Are cries of sexism holding back science?

Humans are not ruled by biology – that doesn't mean it's not important.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Science & Tech

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We’ve all become aware in recent years, if not decades, as to how universities have become more conformist, censorious and hostile to new thought deemed too dangerous or unsuitable to delicate sensibilities. We have become accustomed to academia’s weedy mendacity and intellectual cowardice. But this week, news has emerged revealing just how grievous this tendency has become.

According to a report in the Journal of Neuroscience Research, scientists have been ignoring gender differences in male and female brains, and how they respond differently to different drugs (including treatment for stroke and Alzheimer’s), for fear of being deemed a sexist ‘pariah in the eyes of the mainstream’.

‘The assumption has been that once you get outside of reproductive functions, what you find in males and females is fundamentally the same’, Larry Cahill, a neurologist from the University of California, Irvine, told The Times on Tuesday. ‘The last 15 or 20 years has overwhelmingly proven that assumption is false, false, false.’ While many scientists concede that there are differences between the sexes in how the liver, heart and microbiome work, there is a reluctance to admit to differences in brains – this bears possibly frightening consequences. Cahill adds: ‘We are talking about experiments in petri dishes, and how cells die. If you are coming up with drugs to deal with that you’d damn well better be aware of the differences.’ Because drugs are by default tested on male cells, it is women’s health that is being put in peril because of this failure to speak openly.

One can sympathise with those who are reluctant to talk about brain differences between the sexes, as the concept has tainted history. But this silence among scientists is fitting for our climate of fear, our fear of evidence, facts, knowledge, and our tendency to self-censor, as outlined by Joanna Williams in her book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity. People in universities have far less secure positions these days. In an age when people who voice incorrect opinions can lose their job as a consequence (witness the professional ruination of Eric Bristow this week), academics dare not stray into this perilous arena.

Race is the only topics that is more toxic today than gender. To state that male and female brains are different is taboo. Personally, I’d prefer it if they weren’t. I’d like to think that biology doesn’t define us, and that brains or hormones don’t govern us. But as Anne and Bill Moir showed in their 1998 book Why Men Don’t Iron, there is ample evidence that, fundamentally, we are different. We may not like it, but we shouldn’t be afraid of truths because they are annoying or offensive.

This truth needn’t worry us. To say that men are fundamentally more inclined to violence than women, or are more rational than emotional, that men talk more, get far grumpier with age, are less prone to depression, is akin to saying men are taller than women: it’s a very vague generalisation, a statement about averages, not a rule. Just as we can put on heels to make us taller, we are not prisoners of biology. We may be the product of nature, but we are not slaves to it. Biology is hardware. Culture is software.

Sprichst du Deutsch?

I was in Folkestone last week, where I was delighted to see a new shop had opened, called ‘Simply German’, selling all sorts of foodstuffs beloved of our Teutonic cousins. I have been learning German this year, with a view to ultimately being able to read Nietzsche in the original (watch this space for an exciting announcement on this next week). So, I was keen to try some German on the lady behind the counter – who in turn corrected my faulty pronunciation of bisschen.

While the Poles, Latvians, Slovaks and Romanians in this part of England – through their shops and by the language spoken on the streets – are an obvious presence, the Germans are less easy to spot. There are many ex-pats settled here, the lady tells me.

Yet you seldom hear German spoken around here. Sure, you see cars with German registration plates, especially in more well-to-do towns such as Sandwich, Broadstairs or Deal, where many have summer homes, but you seldom hear German spoken. When you do, it is invariably in hushed tones.

Maybe they are over-aware of current politics within the EU. But Britain isn’t Greece, where, if I were German, I would probably keep my voice down. Or maybe the Germans here still suffer from the delusion that the British are inveterate Teutonophobes. This is nonsense, of course. Basil Fawlty was of a generation now dead. The Germans have been restored to their pre-First World War and certainly pre-Bismarck status of being regarded as our cousins, both stern and romantic, with their winter markets, castles, fairytales, philosophy and beer.

So long, El Comandante

Fidel Castro was the greatest man who ever lived, a bastion of virtue, a revolutionary beacon of hope and goodness. We have witnessed the passing of a huge figure of modern history, the man who saw so many US presidents come and go. Under El Comandante, Cuba stood firm as a David against the Goliath. We salute his courage, indefatigability and devotion to social justice. The man of the century. A massive loss at the tender age of 90.

Sure, he made a few trifling mistakes in his record on human rights – locking up the gays and bringing the world to the point of nuclear Armageddon – but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. After all, he created a wonderful health service and education system. And he got the trains running on time. And he built marvellous autobahns.

El Presidente. El Comandante. Il Commissario Montalbano. Fidel was the People’s Dictator. The Communist Queen of Hearts. The Stalinist Queen of the South. The Alpha and the Omega. The Beard of the Prophet. A colossus among cabbages. Iconic. Cosmic. Titanic. Olympic. Lusitania. Kreigsmarine U-96. A man of ethereal, serene purity. Why, like a god. He was Zarathustra incarnate.

‘It seemed like only yesterday that he was oppressing us and crushing our spirits’, sobbed one grief-stricken man, amid a tearful crowd gathered in central Havana. ‘Why is it that the good always die young?’, reflected his neighbour, his weak voice breaking with emotion. ‘He was the Princess of Despots’, concluded another.

We will never forget you, Comrade Fidel.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickxwest

Picture by: Milan Rubio, published under a creative commons license.

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Topics Science & Tech


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