Richardson on the stubborn influence of the sex difference paradigm

Philosopher Sarah Richardson has a great piece in Slate this week detailing how a Nature article about the discovery of twelve genes on the Y chromosome that fill the same function as similar genes on the X chromosome quickly morphed into reports in major media outlets about “a major new finding of sex difference.”

The New York Times reported that scientists had discovered 12 genes on the Y chromosome that play “high-level roles in controlling the state of the genome and the activation of other genes.” They “may represent a fundamental difference in how the cells in men’s and women’s bodies read off the information in their genomes.” TheHuffington Post quoted one of the studies’ authors as saying that these “special” genes “may play a large role in differences between males and females.”

Yet what the Nature articles actually show is the exact opposite. The 12 genes residing on the Y chromosome exist to ensure sexual similarity. The genes are “dosage-sensitive,” meaning that two copies are needed for them to function properly. We’ve long known that those 12 genes exist on X chromosomes. Females have the 12 genes active on both of their X chromosomes. If males, who have just one X, didn’t have them on the Y, they would not have a sufficient dosage of those genes. Now we know they do. Just like women.

How did a story about sex similarity become a story about sex difference? Richardson engages in “a little literary forensics” and concludes that science journalists focused on the brief, speculative bit at the end of the Nature article, rather than the article’s actual evidence and conclusions.

Part of this, no doubt, is the result of pressure on journalists (evident well beyond the realm of science journalism) to run with the most provocative story. However, over and above this common journalistic foible, is the pernicious influence of what Richardson terms the “sex difference paradigm.” In short, writes Richardson, “when it comes to sex, scientific reviewers, journals, funders, and reporters simply find similarities less interesting than differences.”

I posted last week on a different way in which our gender biases skew our understanding of biological sex. So, what is an appropriately critical scholar (or lay reader) to do? Richardson ends by plugging Stanford’s Gendered Innovations initiative, which works to show how critical thinking about  sex and gender can lead to scientific innovation.

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