The Rhetorical Trap at the Heart of the “Neurosexism” Debate

Apr 18, 2017 by

by Claire Lehmann and Debra W Soh, Quillette:

“Neurosexism,” “populist science,” “neurotrash,” the problem with using terms like these to describe scientific investigations of sex differences is that their use may be interpreted as hostile. “Not fair!” claim the espousers of these terms, who argue that they only ever use such terms for pseudoscience and media distortions, not robust and replicable studies. In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Cordelia Fine—the author who coined the term “neurosexism”—together with Rebecca Jordan-Young, argue that they have never been prima facie opposed to sex differences research. Their only concern is that of scientific rigour.


In 2005, the British philosopher Nicholas Shackel proposed the term “Motte and Bailey Doctrine” for this type of argumentative style. Taking the name of the castle fortification, the “motte” is strong and is built high on an elevated patch of land and is easy to defend. By contrast, the “bailey” is built on lower, more exposed ground, and is much more difficult to defend from attacks. Shackel used this metaphor to describe a common rhetorical trap used by postmodern academics, where a controversial proposition is put forward (a “bailey”) but is then switched for an uncontroversial one (a “motte”) when faced with criticism. In this case, the controversial position that has been proposed by authors such as Fine and Jordan-Young is that the scientific investigation of sex differences reinforce and legitimize harmful and sexist stereotypes about women. The uncontroversial proposition is that their concern is simply one of “[ensuring] the [maximum possible contribution] of neuroimaging research.”

An example of the controversial proposition could be seen in 2013, when Fine described a neuroscience study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) as “neurosexist”. The study, which consisted of a large sample of 949 youths aged 8 to 22, found sex differences in the white matter, or connective tissue, of the human brain. Men were shown to have a greater number of white matter connections running from the front to back of the brain, while women had a greater number running between the left and right hemispheres.

The study’s authors also made speculations about what kinds of behaviours these structural differences might be related to. For example, in men, these differences translate to more efficient coordination between perception and action; in women, they facilitate better communication between analytical and spatial processing. It was this speculation which attracted the ire of Fine. It was “subtly neurosexist,” she said “[in] reinforcing and legitimating gender stereotypes in ways that are not scientifically justified.” The study was methodologically unsound (according to Fine) because it had not controlled for “gendered experiences (such as hobbies, subjects studied at school or higher education, or participation in sporting activities)”. However, gendered interests have been shown to be evident in children as young as 9 months of age which occurs before they are developmentally aware that gender exists, at around 18 months.

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