Thursday, 3 November 2011

Autism: the Extreme Male Chauvinism theory

Not one to let facts get in the way of a punchy title, me.

I've just been offered an appointment with the Adult Autism Centre. This means that me and my mum between us managed to scrape together enough "signifiers" in our paperwork for them to think it worth their while to bring me in and attempt to diagnose me properly.

Let me explain at this point that I'm not convinced that I have Asperger's; if I do, I don't find it a hindrance in the least (at least not these days), and either way, I'm not even sure I believe Asperger's is an actual thing (at least not to the very low level at which I might have it). And I'm not just writing to Autism Centres in the hope of gaining the right to sew yet another Minority Membership badge onto my woggle. I got myself referred to them purely to settle a point: my mum has told me all through my life that I'm "probably a bit Asperger's", without ever going to get me diagnosed or do anything more constructive than just give me a complex about my inability to function socially, and I just wanted to settle the matter once and for all. This is not a sympathy post, it's a "Simon Baron Cohen wtf ffs?!" post.

My intrigue regarding the topic of autism thus once again piqued, I bimbled around on Google and found this: a paper linking FtM transsexuality with autism. It's not like I wasn't expecting Science, as embodied in Simon Baron Cohen and his "extreme male brain" theory, to declare my gender identity a function of my neuroatypicality (if applicable) or vice versa. But even so, it triggers my natural defensive response to having my identity put into question. Particularly when one of the things I had scrawled on my initial paperwork was a small diatribe in the "Sex" box about how I'm female in biology but not in gender. I wonder how much my declaration of "I AM GENDERQUEER!!!!!11ONE!" contributed to their decision to offer me an appointment.

My problem with the "extreme male brain" theory is similar to my problem with most attempts to categorize people according to their brains (e.g., the very concept of Asperger's Syndrome itself). The thing is, right... people have brains. And all these brains are usually quite different. Thus people are different. It's not really surprising if people who do science tend to be "more autistic" than people who do arts, because what you've done there is you've labelled one of these infinite points of difference the "autistic" point, and then if you measure any two people, let alone two groups of people, with respect to their distance from this point, one of them will turn out "more autistic" than the other.

And the concept of a "male brain" or a "female brain", let alone an "extreme" version of either, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are a "typical male", you will have this kind of brain. If you are male and don't have this kind of brain, you're not "typical". Thus the many studies reporting that pre-hormone-therapy FtMs have a "more typically male" brain structure sound good at first - hurrah, scientific validation, we're ACTUALLY really men! - but on closer inspection, the message is more depressing.

The message is that all men have a certain kind of brain and all women have another certain kind of brain, and if you were born "female" but you don't have a "female" kind of brain, you're "not really female". I would like to state that, whatever my gender identity, I am (as far as such things can be defined) biologically female, and this is the brain I have. It is possible for a woman to have a "male-type" brain, or vice versa. Attempting to homogenise three billion people into one "typical female" brain pattern, and then throwing out those who don't conform to it as "atypical", is, well, bad statistics, surely? Take an "average" of three billion people and you're likely to get something pretty meaningless.

See, if you take an "average" of ANY group and compare it with the average for another group, you're likely to find a difference - because people are different and their brains are different and if you attempt to homogenise one set and then another set you will always get a difference. If you took a representative sample of hockey players and a representative sample of ginger people and got them to do this kind of test and averaged out the results, you'd probably - nay, definitely, though not necessarily to a "statistically significant" degree - find that one group came out as, on average, more "male" (i.e. more systematizing) than the other, which would obviously come out as more "female" (i.e. more empathizing).

