Do Men and Women See Junk Science Differently?

Debbie says:

I’ve gotten to the point where I can sense junk science from miles away, which is what happened when I saw this news article about “how men and women see the world differently.”

My first clue was the fact that the study looks for a gender differentiation where there’s absolutely no evolutionary or biological reason to have one.

My second clue was the study’s conclusion:

“…men have greater sensitivity to fine detail and rapidly moving objects, while women are better at distinguishing between colors.”

This result is so perfectly aligned to simple gender binary expectations in the western world in the 21st century that it smells like the researchers found exactly what they were looking for.

Given these two clues, I went hunting. Here’s the abstract, from the Biology of Sex Differences journal (another bad sign). What I love about the abstract is this sentence, “We tested large groups of young adults with normal vision.” Most abstracts give sample sizes. When this abstract just said “large groups,” my spidey-senses tingled even more than they had already. Fortunately, the abstract takes us to a .pdf of the draft paper (this research isn’t even finalized, it’s just making the science news, because science news loves gender differentiation).

On page 7 of the .pdf, after a lot of technical explanation of why they believe these sex differences exist and how they set out to find them, we find the sample size. Want to guess? “Large groups” should be probably at least 1,000 (that would be a reasonable number for a single “large group,” at least).

Okay, here we go: 36 females and 16 males. No, really. That’s a “large group” for dinner, but not for much else.

Note the disparity between females and males. Since all subjects were volunteers, it sounds to me like more women volunteered than men, and the scientists decided that that wasn’t a problem. So if you have more than twice as many women as men, and you’re looking specifically for differences between women and men, wouldn’t you wonder whether your group of women was going to show wider variation than your group of men, just because of sample size? I would. But they don’t even acknowledge this; they just go blithely on, after saying that the smaller number of men reflects the demographics of the college where they were doing the research (perfectly plausible) and that they rejected all men with anomalous color vision.

Finally, on page 16, they trot out the old and long-debunked “hunter/gatherer” explanation. You see, men are hunters, so they have to be able to make fine movement distinctions. Women are gatherers, so seeing colors helps us find the right crops (and accessorize!). As they have not bothered to find out, this has not been the thrust of anthropological and paleontological belief for some time now (here’s one resource). Besides, fine movements are not how big game is tracked.

Once again, a little research establishes that if men and women actually see differently, these researchers haven’t proved it. And they know it, or they wouldn’t be so cagey about hiding their sample size.