In a recent article published in the journal Neuroethics, Dr. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Dr. Raffaella Rumiati argue that current research on sex differences is “both unscientific and far from politically neutral,” and should be abandoned.  This article reflects many of the current conversations on the ethical implications of researching sex differences, which have largely focused on how results of these studies can be misappropriated to support sexist agendas. I cannot argue against the legitimacy of these concerns, and as researchers, we must always be careful to present our findings in a balanced and accurate manner so as to better combat misinterpretations and misrepresentations of data. However, we must also keep in mind that just as science has the potential to influence social and political conversations, this is a bidirectional relationship, and politics also have the power to misinform science.
|In their paper, Jordan-Young and Rumiati argue that current research on |
sex differences is "both unscientific and far from politically neutral." 
In their article, Dr. Jordan-Young and Dr. Rumiati offer two alternatives to sex difference research; the avenue they appear to more actively promote is to ignore sex differences altogether, in favor of researching differences between groups of people, such as socioeconomic or occupational classes. I believe this suggestion is an example of political motivations influencing science. Due to past and current sex/gender inequalities, there continues to be a strong push for leveling the sex/gender playing field. Although I am (of course) a strong supporter of equality between the sexes, I think it is misguided to push for the abandonment of a fruitful field of research because of the possible political implications of its results; indeed, I find the suggestion that we should halt inquiry in this area both unethical and unscientific.
Below, I provide rationale for why abandoning the study of sex differences would have ramifications for basic science research, and I then offer ways in which we as scientists can better address the potential political implications of the results of our studies.
Brain, body, and behavior
In Dr. Jordan-Young and Dr. Rumiati’s article, the researchers distinguish the body from the brain, asserting that although there are clear phenotypic differences between men and women that are due to hormonal effects, these differences are not representative of neural or behavioral differences. They support this claim by setting up a thought experiment: if a group of men and women were given images of male and female genitalia and were asked to categorize the images by sex, they would easily be able to do so; however, the same would not hold true for the brain—there are no gross, morphological indicators of the prototypical “male” and “female” human brain.
|A different thought experiment: would it be possible to categorize men and |
women's gastrointestinal tissues by sex?
Because researchers looked deeper than the organ’s physical appearance and revealed these sex differences, they then had clearer directions to follow when looking for the mechanisms underlying these differences, as a sex difference indicated that prenatal and/or circulating hormones could be at play. Indeed, it has been found that altering hormone levels affects expression of alcohol dehydrogenase (e.g. ). There are, of course, also environmental and other biological factors that modulate these sex differences in enzymatic activity and alcohol consumption (e.g. overall body size, regularity of alcohol consumption); however, recognizing that there is a sex difference allows for more careful investigation into underlying mechanisms, as one can use this information to generate hypotheses and design experiments that specifically examine the role of hormones. To ignore the sex difference would be to ignore an integral piece of the scientific picture.
|There are reported sex differences in the prevalence of nearly every major mental illness. |
Our internal organs cannot be completely divorced from our phenotypes; our body cannot be completely divorced from our brain, and both the brain and the body affect and are affected by our behavior. Just as recognition of sex differences provided a window into the mechanisms underlying alcohol consumption and alcohol-related disease prevalence, so it can provide us with clear avenues through which to explore the neural mechanisms of behavior. For example, there are reported sex differences in the prevalence of nearly every major mental illness ; ethically and scientifically, we cannot afford to deny these differences if we seek to better understand the basic biological mechanisms of illnesses such as depression, substance use disorders, and generalized anxiety disorder. Indeed, only after we understand the biological mechanisms of a disease can we better develop novel and effective treatments for it.
Conclusion and future directions
Knowledge always carries with it the potential for misuse; this is true for all scientific advancements, whether they be technological, chemical, or biological in nature. In using the example of these discoveries with the stomach, one could imagine that these results could be used to support differential regulations on alcohol consumption between the sexes, or to portray woman as “too pure” to consume alcohol “like a man.” However, it is these threats to equality that we should specifically work to eliminate—not the science of sex differences. The discovery of “difference” does not have to mean the discovery of ammunition to fuel societal inequalities. Indeed, difference itself carries with it no moral value or attribution of goodness/badness; it is culture that assigns value to these differences. Some of the strongest resources we have to combat misrepresentations of data are social media sources. As researchers, we should take on the responsibility of writing accurate and politically neutral pieces on our research so the public is presented with a clear picture of what we did in the experiment, what was found, and what it means. Through social media avenues, such as youtube videos, blogposts, or twitter links, we can promote these pieces and reach larger audiences. It should also be our responsibility to monitor the way our results are interpreted by outside sources and to counter misrepresentations—this is a responsibility that some researchers have already taken on (for example, see Dr. Lisa Diamond’s defense of her research on sexual fluidity against the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality’s misuse). In an increasingly “flattened” world, knowledge spreads within minutes; our job as scientists should not be to stop learning or to stop the dissemination of knowledge, but rather to make sure that we are among those disseminating it, so that it can be done so in a responsible manner.
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Want to Cite this Post?
Renfro, K. (2013). Dare to be different: Defense of the research of sex differences. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on Monday, Day, Year, from