So what? So bleedin' what? Scientists aren't going to sit down and test hockey players and ginger people and then declare that there is a "typical hockey brain" and a "typical ginger brain" and we are all on a spectrum from hockey to ginger. They're simply not going to try and make generalisations about such arbitrary groupings. But since "male" and "female" are the one big accepted set of arbitrary groupings, study after study after study will focus on this "binary difference". Sure, there may be observable differences between "male" and "female" brains. But there are probably observable differences between "hockey" and "ginger" brains: the hockey players might be more confident because of their physical prowess, the gingers might be more neurotic from being ribbed about their hair colour. The nature/nurture debate is still wide open with regard to so many other characteristics - criminal tendencies, high intelligence, gingerness-induced neuroticism - so why is it so firmly closed whenever the hallowed arbitrary grouping of binary gender is mentioned?

In their haste to document and catalogue the crazy, inescapable Mars-ness and Venus-ness of "the sexes", everyone seems to ignore the possibility that "maleness" and "femaleness" can be environmentally conditioned - gender is a social construct whereby those of us displaying [fe]male sexual characteristics are prodded throughout our lives into behaving how a "typical [fe]male" behaves. And it's no wonder if our brains soften under that pressure - or harden against it. The last thing we need is for Science, wearing its extreme-male-brained Simon Baron Cohen face, to come along, chew up our socially conditioned gender differences and spit them back out at us disguised as "inherent sex differences" - thus adding to that social-pressure concept of the "typical [fe]male" in an ever-amplifying feedback loop.

(Completely unrelatedly, did I mention how much I want this book for Christmas?)

Do you know what the "FtM transsexuals already have male brains!" theory says to me? It says: at least some of the female-assigned people who come to see themselves as male-gendered might do so because society affords them absolutely no way of expressing themselves as female, when their natural way of thinking and behaving is traditionally - and "scientifically" - male-coded.

The Adult Autism Centre might attempt to smugly, scientifically claim that my Asperger's tendencies are just a symptom of my gender dysphoria, or that my gender dysphoria is just a symptom of my Asperger's tendencies. Either way, it's not the kind of "science" I'm keen to subscribe to.


  1. re: "Do you know what the "FtM transsexuals already have male brains!" theory says to me?..."

    Very interesting. I heard this viewpoint in a documentary about MtF transsexuals with regards to one kid who had a twin sister. One of the talking heads reckoned that if society/parents/school etc had not thought it weird that the two did the same things despite being different genders/sexes, like, say, flower-pressing (I forget the example they used), then maybe the male twin wouldn't have felt that he was 'wrong' and needed to be female as a result. Of course, talking heads don't have to be right, but it does make you wonder...

  2. Your point, if I'm interpreting it correctly, seems to hold water. The FtM study you link to states that its results provide evidence for the idea of "an inherent difference in the brain structure of FtM transsexuals."
    Ignoring that the person writing the abstract forgot to finish that sentence (presumably it should have been "... compared to non-transsexual women"?) you're objecting to the "inherent" part, because those differences could arise from environmental factors.

    This is entirely possible, and I personally think that it's quite likely (but I'm not a neurobiologist, to be fair). But the thing that springs to mind is that from a research standpoint, you can't take it anywhere. This may be why it doesn't get discussed in papers on brain science.

    You can't grab a hundred FtM individuals who were subjected to absolutely no cultural conditioning, and a hundred who were, and then compare their brains. You'd have to raise them from birth in a controlled environment, for one thing.

    All you can reasonably do with the concept is bear it in mind when you're dealing with the subject, which is certainly a good idea.

    Continuing, because I wrote more than one comment of stuff.

  3. I do have a couple of other things to say, which are mostly just about science. I apologise if I seem to be talking down at any point, but I want to be clear.

    Statistics get a lot of bad press, and they need to be treated with a lot more respect than they usually are, both from the scientist and the reader. Claiming that the compared averages of any two groups will always be different is trivialising the issue, and ties into the concept of statistical significance.

    Your use of quotes around "statistically significant" makes me wonder if you're familiar with the term. When a statistician says that a difference is statistically significant, they mean that there's a certain probability (95% certainty is the most commonly used) that the difference between the two datasets is not due to chance.

