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Mar 15, 2019

Do men and women have different brains? Jordan Peterson and the Google memo guy are pretty sure they do. Different chromosomes, different hormones = different brains. Right?

Professor Gina Rippon disagrees. Biology, she argues, is not destiny and evidence of differences has been drastically overstated.

For her efforts she has been called a ‘science denier’ & her ideas dismissed as politically correct nonsense. But in her book, The Gendered Brain, I found a careful assessment of evidence, and a powerful case for the immense plasticity of the brain in response to the social environment.

Who’s right? Listen to the episode to hear Gina make her case and respond to her critics.

8.55 Men Are Map Readers Professor Rippon tackles the widely held belief that men are better at map reading and spatial navigation. How big are the differences that we find and how should we explain them?

13:50 At Last: The Truth! How the media report studies which find brain differences between men and women, and how they oftenn reinforce a belief in ‘gender essentialism’.

18:32 I try to pin Gina down - do any brain differences between men and women survive her methodological critiques? And how might brain differences translate into differences in behaviour?

21:45 Are Bigger Brains Better? I put to Prof Rippon the reported correlation between brain size and IQ. She surprises me by doubting the usefulness of IQ tests. We discuss the challenges of relating brain structure to function, and how correcting for size all but wipes out many of the reported differences.

30:05 It’s The Hormones, Right? The popular ‘Brain Organisation theory’, advocated by Simon Baron Cohen among others, holds that brain differences first emerge from the effect of hormones on the developing foetus. Prof Rippon argues that it oversimplifies the story. 

39:16 Facing her Critics Prof Rippon’s ideas have been criticised by several other high profile neuroscientists including a previous guest on NOUS Kevin Mitchell, Stuart Ritchie. Her ideas were also attacked in Quillette. Prof Rippon responds - she IS NOT A SEX DIFFERENCE DENIER! 

46:09 How to do Better Sex-Difference Research Prof Rippon argues for including variables like years in education, occupation and socioeconomic status in research design - because they also impact the brain and have differentially gendered effects.

48:07 Evolution of sex differences - Surely evolution has made men and women different? Prof Rippon throws shade on evolutionary psychology.

51:16 Why are some people transgender? If there is no male brain and female brain, why do some people feel that they are a man in a woman’s body or vice versa? 

Prof Rippon advocates for ‘gender irrelevance’. 

57:58 The Gender Equality Paradox - Scandinavian countries- were gender equality is highest - have the greatest gender gaps in typically male or female professions. Why?

Buy Gina's book here: 

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Thanks to the STS department at UCL, where this episode was recorded. Check out their full range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses here: