I want to apologize to our loyal followers for my lack of posts over the last couple of days about my experiences at SfN, but I thought my total immersion in the wealth of information present at the conference would provide me with ‘blog topics’ for months. Needless to say, I was correct. This first installment in my series of post-conference submissions concerns a heated debate I witnessed after a social issues forum I attended on Sunday concerning sex differences in research. Before I engaged in criticism of accomplished researchers in the field of sex differences, I felt it necessary to discuss my concerns with my peers and professor so I would not be pigeonholed as a naïve and inexperienced undergraduate with no understanding of the topic. So, with great caution, I will report the heated post-forum discussion and express my own opinion of the researchers who presented.
Larry Summers, Harvard’s ex-president, who made some very controversial statements concerning women’s mathematical and scientific abilities in academia, was attacked on many fronts during this forum and rightly so. He stated that the lack of women’s representation in the math and physics departments at Harvard results from the fact that men have a much greater numbers in the higher end of cognitive abilities in these fields; however, as many researchers in sex differences know, no empirical evidence supports this statement, and the lack of tenured female faculty in these departments is likely due to other factors like chauvinism or social pressures on women to pursue other fields. Nevertheless, sex differences in the brain are real. One only has to look at the frequency of certain neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and depression to realize that the male and female brain are susceptible to different pathologies suggesting that they are functionally different in some ways.
Of the speakers at the forum, Larry Cahill and Melissa Hines presented their research on sex differences in an unbiased and logically sound way. Though Melissa Hines cautiously straddled corners of the debate, Larry Cahill made some very matter of fact and convincing arguments concerning the importance of including sex differences in animal research that completely contradicted both the forum director and Janet Hyde. Many neuroscientists know that researchers often only study rats of one sex and then haphazardly generalize their findings to the other sex. In many cases, results from male and female animals differ significantly, and because it may normalize significant findings of a project, researchers sometimes only highlight half of the story to improve their publication chances. One researcher in Cahill’s lab even said, “I don’t want to be sexist” as he shied away from a project involving sex differences. How is publishing differences in behavior of males versus females sexist? Unfortunately, the misnomer that “different” means “unequal” prevails in society as a product of media sensationalism and ignorance. Larry Cahill emphasized that “different” equals “important,” and something important to the field of neuroscience should always be investigated fully to achieve the fundamental purpose of science, namely to benefit mankind. Unfortunately, scientists like Janet Hyde, another member of the panel, detract from the real importance of sex differences in an attempt to ‘equalize’ men and women. Understanding how the brain works is the central issue, not fulfilling a social agenda. Though I am in full support of her plight, understanding how men and women are functionally different benefits neuroscience more than using irrelevant statistics to debase a senseless stereotype. Let me explain what I mean by this last statement.
One study that Janet Hyde highlighted in her presentation, involved math scores from standardized tests in the No Child Left Behind program. Her main objective was to disprove the stereotype evident in Larry Summers speech, that women are worse at math than men. Though I am not in agreement at all with Mr. Summers, I want to point out that he in no way made that claim. He claimed that there is a smaller percentage of women in the higher range of IQ in the math and sciences which explains their lack of representation in the math and physics department at Harvard. Using elementary school and high-school math scores on a standardized test the students are primed to take in no way addresses Larry Summers statement as Janet Hyde did. Furthermore, it shows something that we already know. Men and women can both do math! The point is, are they arriving at their conclusions in the same way! It is irrefutable that the brains of men and women are hardwired differently, meaning that some anatomical structures are different as a result of differences in organizational hormones like testosterone. Hardwired does not mean the brain is not plastic, and it also does not mean that men are smarter or better than women or vice versa. Rather, it means that the brain of men and women differ mechanistically, and any insight into these differences could very well improve the treatment of neuropsychiatric illnesses.
I want to end by acknowledging the fact research into sex differences can be very controversial and some of the results may be contrued as negative towards the social issue of women in the workplace. I abhorr those who cite scientific research as means to subjugate a different race or sex. This is often done when people twist the ideallic statement that “different equals important” into “different equals unequal.” Furthermore, I encourage researchers to set aside their fear of controversy and publish their findings that show sex differences. Like I said in previous posts, every contribution counts in the field of neuroscience, and we should all unite to fullfill a common purpose.