Book recommendation – “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine

I know this isn’t exactly my normal sort of post, but to be fair, if every science journalist in the country read Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine,* the number of posts on this blog could probably be halved.

Delusions of Gender is a response to every “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” article and book, looking into the actual science behind them. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the time it turns out the evidence behind the claims weak or poorly thought out; relationship and parenting advice books routinely claim the existence of titanic gulfs between the sexes based on barely significant differences, while journalists will happily claim that women empathise more or that men are more logical based solely on the fact that more men than women answered “yes” to the question “Are you logical?”.

More interestingly, Fine brings out countless findings about how the mind is affected by the outside world. For example, there’s a process called “priming“, where simply telling someone that men or women are expected to do better on a puzzle affects their ability accordingly – even if the priming is entirely subconscious. Other targets of Fine’s include improperly interpreted brain scans, studies that assume children have no understanding of society, publication bias, and some frankly bizarre “science” (one study claimed that women had evolved to be homemakers because female chimps in captivity enjoyed playing with saucepans – of course, how a chimp with no knowledge of cooking would know what a saucepan was for was never answered).

A fair bit of the book feels quite specifically targeted at a few authors – Simon Baron-Cohen, Leonard Sax and Louann Brizendine (the latter two in particular are both called out for making claims not supported by the actual studies they cite) – which can make the book a bit alienating to read at times if you’re not familiar with them. Delusions of Gender is also a little more heavy going than some popular science books, as Fine sometimes sacrifices simplicity for rigour – though her dry, often wonderfully sarcastic wit will at least get you through these parts with a smile on your face. Nevertheless, it’s well worth reading when you want to read newspapers, pop-psychology books or parenting advice with a more critical mind.

* I should probably point out that despite the title, the book doesn’t actually claim gender is a delusion. In fact, Fine quotes a number of interesting studies, particularly involving transgender people, which demonstrate that gender is an actual property of the mind – but that the actual ties between sex and gender are often weak.

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