[Paleopsych] Guardian: Sex and the scientist

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Tue Feb 8 21:21:22 UTC 2005

Sex and the scientist

[I'm taking my annual Lenten break from forwarding articles again this 
year. It's a vice to spend so much time doing this. So I'll be off the air 
for forty days and forty nights from Ash Wednesday until Easter.]

    Susan Greenfield's grand passion is popularising science, so it's not
    surprising if she calls the president of Harvard a 'toerag' and
    appears in Hello! says John Crace

    John Crace

    Two things almost everyone knows about Susan Greenfield. She wears
    mini-skirts and she's a scientist. The problem for Greenfield is the
    order in which they are ranked, for her appearance often attracts
    bigger headlines than her work. There aren't that many women working
    in science in the first place, so when a woman scientist is as
    comfortable in the pages of Hello! as in a peer-reviewed journal, and
    has patented a look in designer rock-chick chic, then it's safe to
    assume that some kind of statement is being made.

    So first things first. Yes, she is wearing a mini-skirt, yes, she is
    concerned about whether she should put on some lipstick for the
    photographs and, yes, she is looking just great anyway. Greenfield
    maintains that her appearance is separate to her identity as a
    scientist. "The most important thing is that I should remain true to
    myself," is a frequent refrain in our conversation and she affects a
    battle-hardened je ne regrette rien attitude towards everything in her

    But you suspect it's not that straightforward. Greenfield is as savvy
    a media player as she is an academic, and you can't help feeling
    there's a conscious trade-off at work. If science is her passion, then
    popularising science is her grand passion and in a world that measures
    popularity by column inches, then pretty much anything goes. You can't
    fault the logic: you can't get your ideas across if nobody listens and
    if the easiest way to grab people's attention in the first place is on
    the strength of your appearance, then so be it. You might lose a few,
    you might look a prat now and again, but overall you'll be in profit.

    It's a formula that has served her well so far. Aside from the day
    jobs as Fullerian professor of physiology at the department of
    pharmacology at Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution, she's
    picked up the Michael Faraday Medal from the Royal Society, a CBE and
    life-peerage from the present government, has written a report on
    women in science for Patricia Hewitt, and happily trots the globe in
    the democratisation of science.

    Last summer she was in Adelaide as "speaker in residence" - the
    perfect job for someone who scarcely draws breath between sentences -
    and last month she was mixing it with the great and the good at the
    World Economic Forum in Davos. Apart from a round-robin email she
    received from the caring, sharing Sharon Stone, the biggest name she
    ran up against was Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, who was
    recently reported as saying that women were genetically incapable of
    good science.

    On the way up in the lift to her office, Greenfield laughingly
    described Summers as "that toerag", but she is rather more measured
    once the tape is running. Though the underlying sentiment remains the
    same. "I was chairing a meeting on 'Gender and the Brain'," she says,
    "and it was only natural that Summers's comments were discussed. A
    colleague of his apologised on his behalf and asked if I would like to
    meet him later that week.

    "We had a good conversation where he rather moderated the position he
    was reported to have taken. He admitted he was wrong to have spoken
    out on a subject on which he had no expertise, and I was able to point
    out that even if we could agree on what was meant by 'good at science'
    there was no gender-based, genetic bio-determinism involved. There are
    issues about why women are under-represented in science but these are
    best explained by socialising factors."

    This encounter epitomises the pay-off for Greenfield. No matter how
    good a scientist she may be, there was not a cat in hell's chance of
    her getting a one-to-one with Summers so quickly, unless she had the
    requisite public profile and the media clout. But it does have its
    professional downsides. Last week, Greenfield was accused of dumbing
    down science by selling the rights to the Royal Institution's
    Christmas lectures to Channel 5 rather than offering them back to the

    The tension between Greenfield and some of her peers has been going on
    for years and shows no sign of diminishing - not least because it's
    hard to fight a battle when your enemies refuse to identify
    themselves. Last year, two fellows were quoted as saying they would
    resign if Greenfield were elected to the Royal Society - just the
    latest in a long line of anonymous detractors.

    "It's hard to engage with it all," she admits, "because you're never
    quite sure who or what you're dealing with. Everyone is always quite
    nice to me in person and then I hear I'm being criticised behind my
    back, though the criticisms are always fairly vague. Rather than
    explaining why and where my science is weak, they restrict themselves
    to general value statements with no evidence to back them up."

