Nature v. Nurture? Depends What You Read

Recent studies on gender differences in the human brain – potentially predictive of differences in learning and acumen – are being treated like hot potatoes.

"It's emotionally loaded," McGill University professor Barbara Sherwin was quoted in an Oct. 18 article by Montreal Gazette reporter Peggy Curran on research about the effect of sex hormones on learning. "It would be preposterous to say that only men can do one thing and women another."

Nonetheless, Sherwin goes on to say that "our brains are shaped to be different."

Well, after reading a study last summer about how the nature vs. nurture debate gets skewed by the press, I might not be an expert on brain structure. But I do know that my brain reacts very differently these days to any such news about gender differences.

"Says who?" is the first question I am now prone to ask.

Two Yale University researchers – Victoria Brescoll and Marianne LaFrance – analyzed articles on sex differences that appeared in 29 large-circulation U.S. newspapers published between January 1994 and February 2001.

After going through all that, they found that the political leanings of newspaper publishers and managers color reporting on sex differences. While conservative newspapers tend to use biology to explain those differences, more liberal newspapers explaining them in terms of socio-cultural effects.

Serious Questions

The study, published in Psychological Science (Vol. 15, No. 8, August 2004), raises serious questions about how well science journalism serves newspaper readers.

The articles were coded for the type of explanation provided for sex differences and also for the degree to which the newspaper was conservative or liberal and the degree to which the newspaper articulated traditional sex role beliefs throughout its pages.

Brescoll and LaFrance also ran experiments to see if articles proposing biological explanations for sex differences would help foster gender stereotypes. Not surprisingly, the answer was yes. When faced with press coverage that favors biological explanations, guess what: Readers' gender stereotypes are indeed reinforced.

What Brescoll and LaFrance say they don't know is the point at which political views enter the reporting and editing process. Do editors strike out pesky qualifying words that might make the sex-difference studies seem as inconclusive as they really are? Or do reporters jazz up findings to please the editorial sensibilities of their editors? The study doesn't say, but the authors' results make me wonder.

Filtering Process

Jon Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer now on the faculty of the University of Maryland College of Journalism, has his own ideas.

"The thing is, most people who report science, a small minority of whom are science writers, don't have enough knowledge to make heads or tails of it," Franklin said in an interview. "I think that any time a reporter writes about anything they don't understand they filter it through whatever their city-room wisdom is. If that wisdom is biased or prejudiced, then the story is biased and prejudiced, but not because the reporter wants it to be."

A 1997 National Health Council survey showed that more than half of Americans – 58 percent – claimed a medical or health news story led them to consider changing their behavior or taking action to improve their physical condition.

So readers, we might extrapolate from this, depend pretty heavily on popular media for health and science information.

But when it comes to reporting on sex differences, all readers should know what a minefield they are facing.

"Science writers leave out what they don't understand; editors take out what they don't understand and readers get what's left," Franklin says. "It leads to stupid interpretation, which is how we got to eugenics, and that's the clear and present danger of that kind of reporting."

Franklin adds that reporters, editors and readers also may import their own attitudes when they cover sex differences.

"Liberals are afraid our abilities will turn out to be inborn, and conservatives are afraid that they won't be, and the answer is 'yes,'" he says. Both camps get to be right and wrong at the same time.

Balancing Pressures

The pressure to be balanced – by always including an opposing view – can actually make articles less objective if the opposing view is based on ideology and not science.

Those who push the Book of Genesis as the definitive word on the origin of the universe, for instance, have endeavored to turn themselves into "creation scientists" with equal standing in the news media with trained scientists.

And disinformation campaigns funded by industry have fed the journalistic appetite for opposing viewpoints, with results that can only be considered harmful to the public.

Melinda Voss, executive director of the Association of Health Care Journalists, says journalists who cover health and science desperately need and want special training.

And we would all be better off if they got it.

If news organizations would increase their paltry budgets for professional development and improve their news staffs' ability to report more effectively on science (as well as other subjects), the reading public could be somewhat more likely to be reading science, not spin.

In her story on gender and the brain, Peggy Curran was careful to include a diplomatic quote from Harvard Medical School professor Jill Goldstein.

"I think we're living in a time now when we can look at what some of these differences are without saying they are necessarily deterministic," Goldstein said.

Agreed. But we are also living in a time when we are perhaps best advised to look at the so-called findings of scientific studies and turn the page.

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