Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Open Letter to Dr. Phil

Generally what happens at the end of a semester is that I go up to my friend's house in TheBigCity for a visit. She has a J-O-B, so I either hang out in TheBigCity, or watch television during the day. Yesterday, I ended up watching Dr. Phil. It was an episode about failing marriages, and at the end of the show, he encouraged his viewers to check out his website for advice on relationships.

I have a love-hate relationship with Dr. Phil. He's pragmatic and no-nonsense. His success is based on the fact that he can state common sense ideas to people who need to open their eyes to the bigger issue. I love him because he's right. I hate him because it's such a simple concept that has made him successful. Are people really that dumb? Having a love-hate relationship with him, means I had to go to his website. The following letter to Dr. Phil, sent via his website, resulted:

Dear Dr. Phil. In your 10 Myths about relationships, you say the following, "Men and women are wired differently." While the purpose of this statement was to express that couples cannot have the same mind about various issues in a relationship, there is a subtext to the statement that has serious negative impact on readers.

Since the 1974 publication of Maccoby and Nagy's "The Psychology of Sex Differences" more and more research has shown that there are very few differences physically between men and women. Women are not more sensitive than men. Women are not more suggestible than men. The list goes on. Certainly, there remains to be a firm answer to this issue. Are men and women different? Yes. How much of this difference can be attributed to nature and how much can be attributed to nuture? This is still unknown. According to research, what's most plausible is that men and women, due to social constructs, are raised in two completely different cultures, leading them to have very different ideas and behaviours. Just like Japanese and Americans may have trouble communicating due to differing cultures, so do men and women.

To say that men and women are wired differently suggests that men are "built" to perform certain tasks while women are "built" to do other tasks. This is a particulary sensitive issue for me because I am a woman in computer science. I am working towards a PhD in computer science in a department that is made up of only 6% women. Despite great strides in the women's movement, there are still so few women in this fascinating and financially empowering field. I strongly believe that part of the driving reason behind these low numbers are the messages that women receive in the media. Turn on almost any television show, and the "computer expert" is a date-less geeky guy, locked away by himself with all his gadgets. Your statement, that men and women are wired differently, contains a similar, though less visual message.

I believe that folks in the public eye like yourself have a greater responsibility not to further these kinds of incorrect ideas about the genders. You have a great show, and a great website, and you have the influence to change popular ideas. I implore you to change this wording in your website and in your vocabulary. Help to change a culture that teaches men and women that they are built only for certain tasks.


L. Wu said...

I'm curious -- what research are you thinking of that shows that there are very few differences physically between men and women?

I think it depends on what research you believe. My impression is that the quantitative sciences have shown more and more, in recent years, that men and women do show some differences on average, for example, in studies of how and when cortisol is released in the stress response (ref. Marianne Legato), in styles of map navigation or spatial rotation and linguistic abilities, brain scans of men and women performing the same task, to name a few that come to mind.

Or, if you prefer a more personal form of truth, ask any trans person you know that has pursued a physical transition, and I think they'll more than likely tell you that the difference between men and women is more than just mostly social construction.

I don't think it's incorrect to claim that men and women are wired differently on average, even though one might get that impression from reading articles written by feminists or sociologists before this decade, or today, since many people still believe in this.

What vocabulary would you prefer?

I think the key isn't disavowing any difference, but seeing that statistical delta as a positive, and understanding that not everyone fits every part of the gender stereotypes, that there's a greater difference between members of one gender than there is between the average of any two gender that you pick.

Joe said...

You seem to disagree with convention simply because it does not suit your beliefs. Men and women are indeed "wired" different, numerous brain mapping studies have shown this; and done so almost irrefutably.

Women and men are different in action as well as structure. This is the main reason children with ambiguous genitalia can not be shaped to be a gender different than the gender the brain was programmed for. Nearly 100% of these individuals suffer severe mental issues due to the mis-assigned gender.

Anyways I could go one forever about the countless differences between the sexes; but nothing will convince someone who won't give in to data. You probably are an exception to the stereo types of your gender; thus I can easily empathize with your rigorous opposition towards generalities which you are a walking contradiction to them. But remember even if the generalizations are true, it does not permit anyone prejudice to judge anyone of any type before you get o know them. We as humans are uniquely unclassifiable by a physical makeup; even if we do fit general trends.

The data is undeniable, and the only studies that contradict the mainstream are studies that have been set up in bias, with the sole intent of disproving the convention. It even makes sense by evolution that the sexes would have different strengths and weaknesses. If we now accept in science that biology is a very direct effector of psychology and behavior; then why would men and women with their huge physical differences in anatomy, not carry this through to the brain?