    Essentially, the problem is this:
    Claiming that 'there will always be a difference between two groups, although not a statistically significant one' is like claiming that 'there will always be a difference between two groups, although not actually always.'

    To put it lazily, a difference that is not statistically significant does not actually exist.

    You say that taking an average of three billion people will give you something pretty meaningless. This just isn't true. A larger sample size will give you more valid data by reducing the impact of anomalies.

    On the practice of labelling certain qualities as male or female and using those to claim that certain males or females are less male or female than most males or females. I can see why it seems bizarre; you're just drawing a scale and declaring that people are in the "right" or the "wrong" part, which sounds pretty offensive by itself.

    However, without a yardstick against which to compare your findings, there is little point to measuring anything. The same scales which could be used to call all gingers atypically empathising are available for the purposes of monitoring real problems with brain function (epilepsy is the one that springs to mind.)

    Basically, science often has to categorise things to do anything useful with them. When you're dealing with real people, it's not always a good approach, and it can be quite offensive. I suspect that a lot of it is in the language that gets used; saying that I have an uncommon brain structure is a lot less emotionally charged than saying that my brain structure is atypical or weird or wrong.

    There's an important distinction between the description of certain brain structures as "typical male/female" and prescribing those structures as being those which are possessed by "real men/women". The former is documenting the patterns that have been found in examining brains, and the latter is simply beyond the remit of hard science. It is difficult to avoid the one leading into the other, but I don't think any reasonable scientist would argue that they're trying to define what is and isn't a real/vaid/acceptable man/woman when they talk about typical male/female brains.

    I hope that made some sense. Good post, gave me something to think about :)


  4. I have been annoyed with SB-C's extreme male brain theory for a long time. I think basically what it's saying is like saying - all mathematicians are male, a very high proportion of males have facial hair. Oh - look - a magical causality appears when I do my complicated analysis - in order to be a mathematician, you must have facial hair! Urrrrrggggg... He seems to be mixing up correlation and causality! How?

    What really annoys me, as a female / more-balanced scientist - is that those kinds of theories actually put off less-autistic / more-balanced people from doing science. Because if they're told - you need to be autistic to do science (I was at a talk by SB-C, and he actually put up a quote by Asperger saying 'maybe in order to do science you need to be a little bit autistic' grrrrrrr....), well - of course you're going to have fewer non-austic-tendency people doing science... which only self propogates the myth that you need to be autistic to do science!

    Yes, I agree that it's a lot to do with social conditioning... the field has selected itself to have a certain profile - largely male, with a disposition toward autism, but this is a consequence of how the field has socially evolved, it isn't that those traits are necessary to be a good scientist! Urg. btw - an excellent counterpoint was provided by Ottoline Leyser, who dismissed SB-C's pontificating as poppy-cock, in a very nice way :) Also, btw - I have the Cordelia Fine 'Delusions' book - you can borrow it!

  5. A late comment, because it took me a while to get around to reading the Extreme Male Brain paper:

    > declare my gender identity a function of my neuroatypicality (if applicable) or vice versa. But even so, it triggers my natural defensive response to having my identity put into question.

    I don't think the paper is calling your identity into question at all! I can't see that it's accusing you of any degree of dishonesty, or not truly feeling as you do. Similarly, does the 'male brain' concept call the identities of 'normal' men or women into question? For all that their preferences have been categorised and to some degree explained, they're still their true preferences and so still a part of that person!

    > if you measure any two people, let alone two groups of people, with respect to their distance from this point, one of them will turn out "more autistic" than the other

    Two individual people, certainly, but two large groups would be an interesting finding, so long as there was a statistically significant difference between them. It's obviously important to note what the intra-group spread is like compared to the inter-group spread, and some differences are obvious by the definition of the groups, but I really think a surprising inter-group difference is noteworthy without in some way slighting one group or another.

