Is science with a political agenda still science? Talk w/Dr. Lise Eliot


Welcome beloved sibling!It is I, Aaron
Freeman, not a scientist but a sciency optimist today talking to one of my
dearest brain buddies professor Lise Eliot of Rosalind Franklin Medical
School and Rosalind University. Delighted to see this particular chat was
occasioned by your poster. Tell us quickly what your poster was about there
that you were chatting about the other thing the title the poster was time to
dump the dimorphism men and women’s brains are far more similar than
different across multiple measures of structure and function or something like
that would fit in the title bar I met you because your other you uh your
second look I guess it was paint gray blue brain what interest me is that you
do yours currently its current bitter science you’re doing has an agenda you
are trying to make have effect in the world yeah I guess so
yeah I mean I think I’m finally comfortable saying that brain sex is a
political issue and that people have been trying to analyze sex differences
in the brain since the time of well Aristotle’s the first that I’m aware of
who wrote about women’s inferiority and it always is all it’s always to
illustrate women’s inferiority differences in the brain are evoked by
you know authoritative scientists one of my favorite examples being neurologist
Charles Dana who the illustrious Dana is about yes named after and not to take
anything away from this very noble foundation but he was a neurologist a
hundred years ago and as was typical for his day was pretty convinced of women’s
intellectual inferiority and given that we were on the verge of trying to
enact women’s suffrage in the US and around the world he was invited by the
anti-suffrage Union to write a letter to the New York Times or his letter to the
suffrage you anti-suffrage Union was published by the New York Times laying
out the basis of women’s incapacity to reason
sufficiently to or cheveux given that you know our spinal cords are narrower
than men’s and he had something about the anterior-posterior activation of the
brain which which is actually opposite of what we think today but all of that
rendered women you know incapable of making rational judgment but now what do
you say makes complete and total sense it certainly and certainly lots of
science has been used to less than holy noble nonetheless you’re as I just as
I’ve known you these years you are reluctant to there’s you see now you’re
gonna feel more you’ve sort of willing to come out yeah out of the closet as a
feminist and I’m curious as to wince derives the reluctance well you get
labeled labeled and activist very quickly if you try to recruit scientific
data to support a social and that is perceived on the left end of the
spectrum I do feel like I stumbled upon this empirically that I really did set
out to write my vocal pink brain blue brain to explain to parents as I was at
this day at the time a parent of young children whose boys and girls were
playing differently and I perceived to be so different like like like many
parents so I started writing my book pink green blue brain you know scouring
the literature which yeah this was 10 15 years ago so there was less brain
imaging of young children there still is not that much of very young children
compared to adults but was really unimpressed with what we supposedly knew
about the difference between boys and girls brains basically I came up
and there is nothing we understand today about mail structure or function in
newborns or one year olds or two year olds that would explain why boys are
playing more with trucks and girls more with dolls I mean that doesn’t mean
there’s not some difference in the brain but it’s going to be pretty darn subtle
and I presume it’s also quite sensitive to environmental learn English all of
our we are here we social animals right so then I started taking a more critical
look at the adult brain imaging literature which I thought was more
nailed down but here we are in 2018 people are doing MRI and now functional
MRI for you know we’re in our third decade of this and you would have
thought after all these thousands and thousands and thousands of brain scans
we would have a pretty clear picture of what this alleged thing it was the male
brain and a female brain is which most people believe in I mean certainly non
scientists absolutely believe there is such a thing as a male brain and a
female brain they read about it every day and women’s magazines and men’s
magazines I mean it’s used in a casual way but but
I think that using the word brain when they really mean men and women behave
differently gives this essence of Biological fixedness that it’s wired
into our chromosomes in or especially our hormones and that you know the organ
in my head is as different from the organ in your head as our reproductive
organs and that really just isn’t the case by any measure of brain structure
or function and so what I when I been working on really doing this massive
assembly of of all the data we’ve got on straw
Kadena the your poster was a meta-analysis that you’re done yeah
right studies I think of it more as a meta synthesis because it’s its i start
from meta analyses and then i I compare across them and there’s there’s almost
you know no two findings that are the same or if if you know a plurality of
