Monday, February 22, 2016

The Return of Bad Science Journalism

That title is somewhat misleading, because bad science journalism never really went away! I just stopped writing about it. So the title should read, "The return of Muse writing about bad science journalism" but that's more complicated and wouldn't generate as many clicks, so I took the cheap and easy route and simplified things.

Speaking of misleading titles...

Screencap of a news headline that reads "Blow Jobs Are Good for a Woman's Health and Help Fight Depression"

I saw this masterpiece of a headline in my Facebook feed today and I knew in my bones that there would be some TERRIBLE SCIENCE REPORTING ahoy, if not outright TERRIBLE SCIENCE. (That's in addition to the overt sexism, underlined by the fact that this post reached me through a chain of cishet men sharing it with jeering winks and nods and "I knew it"s and passive-aggressive tagging of girlfriends/wives.)

So of course, sucker for punishment I am, I clicked it.

... and got a 403 error. So I Googled it, and found an actual source! I tracked through a series of (terrible) forums, through a (terrible) Daily Mail article and eventually tracked down the original paper by Gallup, Burch, and Platek.

While I don't want to let the journalists off the hook for framing this as "LOL BLOWJOBS," I also want to make it clear that the bullshit goes all the way to the top. This study is just plain awful. Even though the only bit I've read is the abstract, I can say that with 100% confidence.

You wanna know why? Read the abstract yourself. Hell, just read the very first sentence:
In a sample of sexually active college females, condom use, as an indirect measure of the presence of semen in the reproductive tract, was related to scores on the Beck Depression Inventory.

SO YOU'RE TELLING ME THAT SEXUALLY ACTIVE WOMEN WHO DON'T USE CONDOMS (aka: women who have exclusive partners who they trust, who are well-off enough to afford alternative forms of birth control, among other things)

ARE LESS DEPRESSED THAN SEXUALLY ACTIVE WOMEN WHO USE CONDOMS (aka: women who cannot afford alternate means of birth control, who do not have exclusive parthers who they trust, among other things)





This is a pretty good time to bring up some basic (like 7th grade level) scientific method knowledge! Because the way science separates fact from falsehood is by trying to disprove a thing and failing. Finding evidence that is consistent with your hypothesis doesn't mean shit if you haven't looked for evidence that might disconfirm it. These folks gave the barest of lip services to alternative hypothesis, as when they note that "There were no significant differences in depression scores between those who were in relationships and those who were not," without asking the women about the quality of those relationships. You don't think regular, frequent, condomless sex might indicate not just the presence of a relationship but like, a good one? Maybe?

This just the tiniest tip of the iceberg of problems with this study. I could go on! But I'll leave that as an exercise to the reader. What other problems do you see with this terrible study or its terrible news coverage? Have you seen this pop up in your own Facebook feeds? Is this the most sexist study you've ever seen, or just one of the most? Do let me know in comments.

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