An autumnal chill is blowing through science this month. Last week the coveted annual Royal Society book prize went to Testosterone Rex, by psychologist Cordelia Fine, which argues that gendered societies are the result of fossilised cultural attitudes as much as hormones and evolution. At Wednesday’s FT Women at the Top summit, I interviewed Angela Saini, whose book Inferior is similarly mythbusting about the science of gender.
At Prof Fine’s celebration drinks, I sought out neurologist Steven Rose, a previous winner who has long warned of the social consequences of ill-conceived inquiry. We reminisced about me interviewing him two decades ago, when he singled out research into racial differences as a perilous pursuit.
And — the final bead in my thread — Bath Spa University was criticised this week for refusing to support a study that it deemed “politically incorrect”. James Caspian, a masters student in psychotherapy, had heard that patients who had undergone gender reassignment surgery were increasingly requesting reversals. He thought the issue of “detransitioning” worth investigating. According to Mr Caspian, the university demurred: the mere questioning of the fluidity of gender, ran its apparent reasoning, could be too easily bottled into a social media backlash.
Each of these instances is a variation on a theme: the politics and prejudices running through science. They raise questions about the biases and self-serving assumptions that researchers drag to the lab bench, and the unsavoury social ends to which findings might be put. It is worth asking: are there realms of inquiry into which science should not venture?
Both Prof Fine and Ms Saini target the motivations behind the researchers plotting differences between male and female brains. The results have been irresistible fodder for newspapers. Women can’t park or read maps but they can multitask! Whose cause do such studies serve?
Prof Rose’s views were partly forged in the white-hot controversy stirred by The Bell Curve, a 1994 book claiming that whites outperformed blacks on IQ tests. In April, a column in Scientific American noted ruefully that the book was enjoying a resurgence. “Nowhere does the book address why it investigates racial differences in IQ,” argued Eric Siegel, a former Columbia computing professor who founded a predictive analytics business. By not doing so, “the authors transmit an unspoken yet unequivocal conclusion: Race is a helpful…