Mars, Venus, Men, Women – An assignment I’d like to forget

One of the strangest writing assignments I’ve ever had involved adapting  The Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus Book of Days into an abridged reader for students of the English language. Based on the 1990s best-selling pop psychology book by John Gray, this book contained  365 ‘inspirations to enrich your relationships’ (according to the jacket blurb). 

The premise of the original book was that by nature men and women are  psychologically and behaviourally different and that heterosexual couples should respect these differences. Along with spreading the idea that men and women ‘speak different languages,’ it reinforced gender stereotypes, saying that men need to fix and do things, leaving women to  talk about emotions. As Victorian and cringeworthy as that sounds, it had an audience at the time and has since sold over 15 million copies. 

As for the sexes speaking different languages, this anecdotal claim has been thrashed to death by sociolinguists, who have studied large groups of people and concluded that the perception of language difference between the sexes is far greater than the reality. An excellent debunking of Gray’s work appeared in Deborah Cameron’s 2007 book The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Today, we can confidently say that gender differences are more nurture than nature. In her book Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It, Angela Saini cites several studies of mathematical ability, intelligence, motor skills and almost every other measure showing consistently that men and women are not so different after all. (Sorry, dear reader, I know I have referred to this book before – it’s a treasure trove of information and insights.) Another good read on this topic is Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters The Myth Of The Female Brain, where  the author, a cognitive neursoscientist, reviews the lamentable history of sex-difference research that has been riddled with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias and dodgy statistics. 

But there I was back in 2003 rolling my eyes while typing ‘men are like rubber bands’ and ‘women are like waves.’ Thankfully, I was halfway through my assignment when the marketing department at Penguin Books decided to pull the project and not publish the EFL version of Gray’s book of days after all. I never found out what was behind Penguin’s decision. I wonder if they were concerned about the emerging scandal, where John Gray’s credentials were questioned – he’s not a scientist or trained psychologist and apparently holds a mail-order doctorate. Or perhaps Penguin had a crystal ball and knew that engendered thinking was going to be challenged, further diminishing this variety of self-help tome . As much as I don’t wish to dwell on this silly assignment, I’m glad I can look back on it from the vantage point of a more informed world when it comes to men and women (even though we still have a way to go). In the end, I was doubly blessed – not only was I freed from reading and having to rewrite this piffle, but I had already been paid a flat rate for the entire assignment and was able to keep it.

Trusting Science

‘Trust science, not the scientists’ advised journalist Sonia Sodha recently in The Observer rightly calling out scientists who have been ‘agents of disinformation’ during the pandemic. Sodha explains that we shouldn’t trust scientists because, ‘They are only human, subject to the same cognitive biases, the same whims of ego, as the rest of us.’ This is nothing new and doesn’t just apply to Covid-19. A handful of scientists support climate change deniers, other scientists have claimed ‘scientifically’ that the Holocaust was a hoax, and so on. In some cases, these scientists have revelled in being outliers, as Sodha notes, they nurture a ‘Galileo complex’ and see themselves as victims of ridicule along the scientific giants of history.

Sodha includes Darwin with these scientific giants. I appreciate that she was just throwing in another example of a scientist who was much derided by his contemporaries for thinking differently but who was ultimately right. Yet, Darwin also got it wrong sometimes. In Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It, Angela Saini quotes from Darwin’s The Descent of Man:

‘The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.’

Darwin’s evidence for this was that ‘leading writers, artists and scientists were almost all men. He assumed that this inequality reflected a biological fact’ (from Saini) and not that society at that time restricted women from attending universities, let alone pursuing careers outside of the household. Darwin may have been an innovative thinker of life sciences, but his understanding of society was clearly Victorian.

Darwin isn’t the only acclaimed scientist to sometimes appear to get it wrong. The nature of science includes understanding that knowledge about something is ongoing. Consider what we have learned in recent months about the coronavirus and how it spreads. It’s a feeble mind that thinks these steps along the way to understanding means that scientists shouldn’t be trusted. But of course, sceptics and conspiracy theorists will do just that.

How do we know the science has developed enough to be reliable, or if it is authentic if we learn about it from scientists? There is no easy answer to these questions. Broadly, I agree with Sodha to believe the science and that will often mean looking for consensus among the scientists, but even that needs to be handled with care and objectivity. In recent weeks I’ve learned about the impact on climate of greenhouse gases aside from carbon, how to convert carbon to CO2e and the relationship between antigens and antibodies. In other words, in the age we live in, perhaps we all need to think like scientists.