I’ve seen this tendency of people to make fallacious generalizations or stereotypes based on race and gender – both positive and negative. So thought I’d share my thoughts on it here – and try to keep it really simple.
First of all, talking of stereotypes, I want to get this straight – both negative and positive stereotypes are wrong. They are generalizations which are not based on evidence. Stereotypes still remain stereotypes, and just because it isn’t derogatory, doesn’t imply it is any less wrong.
Now back to the topic – making generalizations – making generalizations is extremely important in science. You choose a large group of subjects, who’re representative of the whole population to test the hypothesis, and try to eliminate the other factors that might influence the research so that it can be extrapolated to the entire population. The larger the group is, the better.
However, when you make generalizations based on statistics, it’s extremely important that you remember the golden rule – i.e., correlation does not imply causation. A simple example to illustrate this point – if statistics show people who watch TV are obese, doesn’t imply that TV in itself is the cause of their obesity – a more plausible explanation would be that these people might have been more immobile compared to the non-TV watchers. Besides that, often these study groups are really small and there is the whole issue of confirmation bias- and as much as it offers good insights regarding certain issues – you can’t simply use them to make any serious generalization for the whole race or sex, for instance – with a few of such studies alone.
Secondly, about studies that studies neurological differences – as interesting as it may be, people tend to over-interpret the data most often than not. Sure, there are neurological differences, but the conclusions drawn from researches analyzing the fMRI etc. could often be far fetched. As in, say, we could based on researches, perhaps say that men have more grey matter and women white matter (on average, that doesn’t necessarily apply at ALL to the whole population, and this in itself isn’t well correlated with sex in itself, as the paper indicates) – but drawing conclusions like “All women are better at multitasking than men” based on such researches is where it could be problematic.
Then there are those who make generalizations based on evolutionary psychology. First of all, when it comes to evolutionary psychology at the very least you have to be skeptical of most hypotheses. The major problem with evolutionary psychology is that pop evo-psychologists (emphasis on pop-evolutionary psychology, again) come up with such ‘just so stories’ all the time, it’s hard to take the entire branch seriously unless they clean up their act.
Granted, that it’s indeed an interesting field of study, but people give way too much importance to evolutionary psychology these days, as if it’s part of evolutionary biology in itself. (A person I know of even called a hypothesis “evolutionary reality” – seriously?). Here’s a good article by Mike the Mad Biologist, which echoes my sentiments. Most good evolutionary psychologists acknowledge the limitations with their study, which is why I would recommend reading the paper instead of reports, which tend to offer a skewed perspective.
Finally some argue how science is “untrustworthy” since it was used to purport such stereotypes – as in racism and sexism in the past. As it should be obvious by now – it’s just horrible science, if not pseudoscience. For instance, Social Darwinism has nothing to do with theory of evolution at and is pseudoscience, anyone who understands the very basics evolution would know that. Science isn’t some philosophy that suggests how it ought to be anyways – it’s a descriptive endeavor not a normative one.
Bottom line – stop using science to justify the stereotypes.
 Brain size and grey matter volume in the healthy human brain. NeuroReport, 13 (2002), pp. 2371–2374