Misunderstanding sex differences

4th December 2021

In a joint event with the The Association of British Science Writers, Stempra members heard from cognitive neuroscientist Professor Gina Rippon, Katy Losse and statistician Simon White about a new project promoting accurate and responsible communication of research on sex, gender and the brain.

Professor Rippon described herself as and an outspoken critic of ‘neurotrash’ — the populist use of research to misrepresent our understanding of the brain — and opened by challenging myths around differences between the male and female brain.

She highlighted that one of the key issues was the whole definition of what we mean by sex, what we mean by gender, whether or not people define this properly and whether, if they’ve defined it, they use definitions properly.
Research on sex, gender and the brain is very popular. It’s something that many people are interested in. It’s something which is very controversial, and which can be miscommunicated.

Professor Rippon explained that this misinformation issue is not necessarily deliberately, but may be because of the way results have been described. In her view, academic journals have a very stern set of guidelines about how research should be reported, but there are virtually no guidelines about the narrative itself (the words that researchers use to describe their findings). It is an issue which she felt was problematic, because researchers are under increasing pressure to demonstrate that their research has impact.

“There is a pressure to increase the hype within research. And it’s not something that reviewers or journal guidelines currently draw attention to. And it’s one of things in this project that we’re hoping to address,” she said.

She went on to explain that media and social media can use this narrative to over-emphasise findings from one research paper — making small difference in a few brains seem like profound differences between genders — and many myths about male and female brains have stuck in popular culture, even thought they have been proven false.

One example was a paper which heralded fundamental differences in the architecture of male and female brains. The methodology was flawed and the paper was subsequently retracted but beliefs about some of the findings still exist and are often described in the media.

Simon White, a member of council for the Royal Statistical Society (RSS), then detailed some of the tools and resources available to help people understand statistics. He praised the Science Media Centre for their continued work on the accuracy of science reporting. He also described his role as RSS statistical ambassador. This ambassador programme was set up in 2014 to train ambassadors in public speaking and talking to the media about statistics.
The event finished with Katie Losse describing the ‘Noise in Neuroscience’ project. It hopes to put a decisive stop to the avoidable problem of misunderstanding sex differences in the brain by creating an authoritative set of good practice guidelines for responsible communication of sex difference research.

The guidelines will be developed by an eminent academic panel working in partnership with the Royal Statistical Society, the Association of British Science Writers and others.

They are currently calling for evidence to help shape the guidelines.

You can get involved on their website: https:// www.noiseinneuroscience.com/about

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