studies are finding the same sorts of differences between men and women they
are all very small effect sizes so less than two-tenths of a standard deviation
which is sort of the marker for a statistically small effect and also that
you can you can the better way to analyze the contribution of sex to brain
structure function is to parse out the degree of variance that you can
attribute to to just exactly so neuro imagers are doing all that you
know a good degree of brain structure variance is attributable to age so I’m
learning tomatoes so most of us non scientists think that they’re different
they’re male brains and female brains we’re wrong okay what’s the problem
what’s the what’s the harm here well I think I’m pretty harmful to invoke any
kind of you know intrinsic you know hardwired differences so this idea that
you know we’re born with by a biology that will limit the way that we can
think and the way that we can feel really cuts short boys and girls and it
cuts towards what we know to be men and women’s true potential which is a lot
more overlap than difference and particularly a lot more variance within
gender so any of these measures of masculinity and femininity you know a
tendency towards warmth or a tendency towards assertiveness or aggression or
empathy all of those measures can be shown to very much much more within the
group of males and a group of familes then the difference between them and so
I think by invoking this term male brain or female brain and especially the term
sexual dimorphism which that was the title my poster to dump the dimorphism
which is very you know sciency way sounds really good dimorphism I mean
that sound stuff it sounds much more rigorous and just scientific and
evolutionary dimorphism to shapes and ovary and testes well that’s dimorphic
are our brains are not dimorphic our hearts and our livers and our lungs are
not dimorphic but they’re also educational and economic implications to
the this belief in dimorphism right well yeah well you mentioned I know that at
the bottom right hand corner of your poster was the dreaded james dam apart
with that that speaks to his work his letter his note his ideas speak to some
of the economic implications of this belief in that word orbison right so
obviously men and women do different jobs on average in fact careers are
strikingly gender segregated much more gender segregated than you would predict
based on the cognitive and emotional and you know non cognitive
abilities that they depend on social abilities and so on and so why is
engineering so predominantly male 85% of engineering majors and 85% of Silicon
Valley engineers are male and a huge percentage of the attending professors
in physics math at big universities are men and I should add a huge percentage
of the tenured professors in philosophy sociology even in the humanities men
continue to dominate in most many of these fields at least at big-name
universities so you know the higher the prestige the more its impenetrable the
upper ranks are to women fortune 500 companies you know there’s
only 25 out of 500 that are led by women so and that has nothing to do with math
per se or stem I mean being a CEO one would argue depends much more on
interpersonal skills and organizational skills which at least at the age of 14
most girls are surpassing boys on and even wealth into one’s 20s so you know
the idea that careers are that we that we parse out into careers based on our
intrinsic abilities is just you know pretty darn inaccurate the incorrect
beliefs that we have about sexual dimorphism ripple out so there’s there
these kind of social strongly-held and without any justification but strongly
held because we kind of have this sense that that in that they they they fan out
into other spheres of life but you start with the kind of assumptions social
assumptions and then it shows up in economics and education and careers and
that is what you hope your work will help to address the words we use are
important the words that we use to describe biologic
phenomena influence the way we think about ourselves and our society and our
groups of people using a term that exaggerated differences it really it
takes something that is literally you know 1% differences in the volume of the
amygdala and turns it into two shapes male there’s a male amygdala a female
amygdala nevermind that they’re really about one percent different by calling
them different organs we we perpetuate this notion that that men and women’s
brains and and overall abilities are fundamentally different or you steered
towards better it is steered steered in different directions and so that’s going
to bias hiring managers and it’s going to affect you know minorities when women
are one in ten in the room you know it evokes this stereotype threat where you
start questioning your own abilities that you know when you feel like you
don’t belong there and and then of course just strictly apart from you know
gendered expectations you have a culture that develops when it’s 90 percent male
versus equal that is going to be suppressing a female advancement when we
were at your poster a young man came over it looked at it ah so this is a
feminist neuroscience yeah is what you do feminist neuroscience is that fair
call it I used to be uncomfortable with that term just because again feminist
