Racism, sexism, and brain scans

Yesterday, I stumbled upon this quote in a great article on hipster racism on Jezebel:

If you claim that you are not a racist person (…) then you must believe that people are fundamentally born equal. So if that’s true, then in a vacuum, factors like skin color should have no effect on anyone’s success. (…) And therefore, if you really believe that all people are created equal, then when you see that drastic racial inequalities exist in the real world, the only thing that you could possibly conclude is that some external force is holding certain people back. (…) Unless you don’t actually think that people are born equal. And if you don’t believe that people are born equal, then you’re a fucking racist.”

And the same applies to sexism. If you believe that there are inherent differences in the mental abilities of men and women, then you are sexist.

“But brain scans show…”

To people saying that I have the following reply:

First of all, they have fallen into the trap that neurosexism has laid out for all of us. Here are some arguments against the infinite amount of pseudo-scientific claims on the topic:

1) Brains are highly adaptable and respond to environment. For example, the average taxi driver has a much larger hippocampus than I have. Men and women experience different environment and socialization. Thus, their brains may be expected to show some differences, even if they are born with the same inherent options for brain development. However:

2) Anyone who still believes brain scans are something even resembling an exact science should read this article. With such an uncertain method that is prone to false positives (like detecting brain activity in a dead salmon) anything you want will be detected if enough studies are conducted and those use small enough samples. And coincidentally, many of the studies reporting differences between male and female brains use extremely small sample sizes, like this example (which comes with a twist if you read to the end). Simple statistics predicts that many studies conducted with small sample sizes will produce a significant number of false positives, and those are preferentially published and get preferential media attention. The large majority of these studies are utterly useless. Yet the media jumps on them because that is what people want to read.

3) Meta-analysis of large statistical samples show very small differences between the genders [except for ability for throwing, which I gladly give up]. For example, mathematical abilities of girls and boys are found to be exactly the same in a world-wide study — although they do differ in some individual countries, showing, again, the effect of environment.

So  no, brain scans are not an argument here. Do you just want to believe men and women ‘just are inherently different’? If yes, go ahead. I know I cannot change your opinion. But please admit to yourself that you are a sexist, and perhaps consider the fact how embarrassing the racism of 50 years ago appears today.

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5 Responses to Racism, sexism, and brain scans

  1. Absolutely fantastic.

  2. anjalampert says:

    Well, I do think that men and women are different, but different doesn’t mean either of them is better or worse… I mean, we do look different, right?! In a way we are very different, and at the same time we are very much alike.
    But I know what you mean and of course I do agree…

    • zinemin says:

      I think men and women are far, far less different than most people believe. That we look different is not an argument for me. People of different origins also look very different, yet I do not think they have different mental abilities. We are a species with a lot of variety on the outside, but on the inside, I believe we humans are all generalists and extremely adaptable, and our brains are strongly affected by culture. If the women around you on average seem different than men, this might be to a large degree due to different environment and upbringing men and women experience.

  3. ridicuryder says:

    Sweet Baby Zinemin,

    Sexism is alive and well….so is racism, they will keep kicking for awhile to come. At least until humanity homogenizes into one race and (Nirvana !) everyone’s asexual.

    I’m a goofy guy who says stooopid stuff at times, I see a lot less of the uglier forms of racism around than I did when I was growing up. Sexism has tailed off some (in many cases men have backed away from it quicker than women) and certainly, more women at the forefront of various fields will continue making gender inequality more vague. We can also develop a little thicker skin about a lot of this stuff. I enjoy reading you….it brings out the Archie Bunker in me a bit but overall I’m better for it.

    How about we agree that I’m not going to hold a slide ruler up to life and your not going to fix me a sandwich and get me a beer.

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