Here’s a snap brain quiz. Which sex uses, on average, about 20,000 words a day, in contrast to the 7000 uttered by the other sex? If you answered… women, … you’ve been watching too many Woody Allen movies. Now, science is confirming that Woody was right all along.
Um, no. Anyone who reads the Language Log would be well aware that this is a bogus statistic that can be traced back to a self-help book, but not to any scientific study. In fact, “Most studies reported either that men talked more than women, either overall or in some circumstances, or that there was no difference between the genders in amount of talk.”
Albrechtsen’s column is about The Female Brain, a book by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine that argues cultural differences between genders are largely the result of neurological differences between the male and female brains. Albrechtsen makes the good point that talking about possible neurological differences between the sexes should not be taboo — but nor should columnists accept bold new claims on controversial topics without checking the science behind them.
Language Log‘s Mark Liberman became interested because differences in communication form a significant part of Brizendine’s claims. The trouble is, much of what she says on language seems to be unsupported by research, and some of it is probably accurate though you wouldn’t know from her citations.
For example, Liberman looked at Brizendine’s suggestion that women speak faster than men:
After spending a couple of hours trying to track down a plausible source for Louann Brizendine’s characterization of male and female speaking rates, I’ve come up empty. Worse than empty: the paper that she cites as the source for the claim contains no relevant information at all, and the rest of the literature on speaking rate not only fails to support her assertion, but also includes results that contradict it.
He then looked at the five studies cited in a passage on page 36, and found that they didn’t really support her claims:
Overall, none of the seven factual assertions in this passage is supported by the references that she provides for it. One of the assertions is contradicted by a reference she gives, and four seem to be contradicted by studies she doesn’t cite. Two of the seven assertions seem to be true, based on research that she doesn’t cite (at least not in support of this passage).
In another passage on page 14, Brizendine makes five claims. Two are “more or less true”, but two are entirely unsupported, and the last is the word-count nonsense I mentioned at the start of this post.
Liberman also highlights the way Brizendine exaggerates differences, and how the poor availability of the scientific articles she cites means it is more likely that her misrepresentations go unchallenged — so Liberman challenges them and makes the referenced papers available on his website. (Just in case you think he’s some kind of pro-feminist activist, his most recent post on the book agrees with Brizendine.)
Liberman is focussed mainly on the language-based claims in The Female Brain, but what he’s shown so far is that it is sloppily researched, prone to exaggerating male-female difference and ignoring studies that temper or contradict Brizendine’s position. Albrechtsen says that if “the book is ‘destined to become a classic in the field of gender studies’… that will have to happen outside the blinkered world of academe.” I hope she’s right.