Genes and Gender

My philosophy of mind class has  become increasingly science-oriented.  It’s an extremely exciting time to be thinking about minds and brains.  Still, I resolutely avoid all the claims about gender; an early encounter with the wonderful Ruth Bleier left me deeply sceptical about the ability of scientists to refrain from reading their prior beliefs into the evidence when it comes to gender. 

But I met her well over 20 years ago; could it still be true that the supposed data weren’t really there to back the claims?  Well…

“Epidemiologist Sees Flaws in Papers on Genes and Gender” by Jennifer Couzin [Science, Aug. 24, 2007, pp 1020-1021) tells us

An epidemiologist who for years has critiqued the veracity of published papers now argues that most reported findings on sex-based genetic differences are poorly documented and that about a sixth may actually be wrong.

The full paper is not online except through library or association membership, but here are some snippets that give you a sense of the findings:

As researchers move beyond uncovering
new disease genes and into the realm of
gene-environment interactions, John Ioannidis,
a clinical and molecular epidemiologist at
the University of Ioannina School of Medicine
in Greece, decided to follow them. He
wondered especially about genetic associations
with diseases that seem to vary by gender—
for example, a particular gene variant
that confers increased risk in women but not
in men, an effect that may be modulated by
hormones. Hundreds of such associations
have been reported. But when Ioannidis and
two colleagues analyzed data from
77 papers covering everything from multiple
sclerosis to lung cancer to anger, they
found that … only four papers contained neither
spurious nor insufficiently documented
claims, says Ioannidis.


Of the gene-gender findings, says Ioannidis,
“there is a problem with just accepting them
and believing that they’re true.” Proper
documentation was found in only 55 claims,
or 13% of the total

“People make claims from their data that
just are not there,” agrees Kathleen
Merikangas of the National Institute of
Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Contributing
to the problem, she says, is that
many studies that fail to replicate a genetic
finding are never published because they’re
“not new and exciting, or the scientists
themselves don’t f ind that it’s going to
advance their career.”

The original analysis was published
in the 22/29 August issue of the Journal
of the American Medical Association, also not available online.

4 thoughts on “Genes and Gender

  1. Fascinating and important stuff. Also interesting that they keep using ‘gender’ in place of ‘sex’.

  2. Yes, my bad for letting them get away with it and in fact using their language. I doubt the distinction between what we term “gender” and “sex” is generally rigorously marked linguistically in the science community.

    I myself get worried about science discussions that are cast in terms of ‘sex’ because I’m concerned about assumptions that mean the intersexed and others do not really exist. Partly because of this concern I recently tracked down the wonderful children’s book, The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek by Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks. The Bunyip is an unusual creature who asks “What am I?” and is told by a scientist that bunyips do not exist.

  3. Huh?

    I’m a bit confused. I always thought “gender” & “sex” are synonyms?

    Agree with the study. Cool post :-)

  4. Thanks! Roughly speaking, “sex” is used in many feminist writings (and elsewhere) to refer to biological phenomena, while “gender” refers to social roles.

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