Hill, using lively illustrations, spoke on “How to Think about Weird News.” Hill, a geologist by training, does the Doubtful News blog and writes a column on CSI’s website called “Sounds Science-y.” (An SI article on that subject by Hill appeared in our March/April 2012 issue.)
“I’m a ‘weird news’ junky,” she said. “Weird news is my favorite conversation topic.” Weird news makes for a good story, she says: “Mystery is mongered. The wow factor is stressed. . . . TV and entertainment is our new misinformation highway.”
She considers the main audience for her Doubtful News site “the critical thinking community.” The topics she examines are endless, the sources pitiful: “Real things entwined with wrongness.” Videos are hoaxed, birds fall from the sky, strange sounds are heard, dead carcasses of normal animals are claimed to be demonoids or monsters. She has a whole category called “underwater mysteries.” Then there are the quack cancer cures, always a problem for science-minded skeptics (“There is almost no way to write about them without sounding heartless”), bogus consumer products, and emotional appeals. You’d think it’d all tire Hill out. But she’s still enthusiastic. “I’m pretty dedicated to not missing something good.”
Scott O. Lilienfeld had the “honor” of being the conference’s final speaker, but he performed his task so well no one’s interest wavered. “It has been an amazing conference,” he said. He dedicated his talk to CSI founder Paul Kurtz, who, Lilienfeld observed, “was always respectful and gentlemanly.”
Lilienfeld, a psychologist and member of the CSI Executive Council, spoke on “The Great Myths of Popular Psychology.” He noted that “even for our brightest students, it’s a confusing world out there.” The pop psychology industry perpetuates myths, and no one is immune. For instance, 77 percent of his students begin by believing that schizophrenics have “multiple personalities,” 63 percent think memory is like a video camera, 47 percent say memories don’t change, and 61 percent think hypnosis is useful in solving crimes. This “naïve realism—the belief that the world is exactly as we see it”—is exemplified by the belief that eyewitness observation is always correct and in the often-heard (and often exactly wrong) phrases “seeing is believing” and “I know what I saw.”
Lilienfeld ranged over a variety of examples of selective perception and memory, including illusory correlations (such as the repeatedly debunked idea that psychiatric admissions increase during the full moon) where “our brains are making the correlation.” He ended by bringing up the troubling implications of some recent research. Debunking can be effective, these studies show, but it can also have backfire effects, reinforcing beliefs instead of disabusing people of them. “We need more than debunking; we need alternative accounts. . . . Spend more time telling what’s true, not what’s false.”
It was good advice and a fine way to end a memorable conference.
The next CSICon will be at the same time next year (the last weekend before Halloween in October 2013) in Seattle/Tacoma. It will be a joint conference of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism, with a distinct skeptic track. Look for future announcements.
Economic Fraud: How Cons and Criminals Scam the Public
“What harm does it do?” That is the perennial challenge hurled at skeptics. What harm is there in people credulously believing in things that aren’t true, that are too good to be true? When it comes to economic fraud crimes, the harm is self-evident. Money is lost, lots of it. Sometimes one’s life savings, sometimes entire fortunes.
Psychologist Anthony Pratkanis, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, is deeply involved in this issue, and he gave a powerful presentation on the weapons of fraud—how cons and criminals scam the public. Americans alone lose $40 billion a year in telemarketing fraud, $110 billion in fraud generally. Worldwide, the totals are staggering.
There is no evidence for the myth of the weak victim. The weak and the strong are taken. And the evidence indicates that seniors are less susceptible, not more; they are just targeted more. Victims are more likely to have experienced a negative life event. And contrary to what you might expect, victims are more, not less, financially literate. They think they are immune. That makes everyone susceptible.
Social influence is the weapon in fraud crimes, Pratkanis emphasized.
He showed parts of a training video, “Weapons of Fraud,” detailing how scam artists tailor their pitch to what makes you vulnerable. (“It’s like cold reading.”) They keep and share records of phone conversations. They use such weapons as phantom fixation (something you would like that is completely unavailable), social proof (“other people are winning”), false scarcity (about this rare 1860 coin, “There are only four left in the world”), authority, reciprocity, and a whole litany of others.
