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Sex, lies, and science journalism

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  December 3, 2006 09:27 PM

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In his Sept. 24 Ideas article, "Sex on the Brain," linguist Mark Liberman scrutinized the claims of some recent books -- like Louann Brizendine's "The Female Brain" -- that women talk more than men.

Not likely, he concluded, based on the actual science that's out there, and certainly not proven by anything in these authors' flimsy footnotes. For instance, Brizendine's sexy stat -- "A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000" -- was sourced to a self-help book that offered no evidence at all.

A bit of Googling easily turns up at least nine different versions of this claim, ranging from 50,000 vs. 25,000 down to 5,000 vs. 2,500. But a bit of deeper research reveals that none of the authors of these claims actually seems to have counted, and none cites anyone who seems to have counted either.

His dissent did nothing to slow the urban legend's spread, which Liberman has been grimly documenting at Language Log. Last week, however, the truth squad caught up with Brizendine, in the person of Guardian reporter Stephen Moss, who wrote in a Nov. 27 story that Brizendine

has accepted the criticism of the numbers . . . and will be deleting them from future editions. Nor will they appear in the UK edition, to be published by Bantam in April. "I understand Mark Liberman's point and I am grateful to him," she says. "He felt I was passing on data that was not nailed down, and thus perpetuating a myth."

So, the truth will out? Not so fast. The very next day, the Daily Mail reported the bogus Brizendine numbers as fact ("Women talk three times as much as men, says study"). That story hasn't been corrected, and people who tried to post objections told Liberman their comments have been ignored. (The published comments are all in the yahoo-humorous vein: "Someone had to do a study to figure this out?")

Liberman is reasonably philosophical about our collective weakness for any bunkum that confirms our gender stereotypes. But he wonders why journalistic standards so often don't apply to science reporting. Heads rolled at CBS after "Memogate," but ABC's credulous September reports on the neuroscience of sex were just fine: "No one at '20/20' is in even the slightest bit of trouble, although the sheer amount of fabricated evidence presented on those programs was a great deal larger," he writes.

In fact, the folks responsible for those "20/20" segments probably got praise and credit from their employers, since the pseudo-science of sex differences is a very popular topic, and those segments were effectively presented and presumably got good ratings. The same thing can be said about the dozens, if not hundreds, of editors, producers, pundits, reviewers and reporters who have spread the same fabrications through the global media over the past few months.

You know who you are, I want to add -- but then again, maybe you don't.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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