May 1 1995

Desperately Seeking Difference:

ABC Finds Biology Is Destiny

With the February 1 ABC News special, Boys and Girls Are Different: Men, Women and the Sex Difference, reported by correspondent John Stossel, hormonally induced haircut prices joined gay brains and race-based IQ as the politically charged science of the media moment.

The show asked the eternal question, “Are men and women supposed to be the same, or are we different creatures right from birth?” Stossel argues that any remnants of sexism in today’s egalitarian society can’t explain noticeable sex differences in our behavior (“men are obsessed with sports, women have more friends”), nor account for women’s failure to reach economic parity and political power. But, he avers, science can.

“Quieter voices…are saying what parents and others, sexist or not, have been saying for years,” Stossel declared. Animal studies show mother monkeys do all the nurturing, and “they aren’t watching sexist TV.” Anthropology answers why girls have finger dexterity and boys can visualize in 3-D. Prehistoric women gathered seeds and berries while men hunted the plains with spears; evolution hard-wired these skills in our skulls.

“If we think differently because our brains are different,” Stossel concluded, “then trying to fix these differences will be pointless, expensive, even hurtful.” Stossel attacked sex discrimination lawsuits, affirmative action and other remedies for inequality as “forcing” business and institutions to numerically balance the scales.

To back up his sweeping claims, Stossel quoted psychologists, geneticists, anthropologists and other scientists to support hormonal, neurological and evolutionary explanations for differing gender traits and roles. To give a superficial impression of balance, he brought in non-scientists–women identified with the feminist movement, like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug–to argue against them. Their opinions, however, were framed as calls for censorship and utopian social engineering. As the tabloid-style announcer introducing the program put it: “Should gender influence our place in society? Some research says yes. Some people don’t want you to hear about it.”

Ordinary people–like a perplexed parent who told of sons who “made guns out of carrots and cucumbers”–were brought on to back up the scientists who argued for essential differences.

Deliberate ignorance

Totally missing were the many scientists whose research and writing have criticized biological explanations of sex differences. These include two of the most prominent names in the field of gender studies: Brown University biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, author of Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Men and Women, and social psychologist Carol Tavris, author of The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex or the Opposite Sex.

Fausto-Sterling, Tavris and others have pointed out that there is much more overlap than difference in the sexes’ abilities; diversity, not dichotomy, between men and women’s perceptions and behavior is the rule. They point out that the differences which many modern studies set out to understand are quite small, and often subtle, in the first place.

ABC was aware that these different scientific viewpoints existed; fact-checkers for the program contacted Fausto-Sterling and other like-minded researchers before the show aired. One ABC producer told Fausto-Sterling that interviews were already “set up” and that it was too late to restructure the show to introduce more balance. Joan Bertin, co-director of Columbia University’s Program on Gender, Science and Law, was also called by an ABC staffer who had no interest in material that didn’t fit in with Stossel’s preconceived thesis. “She left me with the clear impression she had explicit marching orders to find material to support gender differences,” Bertin told Extra!.

This deliberate ignorance of opposing scientific views allowed Stossel to pose as the defender of objective truth, contrasting himself with those who tailor the truth to fit their preconceived ideological notions: “If we deny what science knows about human nature, how can we create sensible social policies? Isn’t it better to act on the basis of what is true, rather than maintaining it has no right to be true?”

By not including a range of scientists in his reporting, Stossel ignored a wealth of research that suggests that provides non-biological explanations for differences between men and women. Entire disciplines, including educational psychology and cognitive science, were snubbed.

Beverly Fagot, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, for example, has done studies showing how boys’ and girls’ behavior differences reflect their ability to understand “gender schema,” kids’ mental concept of which sex they are and how that sex is “supposed to” act. Schema for gender emerge at a very young age; but it’s only a phase of development. Hence, sex differences seem most pronounced among children, but diminish over time.

Video distortions

Rather than acknowledging the existence of contrary data, Stossel hyped studies that seemed to back up his thesis (ignoring challenges by other researchers to these studies’ methodology, assumptions and significance). Though the atmosphere of a television studio hardly replicates that of a controlled laboratory, ABC repeatedly dramatized (i.e. restaged) the studies in question, perhaps to give viewers the illusion they were eyewitnesses to the very experiments proving differences.