assumes an agenda but man-hating hairy-legged right synonym with lesbian
– I forgot about that but but there is a whole group of feminist biologists now
who and it started with some primatologists sarah blur for her tea
was one of the first who tried to correct this notion of
primate societies as being all about aggression and harems and appreciated
that there was quite a bit of dominance competition among females and often the
female rank was the most important thing in a in a society that females can
suppress each other’s ovulation there’s a lot of competition among females as
well as the idea that we breed we don’t necessarily raise our young as as
isolated suburban housewives in a 1950s kitchen feeding the baby in the
highchair that in most societies most you know pre-industrial societies
there’s more of a cooperative what they call cooperative breeding that it takes
a village and it’s not just the mother it’s the grandmother it’s the
neighborhood sister who participates in the child-rearing
so just deconstructing some of our assumptions about about biology and
social relations though because they were all framed by a masculinist biology
I mean all of biology was shaped if you will evolutionary biology especially the
stuff on sexual selection and the notions of sexual dimorphism by men who
had this this single-minded focus on male competition when they looked at
sexual behavior all they could see was the Rams running over to compete and the
females were just these passive you know receptacles where the prize whoever won
right but that’s not true oh I mean there’s so much growing evidence about
you know that females running off and finding superior sperm when the Wiimote
oh yeah where we were rejecting the sperm of males they didn’t like the
chimp as ever the chimpanzee females can just reject sperm all right so you’ve
been at this so you wrote the book of what 15 years ago okay ten years ago
other than working out for you I think it’s um some impact I think it is still
an up battle with scientists much less the
public about disabusing this love this idea of a male brain and a female brain
because unfortunately they have a countervailing movement in neuroscience
in biomedical research that has been really pushing the notion of studying
male and female animals so it is true that in what we call preclinical
research so research on animals that are models for human disease many of the
paradigms were based on largely on male animals because it was thought that well
they don’t have an estrus cycle it’s a simpler system and then also once you
just start developing a paradigm it just you want to stick with this few samples
and so a movement started up in the last few years
suggest you know pushing for this idea that you know we’re discriminating
there’s bias against female animals there’s a New York Times article about
the bias against female and there’s a North Washington University has a whole
department that whose job it is to make sure and then I ate it I believe the NIH
to get an H grant now you have to include equally interesting your expert
test subjects males and female mice and monkeys yeah so what will real progress
look like to Lisa Elliot dr. Lisa Elliot okay gender well I think that the people
who are really looking closely at this are appreciating that gender is fluid
for one thing I think we got that a lot of us have got that Society is showing
but I think it’s I think people are starting to accept that that’s probably
the way our brains work as well that well there was a paper three years ago
by Daphna Joelle and colleagues out of Israel called the human brain mosaic
suggesting that even if individual features this one these 1%
references are present they’re not present uniformly in every man in every
woman’s brain so of a hundred and fifty features that may be slightly more
masculine or slightly more feminine any individual was going to have just a
subset of those and your subset is not going to be different the same as
another man but subset and similarly among the women and and so there really
is just a spectrum it’s really just a schmear gender is is absolutely a
spectrum and that’s quite distinct from sex which is largely although not
absolutely binary but so I think the answer that you gave to my question has
something there was a number of papers that are published for usable one
measure success would be if there were more papers published demonstrating the
spectrum of sex itself the spectrum of age you say within sexes within so for
you as an academic papers published well one major success here’s one major
success would be if the people who are analyzing for sex which they do in every
single human brain imaging study they have to use sex as a KO period and they
can determine quantitatively how much is sex to contributing to the variance in
this sample and like I said it’s typically about 1% if they would just
publish that instead of instead of just say we you know we balanced for gender
or we Co varied for gender just publish the number show us how small those
values are instead what happens is they add up people analyze for gender if they
don’t find a significant difference they don’t publish it and so there was a nice
study that came out this year out of by a first author named Sean David out of
Johnny Juanita slab at Stanford that actually demonstrated that there’s
