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How do you know if a book is using junk science to prove a point?

I thought I’d combine last week’s podcast on a DIY test to see if Christian books are harmful or helpful and this week’s podcast on the problems with the way that far too many Christian resources misuse neuroscience research to give an example of how you can do your own research to see if a book is using science properly.

So let’s work through one example that Rebecca mentioned in the podcast yesterday that fits with our tests perfectly.

And, to be honest, this post is a sad one for me to write. We’re looking at Gary Thomas’ new book Married Sex (which he wrote with Deb Fileta). Gary and I were once quite close, and he often consulted me on how to talk about female sexuality in his books. I thought he “got” it, since he had written When to Walk Away and had told women that they could leave toxic marriages, something many male evangelical authors wouldn’t do. But ever since The Great Sex Rescue came out, which he did not support, he’s distanced himself from me.

I wasn’t going to look at his new book, but a number of people kept emailing me with issues from it, so we took a cursory glance recently (I still haven’t read the whole thing). And one thing we found that was concerning was how he’s using neuroscience research (as we talked about yesterday).

In one of the chapters that he wrote, he says:

It may be helpful to remember that your husband has a different brain than you do. Dr. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist and researcher who studied at UC Berkeley, Yale, and Harvard, points out that “men have two and a half times the brain space devoted to sex drive in their hypothalamus. Sexual thoughts flicker in the background of a man’s visual cortex all day and night, making him always at the ready for seizing sexual opportunity.”

We realize that many wives have a higher libido than their husbands, but for those of you who are married to men with a higher libido, the quantity of sexual activity has the potential to create either long- term gratitude or slow-simmering resentment. Let’s not discount Dr. Brizendine’s surprising scientific truth: your husband has two and a half times more brain space devoted to sex drive than you do. So, yes, your husband is likely to think about sex more than you do.

Gary Thomas and Deb Fileta

Married Sex

Okay, wow. That sounds pretty incontrovertible, right? He’s quoting a scientist with major academic credentials.

But at the same time–this claim seems a little over the top, doesn’t it? A man has sex going through his brain ALL THE TIME, and he’s just waiting to seize a sexual opportunity? And sexually, he is completely different from her?

Yet, a neuropsychiatrist said it, so it must be true.

Well, let’s do some digging using the tests that we mentioned last week on the podcast and see!

Step #1: Check the citation–Is it from a peer-reviewed (academic) source?

Here is the endnote for this finding:

Louann Brizendine, The Male Brain: A Breakthrough Understanding of How Men and Boys Think (New York: Three Rivers, 2010), 4.

Gary Thomas and Deb Fileta

Married Sex

The first thing to notice here is that this resource is not a journal article in an academic journal where it is peer-reviewed (or put to test by others in the field), but is just a book.

Step #2: Check the date of the publication: Is the science up to date?

This book was published in 2010. Last week we suggested that when it comes to scientific articles, a good rule of thumb is to look for something in the last 10 years. Neuroscience is changing rapidly. There are so many more studies out about gender differences and desire and sex since 2010–and virtually all of them show that men and women are far more similar than they are different.

When you see a study that is quite old, ask yourself:

Do we have to rely on an older study because not very much research is being done in this field, so this study is likely up to date? Or has there been lots of research in this field, and so this may be a sign that the author is cherry-picking data?

Step #3: Check the 1-star reviews on Amazon: Have any glaring problems been identified?

I always love checking the one-star reviews for books, because if there is a serious problem, chances are someone has mentioned it in a 1-star review. You can ignore all the stupid 1-star reviews, but if there are many thoughtful ones, that’s a sign that there’s a problem.