Indeed, at the end of the program, Stossel admitted he had aired footage that distorted what he himself had witnessed in one of the video “studies.” In the beginning and middle of the show, viewers saw footage of toddlers separated from parents by a clear barrier, while Stossel narrated: “Most boys try to knock the barrier down. Most girls just stand there and cry for help.” At the end of the show, Stossel ran footage showing the same experiment–only it was the girls who were aggressive and the tearful, passive babies were boys. “On the day we taped, it happened that we saw only the exceptions,” he admitted.

If the video didn’t show what Stossel wanted it to, it could be reinterpreted. “Boys play with action figures,” Stossel claimed, illustrating this with a shot of a boy playing with a Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger. Later, to make the point that “girls play with dolls,” a girl was shown…playing with a Power Ranger.

To validate the stereotype that “women have trouble with maps, but remember landmarks…. Men won’t ask for directions” was offered by a re-enactment–not identified as such–of a bickering couple on a car trip. (“I don’t think this map shows where we are at all,” the woman wails.) Bolstered by the “evidence” provided by these actors, Stossel leaps to the idea that “maybe it’s right” that few women are engineers and chess champs.

Likewise, dry-cleaners may be entitled to charge higher prices to clean women’s blouses, because female customers are “more demanding…. This is consistent with the scientific research that shows women have better proximal sense, like…better close-up vision.”

Beautiful markets

Perhaps the report’s biggest omission of all was Stossel’s own bias. A self-professed free market libertarian, it’s Stossel’s loudly stated stand that “markets are magical and the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market,” he told the Oregonian (10/26/94).

And the “beauties of the free market” are heavily promoted in Stossel’s reporting–to the exclusion of contradictory evidence. Two out of three producers working on a previous Stossel special, Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?, resigned because their research did not support Stossel’s pro-industry prejudices (Extra! Update, 6/94).

As in Stossel’s other recent reports, Boys and Girls presents protection of corporations as consumer protection. “Legal fees will…be passed on to you if you or your kids take an SAT test. Boys do better on these tests, especially in math, so lawyers from the ACLU say there have to be changes.” In fact, a federal judge ruled that the aptitude exam was gender biased because its results do not accurately predict women’s performance in college–which is what the aptitude test is supposed to do.

Stossel presented equal-rights lawyers as virtual ambulance chasers, out to make a buck on frivolous suits: “Oh, yes, and more lawyers smell sexism all the time.” At one point, he demanded, “Your brains work differently. Maybe you’re not as good in math. Why sue me because of that?”

Useful explanations

If Stossel’s special seemed familiar, it’s because its big scoop–Science Proves Sex Differences Are Inborn!–is a perennial favorite of the media. It was a Time magazine cover story, “Sizing Up the Sexes,” in 1992 (1/20/92); shortly after Stossel’s program aired, Newsweek’scover (3/27/95) featured “The New Science of the Brain: Why Men and Women Think Differently.”

But Stossel’s program came at an opportune time: With affirmative action up for review on Capitol Hill, Boys and Girls Are Different handily advances the arguments against such policies. “Biologically identifying traits of oppressed groups is always for the purpose of justifying the oppression,” says Peter Breggin, psychiatrist and author of The War Against Children. “The thrust behind such research is a social policy, to keep people in their place and reinforce the status quo.”

Throughout history, science been used to explain and justify women’s place. In the 19th Century, women’s supposed lesser intelligence was explained by their smaller brains. Today, as Carol Tavris points out in The Mismeasure of Woman, instead of weighing brains, scientists are dissecting them.

If, as Extra! has reported (1-2/95), the media “let The Bell Curve‘s pseudo-science define the agenda on race,” John Stossel’s selective science tried to set the agenda on gender. By claiming to have science on his side and dismissing his critics as ideologues and censors, Stossel can present his socio-economic agenda as a natural law. As Fausto-Sterling told Extra!: “They could have called the show ‘John Stossel’s One-Hour Editorial.’ Just don’t call it news.”