Louann Brizendine's "The Female Brain" Is Incredibly Bad

On the Family Scholars Blog, Brad Wilcox writes:

Linda Hirshman, call your office. A slew of books have been coming out from (mainly female) scholars discussing the way in which sex differences are linked to differences in social behavior and perceptions among men and women, with a big focus on the implications of sex differences for family life. Scholars who deny this biological reality are increasingly coming to look like fundamentalists who deny evolution.

As his sole example, Brad quotes a very favorable Washington Post review of Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain. But – as Linda points outThe Female Brain is incredibly crappy science. Linda refers to this post from the right-wing blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, but relies mostly on an remarkable series of posts on Language Log. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a list).

Mark Liberman, a blogger at Language Log (and a professor at Upenn) has been looking up all the citations Brizendine uses to support claims “that deal with speech, language and communication.” What he’s finding, more often than not, is that her supporting citations simply don’t support her claims. For example, Brizendine claims:

A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week [of pregnancy] will turn this unisex brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers.

Brizendine provides only one citation to support this claim: A 2005 article in Science entitled “Patterning and plasticity of the cerebral cortex,” which Liberman reads and finds to be “a fascinating review of recent research on cortical development.” However:

But there’s absolutely nothing in this article about sexual differentiation. Specifically, there’s no mention whatsoever of the concept that “[a] huge testosterone surge … will turn this unisex brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers”. The terms “sex”, “male”, “female”, “testosterone”, “Y chromosome” don’t occur in this paper; and Brizendine offers no other support for this claim.

Liberman isn’t cherry-picking; he’s simply checking every one of Brizendine’s citations related to Liberman’s field. And problems like the above — Brizendine’s citations frequently don’t support her claims, and sometimes actually contradict her claims — crop up again and again. I really recommend reading the whole series.

In an email to Linda Hirshman, which Hirshman (I hope with permission) quotes on her blog, Brad Wilcox admits that Brizendine isn’t a reliable source:

I have to admit you win this battle. The more I hear about Brizendine the less I like. Too sloppy with the facts.

But as Hirshman correctly points out, Brad’s retraction belongs on his blog, where his readers will see it, not just in an email.

(More by Hirshman on Brizendine – including Brizendine’s extremely thin academic accomplishments – here).

UPDATE: Brad, to his credit, posts a retraction on Family Scholars.

[Crossposted at Creative Destruction. If your comments aren’t being approved here, try there.]

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5 Responses to Louann Brizendine's "The Female Brain" Is Incredibly Bad

  1. Pingback: feminist blogs

  2. 2
    EL says:

    Via email. What a copout!

    Liberman is a huge asset to our cause though. Wow. I hadn’t visited his blog before, but that kind of rigor is so rarely paid to these “pop nonfiction” books. Perhaps the lack of serious attention is understandable, but Liberman shows us all why it’s worthwhile to engage some of this crap.

  3. 3
    Michael Wade says:

    It’s funny that I just read a chapter of ‘The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature’ by Matt Ridley last night that deals with this same thing. According to Ridley, during the 8th week of pregnancy the male embryo is inundated with testosterone which does affect certain areas of the brain that we traditionally think of male/female, mainly communication and spacial recognition areas. He says that this is backed up by diabetic women who have to take female hormone treatments and give birth to effeminite boys and how when given steroid treatments women tend to give birth to tomboyish girls.

    Ridley goes on to say that testosterone levels drop in males so that by age 11 they are almost hormonally identical to thier female counterparts. Then at puberty a 2nd testosterone spike occurs which affects the male body as it is inundated with over 120X the amount that a normal woman would have.

  4. 4
    William O. Romine Jr. says:

    I would like someone who has access to a university library to check references
    and comment on the article that appeared in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN entitled
    SEX DIFFERENCES IN THE BRAIN, in the special edition THE HIDDEN MIND,
    2002. Being on disability, I do not have access to a University library.

  5. 5
    mythago says:

    Brad’s constant intellectual dishonesty is what led me to stop reading familyscholars, I’m afraid.