serious publication bias in the literature on functional brain imaging
for sex so on out of 179 studies of sex difference in sex differences in human
brain activation the larger studies found very
little or no difference it was only these small studies that found
differences which you can interpret as statistical evidence for publication
bias those are probably false positives that got managed to get through peer
review whereas you know a an equal number of studies we presume where
people didn’t find a difference they didn’t bother submitting for publication
because we we knew nobody no editor would bother to take it so
part of this is an open science issue and if you’re aware of the open science
movement yes that all data is good data all DL data deserves to be free and
published instead of just you know increasing the sample size until you get
significance which is really uncoachable unfortunately has been common practice
for a long time and so you know if if if you analyze your data at the end of the
experiment you’ve already published your study of you know brain processing to
language you got a nice little publication about which areas of the
brain are activated then you go back and reanalyze it for sex or gender and if
you find a difference bingo paper number two if you don’t find a
difference okay let’s move on to the next study so you see one of the things
you like to see is within the Academy a difference a difference in how data gets
treated and which data gets published all data should be published
oh even if it’s not sexy it should still be accessible so that people who want to
know the real magnitude of an effect can see all of the data I mean this has been
an issue in drug trials for a long time you know the some of the early studies
of SSRIs for depression serotonin reuptake inhibitors it was demonstrated
that the negative data were not being published by a drug
but even so we have this biased perception of the efficacy and so that
we’re so according the NIH or the FDA you know if you’re gonna do a trial you
register it you publish it no matter what
I don’t know how compliant the drug companies are but that’s the model for
how we get to real answers I really feel that that’s a great place they end up
hearing that but but I appreciate your time by when I ask one other load stick
are told in one hilarium because what do you say points to an interesting
phenomenon in science which is that a lot of people are questioning the
criteria for publication in scientific journals and the efficacy of peer review
which tends which kid could could diminish public confidence in science at
a time when we really and so that and that and you are saying this as well
you’re saying yeah that that’s the the stuff that we’re reading is reflective
of bias at least in agendas and worse so aren’t you visit possible to say that
wouldn’t you you’re very work is contributing to the lack of public
respect for science science yeah well it is a concern but you know the genies out
of the box we already know genies out of the bottle we already know that that
these practices are happening and it’s quite interesting for me to watch a
generational change in science and the younger generation is totally into this
open science pre-register your studies report the data will clean it up we’ll
get it right and it’ll ultimately it’ll save a lot of time and effort and
taxpayer dollars when we can pursue the real truth and not chase things that
were a result of bias now for the peer review that you’re talking about that’s
a that’s a little different issue and I think we are definitely appreciating the
weaknesses of peer review you know just to have two or maybe three reviewers on
one publication it seems horribly weak era I was what we you know one of the
the several times people sent the same paper to different groups of reviewers
and half of them will say colors and half will say this is rubbish right
absolutely I mean peer review is a crapshoot there is no question that it’s
just the luck of the draw and you know you’re allowed to nominate your own
reviewers which is helpful to editors they want to find people with expertise
and they don’t only take the reviewers that the author recommends but
nonetheless you know you’re gonna get at least one friendly reviewer so the idea
that we would leave this decision about the quality of a paper up to two or
three scientists would be like you know a film company a major studio screening
a movie with two or three people know what to do in a focus group with a
thousand or many hundred people in the room and they get a decent response rate
and similarly I think that the open publication movement is going in that
direction where we have you know post publication peer review essentially
where anybody can comment on a paper and if you have expertise that should be
apparent from the quality of your open review and if you don’t know what the
hell you’re talking about that should be apparent to
and so the true critiques will rise to the top and we’ll get a better
assessment well I wouldn’t have it any other way then they have my buddy Lisa
Elliot out there in the front lines working for Justice League and using
science as a tool to fight oppression and wrongdoing thank you for the view
right thank you very much for watching we have Chicago brain buddies every
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listening