Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wired for Compassion

We all know how much I adore pop-science articles that brainwash our anti-science population with talk of brain wiring. (I even blogged about it on my very first day as a blogger.) Volumes of actual science have been published disproving the sexist claims of these brainless brain wirers. Still, they keep publishing their rubbish and ignoramuses keep eating it right up because it fits in so neatly with their expectations of clear-cut gender differences.

Here is one of the most recent examples of such a piece. It tries to convince us that vaginas are more compassionate than penises, even though the bearers of said vaginas and penises disagree:
Mercadillo and his colleagues describe an experiment featuring 12 women and 12 men. As the participants viewed a series of 100 photographs, their brains were scanned using fMRI technology. Every second image was one that evoked compassion (according to previous research). Examples included sad human faces, war scenes and depictions of famine. “No gender differences were observed in the frequency of reported compassionate experiences,” the researchers report. However, what was happening in the participants’ brain told a different story. As the compassion-evoking photos were viewed, activity was observed in two areas of the brain — the thalamus and the putamen, part of the basal ganglia — in women but not in men.
 I'm not going to provide a detailed analysis of why this so-called study conducted on an extremely representative sample of 24 people in a scientifically backwards and profoundly sexist country is idiotic. Echidne's Blog has done this beautifully already. I just want to call your attention to how both genders are degraded in the concluding lines of this fascinating piece of journalistic stupidity:
So ladies: When the men in your life seem insensitive to suffering, try not to respond with scorn. The problem, it seems, is one of brain circuitry. It shouldn’t be hard to take pity on them; after all, you have an enormous capacity for compassion.
Men are presented as not entirely human here. They have to be pitied and condescended to by women who do have the capacity of experiencing the full range of human emotions. At the same time, just like centuries ago, women are still being exhorted to be understanding and forgiving with men. Five hundred years ago, we were supposed to do that because it was our God-given duty. Today, we are still expected to condescend to men because we are told that this is how our brains work. Some things don't ever seem to change.


Leah Jane said...

If they really wanted to revolutionize science and grab people's attention, they could do one where they figure out why there's a correlation between me cringing and a sentence I read/hear beginning with "So ladies..."

Clarissa said...

Don't tell me. Barf. And, of course, it's always the most idiotic, condescending, sexist kind of advice that follows.

Tim said...

12 men and 12 women... So 24 people ?

And there are people out there calling this an experiment that delivered hard results ?

Clarissa, you could walk into class tomorrow, voice a yes/no question and then ask your students to raise their hands if they agree, and you would have conducted bigger science than this.

Clarissa said...

Exactly. If this is what science has been reduced to, we are all screwed. And what's particularly annoying is that this is the kind of study that gets popularized and quoted everywhere.

My classes usually have more than 24 students, so I could definitely become one huge scientist here. :-)

Pagan Topologist said...

Exactly. If this is what science has been reduced to, we are all screwed.

This is misleading. There is a quote from sf author Theodore Sturgeon which goes as follows: "Ninety percent of science fiction is bullshit. But then ninety percent of everything is bullshit."

This is, in fact, called Sturgeon's Law in sf fandom.

I think this is a good thing to keep in mind when reading any scientific paper. It is impossible to keep the dirvel from being published without also keeping some of the masterpieces from being published. The ninety percent figure may be a little low, but it is definitely not too high an estimate, in my opinion.

A delightful bit of serendipity here: The word verification here is 'sciunce', which is certainly a pathetic spelling of 'science'.