Writeup – Kate Cross – The Science of Sex Differences

We take it for granted that there are differences between men and women. Aside from the "obvious" (something one tends to laugh at, when one is transgender), this idea is ingrained in our culture, and is just assumed to be "common sense". But what is the actual science behind sex differences? Dr. Kate Cross from the University of St. Andrews joined us on Saturday, August 16 for Skeptics on the Fringe, in a packed chamber room at the Banshee Labyrinth, to tell us about her work studying the differences in personality between men and women and what she has learned.

From differences in the way we plan to vote in a certain referendum in the near future, to differences in how impulsive we are, Kate covered quite a lot of ground. Ultimately, she didn’t reach much of a conclusion, other than to repeatedly answer each question she raised about ways in which men and women are different with "it depends". While there are differences presented in the data she has gathered over the last eight years, these, like most human characteristics, fall on a bell-curve, and the bell-curves for men and women, certainly where impulsive behaviour is concerned, more or less overlap, with men presenting, on the whole, as slightly more impulsive than women. How much of this is down to biology and how much is down to upbringing is difficult to determine. But Kate did note that, as the roles of men and women in society have become more similar, there has been a trend towards less personality differences.

Much to the entertainment of an obviously skeptical and scientifically minded audience, Kate lambasted the misuse of evolutionary psychology by apologists for biological determinism, who will say; "There are differences between men and women. Because evolution. Done, pub time." The evolutionary psychology that Kate subscribes to is much more complicated and I could hardly do it justice if I tried to re-present it here; suffice to say, if I may state what ought to be an axiom of skepticism; "I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that." Kate also responded to some of her critics, who felt the need to tell her, "Oh, I could have told you that" in response to some of her findings, or the assertion that some of her findings are "just common sense" and we’re wasting money researching it. I couldn’t possibly phrase what she said better than she did, so I will simply quote Dr. Cross from her talk itself: "Common sense just means ‘my perceptions mean I have no interest in real data’." The audience very much appreciated this sentiment — one all too often expressed by people with a poor understanding of science and the value of research into things they seem to think are obvious truths about the world we live in.

Dr. Kate Cross was very well received and gave us an excellent, entertaining talk, that not only made us laugh, but sent us all away a little more informed about just how complicated and how tricky the science of sex differences really is.