Fact-checking "The Female Brain"

Phonetics professor argues that evidence of women talking more than men is phony.

Published September 26, 2006 12:26AM (EDT)

Louann Brizendine's book "The Female Brain," which argues that there are strong neurological differences between the sexes, has been stirring up all kinds of controversy lately. But today in the Boston Globe, Mark Liberman, a trustee professor of phonetics at the University of Pennsylvania, fact-checks the book and finds that it comes up a few miles short.

Liberman starts by debunking a favorite saying among armchair psychologists and certain scholars: "Women talk more than men." This truism is often presented as scientific fact, and is used time and again to support a cultural perception of women as inherently communicative. But according to Liberman, measurements of how much men and women talk are all over the map -- it's possible to find claims of women's and men's daily word usage ranging anywhere from "50,000 vs. 25,000 down to 5,000 vs. 2,500."

Brizendine's "The Female Brain" places the daily word differential at 20,000 for women vs. 7,000 for men. But Liberman is skeptical about Brizendine's source: a self-help book written by Allan Pease. In the past six years, Pease has cited widely different counts of men's and women's daily word usage, and is also the author of the assuredly fun reads "Why Men Don't Have a Clue and Women Always Need More Shoes" and "Why Men Can Only Do One Thing at a Time and Women Never Stop Talking." In his analysis, Liberman found that "Pease and his coauthors never cite any specific studies as the source of these various numbers."

It isn't that there is no solid scientific research on how much men and women respectively contribute to conversation, but that said research flies in the face of popular knowledge. According to Liberman's findings, most research on verbal interaction actually suggests that men talk more than women, or that there is no significant difference between the amount men and women talk. Liberman hasn't found a reliable study of total daily word usage that compares men and women, but guesses that "whatever the average female vs. male difference turns out to be, it will be small compared to the variation among women and among men; and there will also be big differences, for any given individual, from one social setting to another." Sounds awfully sensible to us.

Liberman doesn't deny that there are innate differences between the sexes. But he's not willing to see proof of gender difference where none exists -- especially when authors are just peddling flimsy claims to boost sales. "The authors of self-help works, as a group, don't seem to have any particular standards of accuracy," Liberman writes. "Journalists, meanwhile, generally take them at their word in reviews and interviews, and publishers are happy as long as the books sell well. It's a shame to see this approach to the facts spreading into the growing genre of books about the neuroscience of sex differences, where the facts can have real consequences."

Interested readers might want to check out Liberman's blog for a long-overdue debunking of works such as David Brooks' many columns on gender differences and Leonard Sax's "Why Gender Matters" (previously mentioned in Broadsheet), as well as an exhaustive fact-checking of Brizendine's book.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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