New "Scientist" at it again

[Jessica Drew was down with the spiders, that’s radiation for you]

At the risk of copyright infringement, I would like to quote directly from the BBC story on girls being afraid of spiders. This is a report on an article in the New Scientist which has a worrying habit of reproducing this kind of shite.

A new study in the US suggests that women have a genetic aversion to dangerous animals, such as spiders.

Let’s focus on the words ‘genetic aversion’, what kind of evidence do you think you would need to establish a ‘genetic aversion’? I would, for example, expect a geneticist to perhaps be involved in the research or maybe for it to be a twin-based study. But…

The research, published in the New Scientist, says women are born with character traits that were ingrained in our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

FACT. This research PROVES that women (i.e. all) are born with character traits (presuming manifesting in behaviours) that were ingrained (genetically pre-programmed?) in our hunter-gatherer ancestors (a catch-all term but where our character traits were cemented and untouched by 10,000 years of agricultural and pastoral society). Again, for this assertion I would expect an archeologist, palentologist, ethnographer, paleoanthropologist, or someone with some understanding of prehistoric societies to be involved in this research.

Previous research suggested women were actually up to four times more likely to be afraid of creatures like spiders.

Previous research. Not this research. Not credited research. Just other research.

The new research was headed up by developmental psychologist, Dr David Rakison, from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, 10 baby girls, and 10 baby boys were subjected to a number of pictures of spiders to gauge their reactions.

OK, so let’s recap shall we: no geneticist, no archeologist, no paleontologist, no ethnographer, no paleoanthropologist. A study on 20 babies where they GAUGED their REACTIONS to PICTURES.

A sample of 20 individuals who cannot adequately communicate were show pictures of things that they may have never seen before and the claim is that this research shows that women have a genetic aversion to dangerous animals.


First the babies were shown a picture of a spider with a fearful human face, followed by images of a spider paired with a happy face – alongside an image of a flower twinned with a fearful face.

This is supposed to be science. They are showing babies pictures of spiders with happy and sad faces (learnt behaviour) and stating that this in any way contributes to evidence for genetic aversion.


The results showed that the girls – some as young as 11 months old – looked longer at the picture of the happy face with a spider than the boys, who looked at both images for an equal time.

The researchers concluded that the young girls were confused as to why someone would be happy to be twinned with a spider, and were quick to associate pictures of arachnids with fear.

The boys, it seems, remained totally indifferent emotionally.

“The researchers concluded that the girls were confused”. Seriously, why do these people bother working in a university when they could just prop up a bar somewhere shouting “I reckon…” into the air? Oh yeah, its on the BBC website…

I particularly like the caveat “it seems” in the last sentence. Because of course they don’t know, they weren’t even measuring heartbeat never mind any other tests of emotion. They just reckon.


Mr Rakison attributes this genetic predisposition to behavioural traits inherent in our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Men, he purports, were the greater natural risk takers, the ones who took greater risks were more successful when going out to hunt for food.

With women, in their role as natural child protectors, it made sense for them to be more cautious of animals such as snakes or spiders, Mr Rakison adds.

By contrast, the research concludes that modern phobias such as the fear of hospitals – or that of flying – show no differences between the sexes.

Only at this stage in the article do words like ‘attributes’ or ‘purports’ come into play. It is interesting to compare what Dr Rakison is quoted as saying above and what he says when he is interviewed on the BBC’s The World Today. The interview is worth listening to for the vox pops they do with a few women at the beginning (none of whom are afraid of spiders) where one says she’s not frightened of spiders but is of men. Anyway, Mr Rakison says in his interview explicitly that this is a learnt response and that “its not that we’re born with the fear”.

Also the study is published in Evolution and Human Behaviour and is about fear learning.

So where does the ‘genetic’ and ‘hunter-gatherer’ bullshit come from? It’s made up. It had no basis. It’s just a cultural meme perpetuated by repetition. I’m not saying that humans do not have ‘instincts’ or that everything is environmental. I’m saying that the hunter-gatherer concept pisses me off. It invokes an image of big strong men hunting mammoths and home-bound women collecting berries which feeds cultural stereotypes about male and female characteristics which are false.

Apparently Dr Rakison thinks men are greater risk takers despite later stating that the is no gender difference in things like the fear of flying.

And on the point that this was a study of 20 babies, I came across this fascinating article in The Psychologist about psychology’s problematic relationship with empiricism.

Oh, and this was another one for #bullshitbingo and its sister game #BSbingo (bad science bingo).

9 Responses to “New "Scientist" at it again”

  • James Says:

    They are a shocking "periodical". Never let the "facts" get in the way of a good "story". And then muppets elsewhere have licence to quote them. Gah!

  • wendy Says:

    LOL. I think one could put quotes around the word "good" as well, because this is the dumbest piece of science journalism I've read in a while.

  • Maxine Says:

    Superb! I am enjoying your blog so much, having discovered it via the recent Science Online conference. Sorry not to have met you in person there. Your blog is superb though. Best wishes, Maxine.

  • Naomi Mc Says:

    Thanks Maxine. Science Online Conference was cool.

    Depending on your definition of cool of course 😉

    Which reminds me, here: is a wee video of the fringe event the night before the conference.

  • trinlayk Says:

    and how old is "baby"?

    Even at a few weeks old, is it possible, even likely (if there were an outright fear response- ie screaming like a tiny banshee) that some girl babies had already had a chance to model off Mom reacting to a "creepy crawly".

    MY mom is a woodsy girl, growing up in a wooded area, my sister & i often played with toads, frogs, SNAKES, bugs of all sorts…
    Sis even got a PET snake in college, and mom responded with "COOL."

    Currently, I find I prefer things like bugs to say outside, and if I can't escort an intruder to the outdoors, I fetch my bug-eating cat.

    Sample size of 10 is Waaaay to small to mean Anything. And was anything done to disguise gender of child, or to keep researcher reactions from being observed?
    (Baby= information sponge)

  • Alice Says:

    Any chance that the girls just liked the smiley faces better? Did they try smileys on their own, or with "cute" animals?

    I love spiders, and have done since I was little. So do the rest of my family.

  • Banbha Says:

    Thanks for the great breakdown of a trash article. You might enjoy this Bingo game:

    *goes off to play with scorpions and spiders* :)

  • Neuroskeptic Says:

    There's nothing wrong with this kind of research as such. Babies are as suitable as test subjects as any other people, although they tend to be harder to work with (and smellier sometimes).

    If they had, say, shown the baby girls spider pics and then scared them with a loud noise, and found that they learned to be scared of the spider pics faster than boys, that would support their hypothesis.

    Obviously it would be unethical to actually do that. But not unscientific.

    However this particular experiment is rubbish, the results don't really mean anything since assuming that babies can get "confused" is very dubious.

  • Sorozan Says:


    Anecdotes not being evidence and all I do have to say that my boyfriend does not like spiders and freaks at the larger ones while I have been wanting one as a pet for awhile now.

    I'll have to stick it out with my snakes though, he likes the snakes. Absolutely refuses to let me keep arachnids of any sort though.

    When(if) I get a desk job I'm buying a little scorpion or tarantula to be my desk buddy.

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