Together apart


Wikimedia Commons/Welleman



Homo sapiens male and female are members of a singular species separated by gender.

Science is only beginning to find out how separated. Scientists in Sweden have now documented a big problem they attribute largely to the long-ignored genders of researchers and their subjects.

This might not seem like a big deal to layman, but it is a big deal.

The “scientific method” imposes some pretty strict standards for sorting fact from fiction, starting with the definition of questions that can be tested for simple yes or no answers.

“The great advantage of the scientific method is that it is unprejudiced,” someone observed long ago, and the mantra has been repeated over and over. “It works the same for everyone.”

Except when it doesn’t.

Scientists studying rats and mice in 2014 found men, but not women, stress the pointy nosed lab animals.

The surprise discovery came “while investigating whether the presence of experimenters affects rodent pain studies. For years, anecdotal reports have suggested that rodents show a diminished pain response when a handler remains in the room,” Alla Katsnelson wrote in Nature.

The researchers decided to test the observation and found the animals’ pain response was about 40 percent lower when a man, a man’s t-shirt, or the chemicals from male sweat were in the lab. With the women around, the lab animals showed a higher pain response.

“…In fact, a female presence (or that of their T-shirts) seemed to counteract the response to men,” Katsnelson wrote.

This is the sort of data problem that pops up all over the place, the Swedish researchers are now warning.

Collision of the sexes

“There is a replication crisis spreading through the annals of scientific inquiry,” a team of them from Uppsala University concluded in a review paper published in Science Advances earlier this month.  “Although some work has been carried out to uncover the roots of this issue, much remains unanswered. With this in mind, this paper investigates how the gender of the experimenter may affect experimental findings. Clinical trials are regularly carried out without any report of the experimenter’s gender and with dubious knowledge of its influence. Consequently, significant biases caused by the experimenter’s gender may lead researchers to conclude that therapeutics or other interventions are either overtreating or undertreating a variety of conditions.”

Hormones, which are regularly influenced by male-female interactions, are clearly in play here. Their influence is often underestimated. Swiss scientists a couple of years ago used experimental games to demonstrate a link between testosterone, power and cooperation.

In the game,  researchers from the University of Lausanne led by Samuel Bendahan reported in a study published in The Leadership Quarterly, “leaders could make prosocial decisions to benefit the public good (or) they could also abuse their power by invoking antisocial decisions, which reduced the total payouts to the group but increased the leaders’ earnings.”

What the scientists found was that “power interacted with endogenous testosterone in predicting corruption, which was highest when leader power and baseline testosterone were both high. Honesty predicted initial level of leader antisocial decisions; however, honesty did not shield leaders from the corruptive effect of power.”

“Testosterone has been the focus of intensive research for decades,” Christoph Eisenegger and colleagues from the University of Cambridge in England observed in a 2011 study published in Trends in Cognitive Science. “In particular, it appears
that testosterone promotes status-seeking and social dominance motives, and thus plays an important role in social status hierarchies.”

Taken together, the works of Benadahan and Eisenegger seem to make clear the dangers of giving too much power to those highly juiced on T. Can you say Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, the late Roger Ailes, the former Sen. Al Franken, and does one dare say President Donald Trump?

Rose wasn’t parading around naked in front of female interns and young female producers in pursuit of sex. The bare asses and privates of old men just aren’t that attractive. Rose’s motive was social dominance.

And given what has been learned about the acts of too many other powerful men, Rose is probably to be commended for simply behaving badly in front of young women instead of sexually molesting them.

Men in the last several years have done an excellent job of demonstrating the social and criminal nightmares that can emerge for women when too much testosterone and too much power converge in people with too little self-control.

This is the worst of the male-female difference, but it’s not the only one.


Subtle effects

The Upsalla scientists, led by Colin Chapman, point to smaller differences that can mess up science. They found problems in clinical drug tests, cognitive exams, assessments of behavioral problems and more.

“On a complex verbal conditioning task,” they wrote, “low-anxiety men performed significantly better when tested by a female experimenter, (but) highly anxious men actually performed worse…. Thus, although, in general, results support the conclusion that opposite-gender experimenters improve performance on learning and intelligence-related tests, this conclusion must be tempered because qualities specific to the participant appear to also modulate this effect. Finally, some research has revealed that even fundamental memory processes are sensitive to experimenter gender. Men paired with a female experimenter tend to provide more elaborate verbal autobiographical memories, and women with a male experimenter report fewer ‘internal states’ such as emotional or cognitive states.

“Again, these studies are significant in light of the recent surge in development of therapeutics designed to treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive impairment associated with aging. In some cases the same cognitive tests that demonstrated experimenter gender biases are used to determine whether these cognitive-enhancing therapeutics are efficacious. Imagine an experiment being run without the gender of the experimenter being stringently controlled, where a female directs the treatment participants and a male directs the placebo participants. Imagine further that the participants themselves are male. This design could easily lead to an exaggerated treatment effect.”

