David Brooks on the emotions of boys and men

It’s time for a new stereotype: Right-wingers don’t know science. But they still make propaganda from what they think they know. Exhibit #1 is from Mark Liberman at LanguageLog:
Mark Liberman, “David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist”, LanguageLog 12 Jun 2006.
—, “Are men emotional children?”, LanguageLog 24 Jun 2006.
David Brooks makes dubious use of neuroscience to argue that in order to increase reading among boys, they should be given Hemingway and the like, not Jane Austen.
In his first post Liberman looks at one paper, presumably representative, on the topic of sex differences in learning. The paper concludes that for pictures that aroused intense negative emotions, women’s memories were, in a group comparison, somewhat better than men’s.
Turhan Canli et al., “Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories”, PNAS 99.16 (6 Aug 2002).
Associated with that finding were differences in activation patterns in the brain. But those differences must be set against a background of community. The two sexes “share an extensive network of structures associated with attention, language, and motor control that are associated with emotional arousal”; and, as Liberman notes, if we could see the raw data we would likely find a great deal of variation among individuals.
Even more telling is a second post. Brooks’s source turns out to be Why gender matters by Leonard Sax. Sax grossly misinterprets a paper concerning responses to pictures of faces exhibiting various negative emotions.
Killgore, William D. S.; Oki, Mika; Yurgelun-Todd, Deborah A., "Sex-specific developmental changes in amygdala responses to affective faces," Neuroreport 12.2 (Feb 2001): 427-433.
He claims that “the locus [in male brains] of brain activity associated with negative emotion remains stuck in the the amygdala”. In girls responses to negative emotion are supposed to shift to cerebral cortex during adolescence, in boys they don’t. From Liberman’s careful examination it is apparent that the study by Killgore et al. proves very little. The samples are very small, and individual differences between members of the same sex come close to swamping supposed differences between the sexes. The paper certainly does not support the claims of Sax or Brooks.
Brooks admits to being scientifically illiterate. Sax has an M.D. He also has an agenda, which is to promote single-sex public schools. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), which seems to consist in Sax and an assistant, advertises his book prominently. The NASSPE has regional meetings every year. The Northeast Conference is co-sponsored with a charter-school outfit, Victory Schools, and a Transformation Life Coach who has founded the Academy For Leadership and Transformation (which seems to be nothing other than the Coach herself). It will set you back $325 plus $165 for accommodations.
Single-sex education may be a good thing, although memories of high-school gym, admittedly a special case, suggest that it has its drawbacks. But misinterpreting science is not. And even if the conclusions of the paper by Killgore et al. had been correctly stated, the inferences Brooks wants to draw from them are far from being justified.

LinkJune 25, 2006 in Psychology · Science · Unenlightenment