    Relatedly, from later in the post:

    > See, if you take an "average" of ANY group and compare it with the average for another group, you're likely to find a difference

    Yes, but if it were significant, including accounting for inter-group difference vs. intra-group difference, that's an interesting and likely true finding! This is exactly what the stats are there for -- differentiating mundane difference-due-to-chance from 'real' difference.

    > And the concept of a "male brain" or a "female brain", let alone an "extreme" version of either, is a self-fulfilling prophecy

    If measured by simply interviewing or CT-scanning "normal" adults, for certain, but it really looks like the papers cited by S-BC have tried to get to the crux of the matter by applying simple tests to newborns and young children who've not yet been socialised, to try to tease apart the social effects from the biology. They've also set their 'male'/'female' brain concept up by defining the terms by specific [dis]advantages at particular tests, then noted strong correlation with biological gender, which seems like a pretty good standard of objectivity.

  6. > The message is that all men have a certain kind of brain and all women have another certain kind of brain, and if you were born "female" but you don't have a "female" kind of brain, you're "not really female".

    Noooooo! The message is that there are potentially interesting differences between most-males and most-females in their at-birth and subsequent adeptness at particular tasks, and it would be even more interesting to figure out how and why! There are even explicit callouts in the S-BC paper about how most doesn't mean all. Not having the traits identified (objectively) as typical makes a person an "atypical female," free of pejorative association, not "not really female"

    > my Asperger's tendencies are just a symptom of my gender dysphoria, or that my gender dysphoria is just a symptom of my Asperger's tendencies

    So what if they are? What if for example dysphoria, or Asperger's, or both, turned out to be symptoms of some completely mundane circumstance, like consuming a certain poison at a critical stage of development? It would make the conditions explicable, but it wouldn't constitute any kind of accusation that they're somehow not real!

    Bleh. Obviously this reads like a bit of an unstructured rant. I guess to sum up, in defence of social science:

    * They *know* about the nature vs. nurture thing, and they really do try to separate the two using objective tests of at-birth skills.

    * They look to find interesting correlations and where possible causal links between one state of mind and another, and between biology and thought, but that:

    * Explaining you doesn't mean they're accusing you of anything, or trying to belittle your state as 'merely' a product of some other state, or of some chemical process, any more than all human thought is 'merely' chemistry. They think they've found some common tendencies between most-males-vs-most-females that resemble most-people-vs-most-aspergers, but that doesn't mean AS people are 'just' "too male" or that trans people are 'just' responding to a symptom of another condition or any of this stuff. It's all those things minus the 'just' -- they're still absolutely real things, it's 'just' interesting to find their common roots in the name of nothing more than understanding without prejudice.

  7. Finally, a retroactive apology: I object to your post's attitude towards S-BC, and more generally science and its techniques and goals, but I hope I didn't come across as mounting a personal attack.

    In defending S-BC from allegations of conducting an assault on your identity, I don't mean to mount one of my own.

  8. Thanks for all the thought-provoking comments, especially from T and Anonymous! It's good to be prompted to re-examine my arguments, which I see weren't entirely coherent. Lots to respond to here but I'll try and start with what I think are two main, interconnecting, points that come to mind:

    - Science doesn't exist in a vacuum, and

    - Categorising things for categorisation's sake can be harmful.

    The problem with any study of sex/gender is that concepts of sex and gender are massively, massively ingrained into everybody to such an extent that it's near impossible to do a completely objective study. That is, the "science of sex differences" doesn't exist in a vacuum - it's informed, consciously or not, by the experimenters' expectations of sex differences. One thing I didn't mention in my post is that, despite SBC's best (?) intentions to separate out nature and nurture, a lot of his arguments take their "evidence" from flawed experiments: gives a neat summary.

    And therefore, the categorisations of "typical male/typical female" that emerge from scientific studies might be biased. But since science doesn't exist in a vacuum but is routinely leapt upon by lay-people to "prove" certain points, this possible bias is likely to be ignored or misreported. (Randall Munroe on "statistical significance": Once something has been declared Scientific!, there is a danger that people will take it as gospel...