They stop short of the next obvious step, but then it’s obvious:

The men taking the drug and being monitored by women could show significant cognitive improvement while the men on the placebo being monitored by men could do worse, leading to the conclusion the drug helps treat Alzheimer’s when in fact it does nothing.

This puts a new spin on a target that has been in the spotlight for sometime now – gender bias in drug trials.

“A special report from the US General Accounting Office found that of the ten drugs removed from the US market between 1997 and 2000, eight were withdrawn because of side effects that occurred only, or mainly, in women,” Anna Nowogrodzki wrote in Nature last year. Most of the drugs were taken off the market because they cause heart damage, sometimes fatal.

Data analysis gets really complicated here because, as Nowogrodzki observes, animal experiments have revealed differences in the way the two sexes process pain. And gender, as the Swedes note, can influence how human’s report their pain when sampled; the researchers observed that men may under report “with a female experimenter as a function of their attempt to display higher degrees of masculinity.”

Because there are no purely objective ways to measure how well new pain-drugs work for humans, these are problems, although the Swedes suggest a technological solution might be forthcoming.

“Some have recently suggested the concept of a ‘virtual experimenter,'” they write. “The idea is to create a computer program that delivers treatment and instructions, which should theoretically increase standardization and reduce biasing effects and noise, such as those that come from experimenter gender. This standardized avatar would likely produce several advantages—in addition to controlling gender, other biasing influences such as personality, behavior, physical size, and, in general, human errors would be eliminated as confounders. However, the technology to support this becoming a ubiquitous and fail-safe tool could take some time to develop.”

Of course, then there is the Luddite problem. People suffering anxiety attacks or, worse yet, taking an ax to the ‘virtual experimenter’ make for badly flawed test subjects.

The Swedes suggest the best scientists can do for now is take note of the problem and increase the transparency of their research.

“To improve the prevalence of experimenter gender reporting, first and foremost, individual scientists must take upon themselves the task of tracking and reporting their experimenter and/or research assistant genders going forward,” they say. “Furthermore, where appropriate, statistical analysis should test for experimenter gender effects.”

They also suggest a lot more research is in order.

“It is also clear that the variables thus far investigated have been largely behavioral or psychological in nature, whereas biological and neurological responses remain largely unexplored,” they write. “(But) given the strong connection between psychological and behavioral responses on the one hand and biological and neurological responses on the other, it stands to reason that this biasing effect should be similarly prevalent in these realms of study. It is common practice for studies in the fields of biology and neuroscience to not report experimenter gender, and yet, there is reason to believe that it could be significantly affecting results, including those of clinical trials.”

The research suggests those clinical trials that ended up putting female-deadly drugs on the market might have been flawed not only by the inclusion of too few female test subjects but possibly by too many, or too few, female testers. At one time it would have been easy to say too few female testers, but about 55 percent of the medical scientists in the U.S. now are women.

Equality has been worming its way into the field of science even as science is coming increasingly to recognize that men and woman are not equal. They deserve to be treated equally, but on the physiological and psychological levels it needs to be recognized, as author John Gray recognized way back in 1992, that “Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus.”








8 replies »

  1. OMG, funniest thing I’ve read in a long time (and thank you so much for kind of making my day): “Rose wasn’t parading around naked in front of female interns and young female producers in pursuit of sex. The bare asses and privates of old men just aren’t that attractive.”

  2. In any problem or research based on a large number of variables, inevitably some identified and many not identified, Science can’t avoid bias and true scientists don’t claim to be unbiased. As with conflict of interest the first criteria is disclosure so that a later determination can be made if it’s disqualifying by particular standards or not.
    While Donald Rumsfeld’s list of permutations of known and unknown was probably to BS the Press and the Public, it remains a tautology, true by definition. What are unknown knowns? What you think you know that is false? Or what you don’t know that you should know? Or would the later be known unknowns?
    The fact is that the level of unknown and potentially misleading variables and assumptions, the uncertainties in any human and in even in lab animal population study is staggering. Add to that proxies! For example, the blood level of Vitamin D is not the actual performance you want to determine and calculate inverse probabilities/causes. Those performance dependent variables would be health effects, survival, presence or absence of diseases… blood levels do not correlate perfectly or 100% predictably with all health parameters. There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.
    Medical research has substituted claims of scientific objectivity for ignorance and lack of adequate controls of potential confounding variables. Most other sciencists, dare I say correct science, calls their thinking theories, models, hypotheses.

    • sadly, have to agree,Tim. i read too damn many studies with obviously confounding variables for which there are no controls. but, that said, today’s science is so much better than today’s journalism that i remain hopeful. at least the scientists are trying to get it right, or at least most of them. ideology sometimes has a bad habit of getting in the way there, too:

  3. No News here…Seems like Joe Walsh, Glenn Fry and Don Henley had this down on paper in 1976…
    ‘He was a hard-headed man he was brutally handsome
    And she was terminally pretty
    She held him up and he held her for ransom
    In the heart of the cold, cold city
    He had a nasty reputation as a cruel dude
    They said he was ruthless said he was crude
    They had one thing in common: they were good in bed
    She’d say, “Faster, faster. “The lights are turning red.”…

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