SOMETIMES it’s hard to be a woman. Other times, life is made that little bit easier by thoughtful gestures by the opposite sex. A door held open here, a mood-lifting “cheer up love” there … it’s a wonder feminists still find so much to moan about. This week I was indebted to reader Steve Arnott for very kindly explaining my column about science and sex differences back to me while assuring readers that ground-breaking bodies of work by women scientists amount to nothing more than “conspiracy theories”.

When Cordelia Fine sat down to write an introduction centred on the idea of a keyring made of dog testicles, I bet she never imagined anyone would accuse her of writing a bland book. But perhaps with his use of “pabulum” to describe Testosterone Rex, our correspondent instead wished to convey “mediocre, unsatisfying or worthless”. Let’s hope he forwarded a copy of his letter to the judges of the Royal Society’s science book of the year award – who, like me, are presumably a bunch of uncritical, easily pleased testicle obsessives.

Mr Arnott concedes “it would be a nonsense to say that there are no sexist scientists or that no scientist ever massaged their results to reflect a conscious or unconscious bias”, but implies that Professor Fine, in drawing attention to the serious methodological flaws in a seminal study of fruit flies, is in turn simply demonstrating her own bias. If a biased study is reviewed by a biased feminist, then her critique is reported by a biased journalist who is slated by a biased newspaper reader, where does that leave us? Scratching our heads – and not just from thinking too much about fructose-smeared insects.

As an experienced participant in scientific experiments, I envy those flies, who were blissfully unaware that their every copulation was being scrutinised and documented. The scientists who have probed me as part of their work probably also envy the likes of Professor Angus Bateman, whose subjects were unable to query his research design (and whose findings were taken as gospel for decades despite the fact that he’d quietly binned the datasets that didn’t support his hypothesis).

It’s perhaps easier to regard peer-reviewed, published and widely reported scientific conclusions as valid and reliable if you haven’t been a lab rat yourself. The reports that appear in newspapers tend to focus on headline findings rather than limitations, but these limitations can be very significant, as seen in the example Fine cited in Edinburgh last week about the study into the effects of testosterone levels that didn’t measure testosterone levels.

Take one longitudinal study in which I participated for several years. At the outset, as part of a battery of psychological tests, the researchers read the participants a list of 16 words, then asked us to repeat back as many as we could remember. Off the top of my head, I can tell you these included celery, onion, giraffe, motorbike, subway, cabinet and lamp. They’re drawn from something called the California Verbal Learning Test, which is used to link memory deficits with impaired performance on tasks. As you can see, the words fall into four categories: vegetables, animals, modes of transport and furniture. After hearing them in a mixed-up order, the non-impaired brain groups them into categories to recite them back. Clever old brains, helping us make sense of this crazy world.

A slight problem with exactly repeating this experiment, using the same set of words, is that any nerd who tried their best the first time is liable to remember many of them months or even years later. The list continues to take up valuable brain space that could otherwise be used to store something useful, like income tax band thresholds or Dorothy Parker quips. Did the experiment in which I took part control for long-term memory effects? It did not, since I was never asked which words I remembered without being read the list afresh. Does that matter? It depends what claims the researchers intended to make about how my brain was functioning at any given point.

Perfect experiments are almost impossible to design, if ethics are to be considered and spending is to be kept within reasonable limits (MRI scans don’t come cheap – and I’ve come close to very unhelpfully falling asleep while having one). The peer-review process should guard against hasty conclusions, but it involves fallible humans who are likely to be more open to findings that build on what’s gone before (including their own work in the field) than ones that challenge orthodoxy and put the cat among the pigeons (or the buff-breasted sandpiper among the drosophila).

It might be tempting to formulate the hypothesis that men who rail passionately against claims that innate sex differences in humans have been exaggerated are subconsciously sexist themselves. One might attempt to draw hasty conclusions from the framing of the rational (male) scientist in opposition to the ideological (female) feminist, or from the reference to “Ms Fine” rather than “Prof Fine” in the uncorrected version of a letter. But it may be that the correspondent would similarly deny Professor Stephen Hawking or Professor Tom Devine their proper honorifics, or that he would reduce to “Ms” or “Mr” any scientist, of either sex, with whom he disagrees.

Crying wolf about sexism doesn’t get us anywhere, but crying foul whenever sexism is challenged – regardless of the evidence – is about as anti-science as it gets.