Monday, May 3, 2010

Gendered Science

It's funny to observe how some so-called scientists begin their research from ridiculous gender stereotypes that have been interiorized to the extent where they start looking real. Here is the result of such profoundly unscientific approach:
A nasal spray can make men more in tune with other people's feelings, say a team of German and UK researchers. They found that inhaling the "cuddle hormone" oxytocin made men just as empathetic as women.
I guess we are supposed to gather from such statements that wihout this nasal spray (a nasal spray, of all things? Seriously?) men are not in tune with people's feelings and have no empathy. These are, of course, not the most outlandish suggestions this article makes about men. Almost immediately, it makes a connection between this non-empathetic condition and schizophrenia:
Professor Kendrick said the oxytocin spray may prove to be useful in people with conditions associated with reduced social approachability and social withdrawal, such as schizophrenia.
Basically, the idea that is promoted here seems to be that schizophrenia is just a small step away from being male. If men go long enough without this miraculous nasal spray, their biological tendency towards being non-feeling might take them all the way to schizophrenia. Female schizophrenics are, of course, left out of the picture. So are non-cuddly and non-empathetic women. Any kind of reality that does not fold itself neatly into the strictly gendered worldview of these pseudo-scientists is simply discarded. Their gall is such that they do not think twice before presenting schizophrenia as a "male" disease.

These sexist studies based on assuming that learned social skills are predicated on gender marginalize significant groups of people of both genders. Sociable, sensitive, empathetic men are branded as somehow less male. Non-cuddly, unsociable women are seen as less female. All this, of course, ends up placing an additional burden an autistic women. As it is, the patriarchal gender roles mandating that all women be weepy, sentimental, overly attached creatures deny female autistics any inclusion into this socially constructed kind of womanhood.

Autism, the favorite bugbear of mass culture today, is also addressed in this strange study. It was always completely obvious to me that all the stupid "Autism Speaks" campaigns and all the mass hysteria surrounding autism were paid for by pharmaceutical companies. These companies are interested in presenting autism not as a way of being that has a right to exist but as something that can be if not cured, then "managed." In this particular case, the suggestion is that we should spray this junk up our noses in other to "learn" to relate  better to other people. Whether most autistics are actually interested in learning how to be more "cuddly" is never addressed.

For such a short article, it packs a very powerful ideological punch. First, men in general are presented as biologically insensitive, non-empathetic beings who are physiologically one step away from schizophrenia. This serves the purpose of marginalizing men who have no problem with empathy, while presenting insensitive men as truly masculine. Then, the myth of general female cuddliness is reinforced. And to top it all off, autistics are used once again to fulfill the goals of pharmaceutical companies.

It's truly sad to see what passes for science these days.


NancyP said...

The Beeb is going downhill....shall we expect Fox with a posh accent?

Without a baseline of male and female reactions to the test photos, no comparison can be made between gender in reaction to oxytocin administration in this manner and setting.

cringe-all said...

Most of these findings that get reported in the popular media seem to be based on very unscientific approaches. There are hundreds of interrelated factors, both biological and cultural, that influence human behavior. How do you even define or measure "empathy" objectively? Also it's a good point that you make about the male stereotypes that are promoted in our society. This actually encourages the types of domineering men that will lie, cheat, abuse, exploit, etc. for their selfish ends and blame it all on some uncontrollable biological male trait, that somehow fits in with genetics or evolution or such other lame pseudo-scientific excuses.

Pagan Topologist said...

The question of whether these kinds of male female differences in behaviour are biological or learned (cultural) has taken the route of being a political issue. However, it is a scientific question, not ultimately a political one. I have seen no conclusive evidence for either position, so I remain open to both possibilities. But both sides simply assert their position as though it were unassailable. Neither position is.

NancyP said...

These nature v nurture studies are impractical. The studies would have to be done on very young infants, since socialization starts at birth. The sorts of interactions that parents and adult strangers have with girl babies are different from those they have with boy babies. I am sure that most people have noticed adult strangers (to the baby and its gender) misattribute gender in the first interactions, get corrected promptly by parent, and change the style of interaction.