    ...and this can be very harmful. Trivially, on the level of "informing" the kind of society that spews out magazine upon magazine devoted to telling women how to be proper women. But also, on the level of causing distress by pathologising certain groups of people ( And, of course, introducing the danger that some bright spark among the gender-realignment gatekeepers will decide to introduce MRI scans (or even just EQSQ tests!!) as part of the assessment, and any FtM whose brain doesn't test as "typically male" enough will find himself rejected for treatment. Um, even if his results ARE within the intra-group spread of "atypical males", probably.

    (By the way, I have never seen any statistics on the intra-group spreads in this kind of study. I would really love to. I'd speculate that they are broad; that's the main point of my original argument.)

    Science is laudable when its methods are used to genuinely help people, as in T's example of monitoring epilepsy. However, the "science of sex differences" isn't addressing a genuine problem, it's just responding to our socially-conditioned curiosity about Gosh Aren't Men and Women Different. And categorising autistic people as having "extreme male brains" won't help anyone unless, say, it implies that those who wish to have their autism alleviated should try injecting oestrogen. Which they (if male) probably wouldn't be allowed to do, since for society (AND "science" in the shape of some medical professionals), any treatment which might slightly affect one's gender characteristics is hugely taboo.

    Basically, it's just that sometimes Science gets so carried away with being all awesome and sciencey that it forgets the potential negative social impacts it can have on the wider world. There should be a sign in every department, WWII-era-style, saying "Is your experiment really necessary?"

  9. Edit: Oh, okay! Apparently the "extreme male brain" theory IS paving the way for sex-hormone-based treatments for autism: they're giving children chemical castration drugs. (this from halfway down the Social Science is Soft Science post I linked to above.)

    I hold my hands up to the charge of biased selection of sources, but hey, I'm just sayin'.

  10. This seems to link back to philosophy/ethics of science stuff.

    You're right about bias. One of the most important things that a student of science learns is that bias affects everything. We have stringent protocols for experiment, number crunching and analysis because everyone can be unconsciously affected by bias. If you decry the validity of studying sex differences at all because of bias, you decry all research-based science.
    If erroneous conclusions are drawn from badly gathered data, then that's a problem. But it's a reason for more investigation, not the cessation thereof.

    I do take issue with your next point. It is silly to claim that scientists are at fault because their conclusions, reached through the scientific method, can be misreported and used in harmful ways. The blame lies with the person who doesn't research the information that's being presented. It's lamentable that such people can decide on the methods of assessing gender re-alignment, but it's not the fault of the scientists.

    The chemical castration of children is... wow, I can't think of a strong enough word. But the fact is that Baron-Cohen is preaching (loudly) the results of some bad science. (Google tells me that Geier's license was revoked, and that he's since been charged with practicing without a license now. Damn straight.)
    But it's no reason to point the finger at all researchers. There are going to be people who fuck up in every profession.

    Finally, a point about the point of science. Most science isn't about directly "helping people". Mostly it's about finding something interesting and wanting to understand it better. It happens that research can often be used for the benefit of humanity, and that's wonderful. But it's not the point.
    To paraphrase some famous physicist: "Physics is like sex. It may have a practical purpose, but that's not why we do it."
    Nobel prizes are often awarded about 30 years after the relevant science was actually performed. This is because it takes a long time to see what's useful to the scientific community. Research into the differences between sexes may not be useful now, but they may become useful in the future, in ways that we cannot predict at this point.

  11. In relation to scientists not being at fault for misrepresentation of their work: Absolutely, but they should still make an effort to communicate effectively what they are doing, especially if it's in a controversial field. It might not be JUST lazy journalists (etc.) who are at fault.

    The quotation about sex is Richard Feynman. Although it should be noted that Physics isn't everyone's thing. I mean, sure, I like it, but some people prefer cake...