Mathematics and Education

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The Fabricated Statistic

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[Update: A revised version of this post appears as part of Rumors of Our Rarity are Greatly Exaggerated: Bad Statistics About Women in Science, Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, July, 2011.]

In August of 2006, a new book called The Female Brain appeared, written by a psychologist at the University of California.[i] It publicized the “finding” that “Women use 20,000 words per day, while men use 7,000.” “Women talk almost three times as much as men, study finds,” said headlines that spread from nation to nation across the World Wide Web. The book became a best-seller.

Word use was part of the evidence that “the female brain” is a “lean, mean communicating machine” which compels its owner(s) to connect and communicate. According to The Female Brain, opportunities to connect and communicate are not part of science and engineering, thus women tend to avoid these careers.

Comments on the Web said the “finding” that women talked more than men was so obvious that it didn’t need a study. But at least one linguist thought it was very strange. Mark Liberman noted that studies of conversations had found that, on average, that men talk slightly more than women or there was no gender difference. And, where were the studies of daily word use? In his posts on Language Log, Liberman discussed the available evidence at length. He summarized some main points in an article in the Boston Globe.[ii] His conclusion: Although The Female Brain lists numerous scientific articles in its bibliography, the ultimate source for this claim was apparently a self-help book—not scientific studies.

The next year, a scientific study of daily word use was published.[iii] Its abstract says:

Women are generally assumed to be more talkative than men. Data were analyzed from 396 participants who wore a voice recorder that sampled ambient sounds for several days. Participants’ daily word use was extrapolated from the number of recorded words. Women and men both spoke about 16,000 words per day.

One such study is not conclusive evidence—but it certainly doesn’t support “women talk three times more than men.”

Later editions of The Female Brain do not say, “Women use 20,000 words per day, while men use 7,000.” But, as Liberman notes, they do say, “[W]omen, on average, talk and listen a lot more than men. The numbers vary, but on average girls speak two to three times more words per day than boys” (p. 36). No reference is given.

And—harder to kill than a vampire—“Women talk almost three times as much as men” remains on the Web.

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[i] L. Brizendine, The Female Brain, Random House, 2006.

[ii] M. Liberman, “Sex on the Brain,” Boston Globe, September 24, 2006.

[iii] M. Mehl, S. Vazire, N. Ramírez-Esparza, R. B. Slatcher, & J. W. Pennebaker, “Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?,” Science
 317, no. 5834 (2007), p. 82.

Written by CK

March 9, 2010 at 4:21 pm

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