One of the one-star reviews for The Male Brain led me to a peer-reviewed book review in the journal Nature for her first book The Female Brain. Nature is one of the most pre-eminent and sought after scientific journals, so a review from that carries a lot of weight. Here’s part of that scathing review, which they titled Psychoneuroindoctrinology, to show how little they thought of the book:

Yet, despite the author’s extensive academic credentials, The Female Brain disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance. The book is riddled with scientific errors and is misleading about the processes of brain development, the neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general. At the ‘big picture’ level, three errors stand out. First, human sex differences are elevated almost to the point of creating different species, yet virtually all differences in brain structure, and most differences in behaviour, are characterized by small average differences and a great deal of male–female overlap at the individual level. Second, data on structural and functional differences in the brain are routinely framed as if they must precede all sex differences in behaviour. Finally, the focus on hormone levels to the virtual exclusion of the systems that interpret them (and the mutual regulatory interactions between receptor and secretion systems) is especially lamentable, given the book’s clinical emphasis on hormone therapies.

Rebecca M. Young and Evan Balaban

"Psychoneuroindocrinology", Nature volume 443, page 634 (2006)

Step #4: Google It

When we googled “The Male Brain” and “review”, a ton of negative reviews came up. One of them was from The New York Times Book Review, where the writer actually looked at all the studies that Brizendine refers to in her book–and finds that many of them do not show what she claims they show–something that Brizendine has frequently been criticized for.

Here’s just one paragraph from the review:

Brizendine has been here before. Her first book got particular attention for the claim that women speak faster than men (250 versus 125 words per minute) and use more words throughout the day, an average of 20,000 compared with 7,000. This was a conversation starter that lined up perfectly with stereotype — Chatty Cathy, quantified! Except that it turned out there were no studies backing up the words-per-minute claim, which Brizendine later removed from the paperback edition. Her claim that women use more words than men fell apart, too, when a paper published in Science found that the average man and woman use the same number of words (about 16,000 during the course of a day). But Brizendine has stuck with that claim, which she says was based on her own “observation,” and on a paper that referred to the vocabularies of 20-month-old girls, whose author disavows the leap Brizendine makes.
Emily Bazelon

"A Mind of His Own", New York Times Book Review

In other words, academics and scientists knew this was junk science at the time it was written. 

Another finding from Google was from a neuropsychologist’s blog, who does neuroimaging research projects. He routinely criticizes “scientific” books and articles that don’t use citations or misrepresent research, and his blog is actually called “Citation Needed.” Here’s what he had to say about an article Brizendine wrote at the launch of her book The Male Brain:

[Quoting Brizendine’s article] Perhaps the biggest difference between the male and female brain is that men have a sexual pursuit area that is 2.5 times larger than the one in the female brain. Not only that, but beginning in their teens, they produce 200 to 250 percent more testosterone than they did during pre-adolescence.

Maybe the silliest paragraph in the whole article. Not only do I not know what region Brizendine is talking about here, I have absolutely no clue what the “sexual pursuit area” might be. It could be just me, I suppose, but I just searched Google Scholar for “sexual pursuit area” and got… zero hits. Is it a visual region? A part of the hypothalamus? The notoriously grabby motor cortex hand area? No one knows, and Brizendine isn’t telling. Off-hand, I don’t know of any region of the human brain that shows the degree of sexual dimorphism Brizendine claims here.

[Quoting Brizendine] If testosterone were beer, a 9-year-old boy would be getting the equivalent of a cup a day. But a 15-year-old would be getting the equivalent of nearly two gallons a day. This fuels their sexual engines and makes it impossible for them to stop thinking about female body parts and sex.

If each fiber of chest hair was a tree, a 12-year-old boy would have a Bonsai sitting on the kitchen counter, and a 30-year-old man would own Roosevelt National Forest. What you’re supposed to learn from this analogy, I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s hard for me to think clearly about trees and hair you see, seeing as how I find it impossible to stop thinking about female body parts while I’m trying to write this.

Tal Yarkoni

"The Male Brain Hurts--Or How Not to Write about Science"

He concludes his article with this:

No one doubts that men and women differ from one another, and the study of gender differences is an active and important area of psychology and neuroscience. But I can’t for the life of me see any merit in telling the public that men can’t stop thinking about breasts because they’re full of the beer-equivalent of two gallons of testosterone.

Tal Yarkoni

"The Male Brain Hurts--or How Not to Write about Science"

This whole process took me approximately 3 1/2 minutes.