Can we stop it? Pratkanis described a project he and his psychologist colleagues have been working on with the FBI and other law enforcement authorities. It is called Santa Monica’s Reverse Boiler Room. It involves identifying victims before the con is completed, calling them, and warning them. The reverse call center sends out prevention messages, giving people a coping strategy.
Ethical safeguards have been put in place, and the FBI is on-site to monitor. Victims are debriefed.
Does it work? “It has cut the victimization rate in half,” says Pratkanis. “This is the first demonstration of an effective deterrent to this crime. . . . Forewarning works.”
As a scientist, Pratkanis says he finds this work “exhilarating.” But as a human being, “I got depressed. We can see how it [scamming] works. Yet it keeps going on and on.”
His advice to others? “Develop those skeptical skills. Keep asking those critical questions.” —K.F.
‘Quackademic Medicine’: Teaching Pseudoscience in Medical Schools
A problem of serious concern to skeptics these days is the rapid perfusion of pseudoscience into medical schools. This practice is eagerly promoted by proponents of so-called alternative medicine and increasingly allowed by a medical education culture not alert to what’s at stake.
Prominent physicians in the skeptical movement brought the practice into the spotlight in a major CSICon symposium on the problem.
One good label for the infiltration of pseudoscience into medical schools is “Quackademic Medicine,” a term coined by physician Robert W. Donnell. In the CSI symposium, cancer surgeon David Gorski, who edits the Science-Based Medicine website, used that term approvingly. He noted that quackery has undergone a linguistic evolution, a “ major rebranding of quackery.” What forty years ago was properly called “unscientific medicine” began to be called, in the 1970s and 1980s, “alternative medicine.” (He considers that simply “unproven” and “often, disproven” practices.) “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” (CAM) came along in the 1990s, and now there is another rebranding: “Integrative Medicine.” Gorski’s succinct take? “Integrative medicine=science+magic.”
Major medical schools like the University of Maryland and Georgetown have been integrating CAM throughout their curriculum and even into basic science courses. This has proven popular. “Bioenergetic medicine” is another new term, allowing the teaching of such nonscientific concepts as a “vital force” and “qi.”
“This is the foot in the door . . . like the Trojan Horse,” said Gorski. Harvard, Michigan, and the Cleveland Clinic are all welcoming these intrusions of questionable medical concepts into their curricula.
Often the cry is heard to “treat the whole patient.” “This pisses me off,” said Gorski. “That’s what doctors already do,” he notes. “And it creates a false dichotomy: You don’t need to use quackery to ‘treat the whole patient.’”
He and other concerned physicians see an increasing hostility toward science-based medicine. One commentator even has called evidence-based healthcare “microfascism.”
Contributing to the problem is the relative indifference of most physicians, what Gorski refers to as a “shruggie,” a person who doesn’t care. “Most doctors just don’t care.”
“SkepDoc” Harriet Hall, a frequent SI contributor, said what’s happening in medical schools is a reflection of what’s happening in society overall. The view is, in short, “We don’t need no stinkin’ intellectuals” and “We don’t need no education—we have Google.” Other factors include the ideas that positive thinking makes it so and “my facts are as good as any others,” a distrust for authority, looking for an easy solution, postmodernism (truth is relative), and a rising acceptability of doctor-bashing.
She told the story of a retired physician who took up acupuncture and soon found it working on everything. Wrote this doctor: “There is nothing like personal experience to convince one of an effect.” Hall noted that he made a litany of common mistakes: confirmation bias, using biased sources, not recognizing how charisma can influence your view, cherry-picking the data, not understanding why science is necessary, relying on personal experience, the cause-effect fallacy, the ancient wisdom fallacy, and relying on the personal experience of others. “The plural of anecdote is not evidence,” Hall commented. She lamented that critical thinking is not taught in medical schools.
Kimball Atwood, another frequent contributor to SI and to Science-Based Medicine, reiterated Gorski’s view that misleading language contributes to giving nonscientific and pseudoscientific medical practices a free pass. Terms such as “allopathic,” “holistic,” “complementary,” “alternative,” “integrative,” and “Western” all mislead.
