[Paleopsych] The Observer: Who has the bigger brain?
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Mon Nov 14 23:20:31 UTC 2005
Who has the bigger brain?
Sunday, November 6, 2005 The Observer
As one respected journal claims that men are smarter than women, another leaps
in to rubbish the research. Robin McKie reports on science's gloves-off
It was one of the summer's top stories. In August, two British academics
announced that men are significantly cleverer than women and that male
university students outstrip females by almost five IQ points. 'Girls need
manpower' and 'IQ tests: women just don't get it' claimed the headlines.
The announcement was the latest round in a battle that has come to dominate
psychology in recent years and has triggered countless workplace arguments and
marital rows over the years. In this case, the formidable nature of the
statistics used by the study's authors - Dr Paul Irwing and Professor Richard
Lynn - seemed to land a fairly hefty blow for the men-are-cleverer camp.
'It confirms what we've long suspected,' said a (male) writer in the Sun. 'The
male of the species is cleverer than the female. It's a no-brainer.'
But not any more. Last week the work of the two academics was denounced in
startlingly fierce terms in the journal Nature just as a paper officially
outlining their work was published in the British Journal of Psychology
The attack - which claims that Irwing and Lynn's work is 'deeply flawed' - is
unusual. Science journals rarely attack studies at the same time as they are
being published by a rival. Neither do they often use strong or intemperate
terms. A delayed and measured approach is the norm in scientific circles.
Nevertheless, Nature insisted that its confrontational approach was justified.
Supposed sex differences in IQ attract wide attention and are likely to be
widely cited, it pointed out. 'We were made aware that Irwing and Lynn's
results were based on a seriously flawed methodology, and had the opportunity
to provide timely expert opinion when their paper became publicly available,'
said Tim Lincoln of Nature's News & Views section.
The author of the Nature article was even more critical. 'Their study - which
claims to show major sex differences in IQ - is simple, utter hogwash,' said Dr
Steve Blinkhorn, an expert on intelligence testing. The study by Irwing, of
Manchester University, and Lynn, an Ulster academic who has previously claimed
that white people are cleverer than black people, was based on a technique
known as meta-analysis. The pair examined dozens of previous studies of men's
and women's IQs, research that had been carried out in different countries -
including Egypt, Belgium, Australia and the United States - between 1964 and
2004 and published in a variety of different journals. Then they subjected
these studies to an intense statistical analysis.
>From this, the pair decided that their work showed men outnumber women in
increasing numbers as intelligence levels rise. According to Irwing and Lynn,
there are twice as many men with IQ scores of 125 - a level typical for people
with first-class degrees - than women, while at the level of 155, an IQ
associated with genius, there were 5.5 men for every woman. The announcement
was startling because it had been previously accepted that there were few
differences between male and female IQs. Most research on the subject of the
intellectual differences between the sexes had concentrated on other aspects of
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist at Cambridge University, has
recently argued that levels of testosterone in the womb will determine how much
eye contact a child will make or how quickly his or her language will develop.
Hence more newborn boys look longer at objects, and more newborn girls look at
By contrast, Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London,
and the author of Y: The Descent of Men, says there is absolutely no consensus
at all about the science. 'That doesn't mean there are no differences between
the brains of the sexes, but we should take care not to exaggerate them.'
However, it was not just the nature of their findings that was unexpected; the
two psychologists' approach to publishing their work was unusual. They did not
release their paper to fellow academics immediately. Instead, they gave it out
to journalists two months before it was scheduled to be published in the
British Journal of Psychology this month.
'In retrospect, that may have seemed a peculiar thing to do,' Irwing told The
Observer. Last week was therefore fellow academics' first chance to to make an
assessment of their work and respond.
After reports of their study were published in newspapers, Irwing and Lynn
appeared on various radio and TV shows. In general, they received responses
that were fairly uncritical and were only occasionally pushed to defend their
claims. At one point, Lynn alleged that men were smarter simply because they
have bigger brains and said that girls now outperform boys at school because of
the inclusion of coursework, to which more conscientious females were better
However, last week's publication of Blinkhorn's critique in Nature represents a
major change in attitudes to their claims. He points to a number of 'serious
flaws' in the approach taken by Lynn and Irwing. For a start, he accuses them
of carefully selecting those IQ studies that they allowed in their
In particular, he says they chose to ignore a massive study, carried out in
Mexico, which showed there was very little difference in the IQs of men and
women. 'They say it is "an outlier" in data terms --in other words, it was a
statistical freak,' Blinkhorn said.
'It was nothing of the kind. It was just plain inconvenient. Had it been
included, as it should have been, it would have removed a huge chunk of the
differences they claim to have observed.'
In addition, Blinkhorn said the pair were ignoring a vast body of work that had
found no differences. 'Psychologists often carry out studies that find no
differences between men's and women's IQs but don't publish them for the simple
reason that finding nothing seems uninteresting. But you have to take these
studies into account as well as those studies that do find differences. But
Lynn and Irwing did not. That also skewed their results.'
Blinkhorn also accuses the pair of adopting a variety of statistical manoeuvres
that he describes, in his paper, as being 'flawed and suspect'.
Last week Irwing defended the study and accused Blinkhorn of 'attacking the
men, not the science'. The study they had done 'also has to be seen in context
of our other work which has shown significant sex differences in IQ. Nor is it
true that we played about with our data.'
For his part, Blinkhorn is unrepentant. 'Sex differences in average IQ, if they
exist at all, are too small to be interesting,' he states in Nature
It is a stark, unequivocal statement - although it will certainly not be the
last word in a debate that seems likely to dog psychology for years to come.
Scuffles in science
The Nature attack is the latest of several recent rows that have erupted over
papers in leading journals. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield caused a furore when he
wrote an article in the Lancet claiming a link between autism and the MMR
vaccine. The paper led to a boycott of the vaccine by many parents, although
scientists have been unable to establish any of his claims. Critics attacked
the Lancet for publishing the paper.
The journal was also criticised by Nobel laureate Aaron Klug for printing a
paper claiming the immune systems of rats were damaged after they were fed
genetically modified potatoes. The claims have never been substantiated.
In contrast, last year's Nature paper, in which scientists revealed they had
found remains of a race of tiny apemen, Homo floresiensis, pictured left, has
survived scrutiny despite claims that the fossils really belonged to deformed
Homo sapiens. Research has since confirmed the original paper's results.
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