It wasn’t onerous. These critiques were published up to ten years ago–they are not new concerns by any means. It took longer to read through the articles, but it didn’t take very long to realize that there was a HUGE problem with this book and its findings–and the author had already been critiqued in peer-reviewed journals.

One has to ask: Why did Married Sex use such outdated and wrong-headed research?

Here’s what we suspect, after seeing it happen again and again in Christian resources (and this is only one example): too often evangelical resources are using science to try to prove their viewpoint, rather than using science to help inform their viewpoint. We can think of no other explanation why people would skip over the most recent research in favour of highly ridiculed pop pseudo-science.

What reason would evangelical authors have to promote out-of-date, largely discredited research instead of more recent findings?

Because it supports their view of male sexuality.

But also, cherry-picking convenient “scientific” findings to prove your point silences anyone who disagrees–it is an argument in bad faith. We truly do not understand why Christian resources seem so afraid to give up stereotypes for truth.

The evangelical community is very wedded to a view of male sexuality where:

  1. men have inordinately high sex drives that women will never understand
  2. men are visually stimulated so much that lust is a constant battle for every man

Then, once they have asserted these two things, they often draw these conclusions:

  • Men are drawn to pornography because of their lustful nature the way that God made them, and they need women to have enough sex with them so they don’t fall
  • Men have a terrible time not lusting after women, and so women must dress modestly
  • Men have high sex drives that women will never understand, and they need sex in a way that women will never understand, and so wives have to give husbands frequent sex or terrible things will happen to the relationship
  • Boys will have a difficult time resisting sexual temptation, and so girls need to be the gatekeepers to make sure things don’t go too far.

(I am not saying that Married Sex says these things blatantly, though it does hint at many of them). 

In The Great Sex Rescue, we found that these messages dampen women’s libido, hurt women’s orgasm rates, and just do terrible things to sexuality in general. We need to do better than this.

In his amazing article “Enough is Enough”, writing about how the evangelical church needed to grapple with the reality of abuse that many women are living with, and help those women get out, Gary concludes with this:

 

I think God wanted me to see the breadth and depth of what is going on, and in this case, perhaps to be His voice.

Gary Thomas

Enough is Enough

We pray that this will apply in his writing not just to issues of abuse, but also to larger issues of how women are treated in marriage when it comes to sex.

The Great Sex Rescue

Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.

Great Sex Rescue Cover - How to Tell if Christian Authors Are Using Junk Science about Gender Differences

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the things that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these messages?

Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.

We’d like to suggest a more evidence-based, healthy and biblical view of sexuality.

Instead of shying away from science, really look at it. What you’ll find is that men and women are more alike than they are different, and there is a lot of overlap.

Women are made to be just as sexual as men (and, indeed, we are capable of multiple orgasms and we don’t have a refractory period). We may not all have the same libidos (some can be more spontaneous and some more responsive), but we are all meant to be sexual.

If women aren’t as sexual, it could very well be that it’s because Christian resources have made sex sound so ugly and threatening to women.

And maybe the reason that men are so paranoid about lust, and feel that they need women to have sex so that the men don’t sin, is ALSO based on the messages that boys grew up with.

Get rid of the horrible messages, and you may just awaken healthy sexuality in BOTH men and women–sexuality that is focused on mutual pleasure and intimacy, not just sin avoidance for men and obligation for women.

Wouldn’t that be freeing and healing?

So when you hear a message that goes against everything you know is healthy, check out the citation, and do a little digging.

It’s not that difficult. And then maybe all of us can start demanding more of our Christian resources!

Neuroscience Research Lust Example - How to Tell if Christian Authors Are Using Junk Science about Gender Differences
4d5d2dc667e7acd64221c42a103248a4?s=96&d=mm&r=g - How to Tell if Christian Authors Are Using Junk Science about Gender Differences

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila has been married to Keith for 28 years, and happily married for 25! (It took a while to adjust). She’s also an award-winning author of 8 books, including The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila is passionate about changing the evangelical conversation about sex and marriage to line up with kingdom principles. ENTJ, straight 8

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