Battlepanda: Making up her mind


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Making up her mind

Hack journalist quotes hack scientist. So what else is new?

Nevertheless, this takedown of Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, demands attention. Remember, David Brooks, who quoted her extensively in a column about how women just talks too damn much, is published in the New York Times while Brizendine is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. In short, both are in positions that commands respect in our society, yet they seem to be passing on numbers plucked out of thin air in a cavalier fashion that should shame the classier trolls in any given comment thread. From Language Log's Mark Liberman, professor of phonetics at UPenn:
I looked through the book to try to find the research behind the [claim by Brizendine that women and men speak 20,000-vs.-7,000-words-per-day respectively], and I looked on the web as well, but I haven't been able to find it yet. Brizendine also claims that women speak twice as fast as men (250 words per minute vs. 125 words per minute). These are striking assertions from an eminent scientist, with big quantitative differences confirming the standard stereotype about those gabby women and us laconic guys. The only trouble is, I'm pretty sure that both claims are false.

With respect to the speech rate claim, I've just run a script on a corpus of 5,202 transcribed and time-aligned telephone conversations, involving native speakers of American English with a wide variety of ages, regions and backgrounds. The average speech rate for the males was 174.3 wpm, and the average speech rate for the females 172.6 wpm. I assume that Brizendine didn't just concoct her figures about male vs. female speech rates out of thin air -- she must have gotten them from a study that someone did somewhere, sometime, or at least from some other author plugging another work in the flourishing genre of pop gender studies -- but let's say, at least, that it ain't necessarily so. I'll post something more about Brizendine's striking speaking-rate and words-per-day claims as soon as I can figure out what evidence she based them on. [More on female and male speaking rates is here, and more on the number of words men and women typically speak per day is here.]

Liberman's Boston Globe article, well worth reading, places Brizendine's claim as the latest in wave of claims that have just about as much validity as the old saw that the Eskimos have howevermany different words for "snow".
Over the last 15 years, a series of books and articles have told us that women talk a lot more than men do. According to Dr. Scott Halzman in Psychology Today, women use about 7,000 words a day, and men use about 2,000. On the other hand, Ruth E. Masters, in her book ``Counseling Criminal Justice Offenders," tells us that ``Females use an estimated 25,000 words per day and males use an estimated 12,000 words per day." And according to James Dobson's book ``Love for a Lifetime," ``research tells us" that God gives a woman 50,000 words a day, while her husband only gets 25,000.

A bit of Googling easily turns up at least nine different versions of this claim, ranging from 50,000 vs. 25,000 down to 5,000 vs. 2,500. But a bit of deeper research reveals that none of the authors of these claims actually seems to have counted, and none cites anyone who seems to have counted either.
Can't the "women talk soooo much more than men" camp not at least come up with one figure they can stick to as a group?

This is not the first time David Brooks have been caught playing Neuroscientist, and gotten called out by Liberman. The sad thing is, Brooks columns are so much more widely distributed than the rebuttals that most people who read Brooks over their coffee are going to remain with the impression that his columns are based on actual science. In fact, the whole thing reminds me most of small-time credit card scammers who use one card to pay off another and so obtains increasingly large amounts of credit from nothing. This is a credibility scam in which a source of little credibility gets quoted by increasingly prestigious sources until it becomes ensconsed in that vast body of ossified knowledge we call conventional wisdom.