Atwood raised a reasonable question: “Why discuss implausible claims at all?” He believes medical schools should teach scientific skepticism. There are also important lessons in the history of medicine that can be taught, like the downfall of bloodletting and the “pre-scientific practices” that persist today, such as homeopathy, where teaching about Avogadro’s number could help students understand homeopathy’s innate implausibility. Skepticism, with its emphasis on logical fallacies and its insistence that clear thinking should trump pseudoscience, has great value.
As for worries that it may be impolite or impolitic to raise such issues, Atwood said, “Clear thinking should not be sacrificed on the altar of politeness.”
It is a question of medical ethics, he emphasized: “Implausible treatments are unethical. Deceptive placebos are unethical. And human studies of highly implausible claims are unethical.”
Eugenie C. Scott was the only non-physician who spoke. As executive director of the National Center for Science Education (and a physical anthropologist) she has great concerns about allowing more and more pseudoscience into medical schools. “It will miseducate students,” she said. As for academic freedom, that is important, she noted, because it allows teachers to teach unpopular ideas and to challenge students. But there is also “academic judgment,” she insisted.
“The issues are quite profound.”
The Skeptical Inquirer plans a future article on how nonscientific concepts are making their way into the education of physicians. —K.F.
Gender Issues in Science: What’s Different, What’s Not?
Gender issues continue to gain attention and generate controversy. Good science, critical inquiry, and clear thinking all can help illuminate, not exacerbate, the issues. A morning session on gender issues explored the degree to which psychological differences between the sexes exist and to what degree they are hardwired or the result of culture.
Richard Lippa of California State University, Fullerton, offered a thoughtful examination of Janet Hyde’s argument that there are not that many differences. He first looked at psychological differences. In the dimensions of agreeableness and neuroticism, women tend to be more highly represented. In the domain of mental illness, males tend to have such disorders as autism, mental retardation, reading disorders, and Tourette’s syndrome, while women experience more depression by a 2:1 ratio and also tend to have more bipolar, panic, and conversion disorders. Among personality disorders, males tend much more than females to be antisocial or sociopaths. “So there are big differences in psychology,” he said.
As for overall intelligence, any differences are small. One area where differences are big is along the people-things dimension. Men tend always to be more interested in things-oriented occupations, women in people-oriented occupations, and studies show that holds true over fifty-three nations. As for social behaviors, men tend to be more aggressive (10:1 male:female ratio of murderers).
Overall, between men and women, he said studies show that some differences are small, some differences are moderate, and some differences are large.
Psychologist Carol Tavris (author of such books as The Mismeasure of Women) next took the stage. “That was a terrific talk,” she said of Lippa’s presentation. “I have no differences with it. So I’m going to leave now!” The audience laughed. She proceeded.
She called for perspective (“either/or thinking is not going to get us anywhere”) and a sense of history. She noted that women have come a long way since 1960. She reiterated, “I completely agree with Richard regarding psychological differences.” But she said many sex differences have flipped over in the past decade or two. “The problem is stereotypes.” She cautioned against “taking snapshots that assume differences at any time tell us about fundamental differences.” Another caution is that in surveys “what people say has little to do with how they behave. . . . You don’t see the major differences when you look at behavior.”
As an example, she said if you define aggression as “intention to harm,” you don’t see sex differences. “We just express it in different ways. . . . Women are likely to ruminate more than men.” As for brain differences, there are indeed many anatomical and activity differences in men/women brains, but it all comes down to “so what?” She pointed to three general problems with generalizing about brain differences: There is no correlation with behavior, brains are complex, and each brain is unique.
What is the future of sex differences, and where are we going from here? Tavris summarized things this way. A lot in society is changing. It’s women who are getting the educations. We are seeing huge differences in economic status. Women are now earning more, getting better educated, and getting better jobs, so many are delaying marriage. “The whole planet is becoming Sweden,” is how she put it. Changes are being caused by the global economy and circumstances.
A memorable moment came when a man in the audience concerned about how to think about gender differences asked Tavris for advice about raising his daughter. She replied succinctly: “Enjoy the ones that matter, ignore the rest.” —K.F.