    Just what Greenfield has done to upset so many people is hard to work
    out. Research on the brain and consciousness is generally regarded as
    rather left-field and does not attract large grants, so it can't be
    about the money. What's more, within the neuroscientific community,
    her views are fairly mainstream. There's no grand theory of
    consciousness, there's no grand design on creating artificial
    intelligence; just standard, uncontroversial scientific theory.

    "We don't even know what questions we ought to be asking about
    consciousness," she points out, "let alone understand how it may be
    composed. So how can you build artificial intelligence if you don't
    know what to leave in or leave out? My understanding is that there are
    degrees of consciousness: a rat is less conscious than a foetus is
    less conscious than an adult - and an adult may be more or less
    conscious at different times of the day. This hypothesis means that
    you have a route to better understanding consciousness by measuring
    the network assembly of neurons in the brain."

    Last month Greenfield won a £1m research grant from the US-based John
    Templeton Foundation to head the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind
    - a multi-disciplinary team of academics from pharmacology, human
    anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, theology and philosophy. It's
    ground-breaking stuff, as it's the first time that science and the
    humanities have combined in this way and it's no coincidence that
    Greenfield has been one of its architects. If you're looking to award
    a grant in an obscure area, who better to give it to than a respected
    academic with a high media profile: that way you're guaranteed a
    public return for your cash.

    It's equally in character that the centre's work has already been
    hyped out of all recognition, with lurid speculation about torturing
    religious zealots. Greenfield shrugs non-committally. "I'm used to the
    media getting things wrong," she says, "but I understand its agenda is
    to sell papers. The reality is rather more dull. Researchers will be
    applying a mildly uncomfortable chilli paste to volunteers to
    determine how people react to pain and what difference the power of
    belief might make."

    As with much of Greenfield's work on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, the
    research is large part blue-skies, big picture with a touch of the
    short-term practical thrown in. "Within two years we might be able to
    give some answers to what a belief means in brain terms - and how it
    can affect your immune system, but the longer-term question of how
    beliefs can change a subjective state will certainly take a great deal

    If, indeed, they are ever answered. Greenfield insists she only gets
    satisfaction from seeking answers to the big questions, but it's hard
    to resist the notion that there's something masochistic about working
    on problems to which you'll almost certainly never get a definite
    answer. People have spent thousands of years trying to make sense of
    consciousness and may well be not much further on several thousand
    years hence, and no one seriously believes a cure for Alzheimer's is
    anything but a distant dream.

    Greenfield's willingness to continually put her head above the media
    parapet also verges on the masochistic. For if the problem isn't her
    science, then you have to conclude it's personal. Is it because she's
    a woman? Or because she's successful? Or because she's just a little
    bit too loud for some academics' liking? Or some combination of the

    "I don't have the same scientific background as many of my peers," she
    says, "so perhaps my face doesn't quite fit. I studied classics at
    school, psychology as an undergraduate, and only switched to science
    as a postdoc. So there are huge gaps in my scientific training -
    [physics and chemistry are the two biggest casualties] - and I still
    have a great deal of sympathy with the media and politicians who like
    their science in black and white, rather than academics who prefer to
    restrict themselves to shades of grey. This doesn't mean you
    compromise the evidence: you just explain it clearly and simply."

    This isn't something that many scientists are good at doing, which is
    why Greenfield has made it her life's work. "Only last week I got a
    letter from a schoolgirl saying, 'girls like me need women like you',"
    she says. And as my hour comes to an end, someone from Canadian radio
    is waiting outside in the corridor. The science sales show never ends.

    The CV

    Name: Susan Greenfield

    Age: 54

    Job: Fullerian professor of physiology, professor of pharmacology,
    Oxford University; director, Royal Institution of Great Britain

    Other honours : Michael Faraday medal, 1998; honorary fellow of Royal
    College of Physicians, 1999; CBE, 2000; life peerage, 2001

    Publications: Journey to the Centre of the Mind, 1995; Private Life of
    the Brain, 2000; 100 Things To Do Before You Die, 2004

    Likes : Jo Malone bubble bath

    Dislikes : socks and sandals on men

    Separated : with one step-child

More information about the paleopsych mailing list