[LINK] - Aaron Sell (Psychology Today) on the Politicisation of Science

post by Salemicus · 2013-08-28T20:25:29.857Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 9 comments

Dr. Aaron Sell recently wrote an interesting piece about political incentives and shoddy statistical work in science. In particular, he was highly critical of the much-publicized Conley article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which attempted to demonstrate that "large gender differences... [in willingness to engage in] casual sex [have] more to do with perceived personality characteristics of the female versus male proposers than with gender differences."

[[The full article can be found here. Please note - I have deliberately chosen to omit quoting any material which Less Wrongers may find mindkilling. It would be nice if we could keep it that way.]]

He points out that Conley's results were obtained by hypothetical pseudo-experiments, and spurious controls. For example, when Conley found that men were more willing to sleep with their friends than women, she made this difference "evaporate" by:

control[ling] for “sexual capabilities.” The sexual capabilities covariate contained two items: “the proposer would be a great lover” and “would provide you with a positive sexual experience.” Keep in mind, these items were rated by the subjects just after deciding how likely they would be to have a sexual encounter with the person! If you control for two tightly correlated variables any effect disappears. The gap in male and female pay completely disappears when you control for testicle number... So how tightly correlated is “likelihood of agreeing to sex” with “would provide a positive sexual experience”? We don’t know; it’s not reported. JPSP. Seriously.

Yet for bottom line reasons, we now find Eagly and Woods reading Conley uncritically, and even claiming that she has overturned Clark and Hatfield's classic (and truly experimentally based) article demonstrating that women are radically less willing than men to have casual sex.

Sell concludes:

This sort of nonsense is an indictment of our science... As long as the most prestigious journals of our discipline publish this kind of political masturbation , we have no right to demand that the public take us seriously. When politics and good science collide there is no reason the public should bet on science. They are better off trusting their uninformed intuitions. An imbecile... know[s] damn well that 80% of women don’t want casual sex with random men who are “reputed to be sexually skilled.”

While empiricism is great, I have long believed that the social and organisational structures in which science is practised makes it especially vulnerable to political capture, so this plays right into my biases. Am I missing something important?

9 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by kalium · 2013-08-28T22:38:51.029Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Conley's study included four parts:

1) "Using a person-perception paradigm, I assessed people's impressions of women and men who proposed a casual sexual encounter in the same manner that confederates in Clark and Hatfield did. Women and men agreed that female proposers were more intelligent, successful, and sexually skilled than men who made the same proposals." In other words, the particular form of the proposals in Clark and Hatfield affected people's assessment of the proposers. Perhaps proposals made in a more socially acceptable way would be viewed differently. After all, what percentage of real-life casual sex follows a blunt approach from a complete stranger? Normally one at least starts with a few minutes of casual conversation.

2--3) "I demonstrated that the large gender differences from the original Clark and Hatfield study could be eliminated by asking participants to imagine proposals from (attractive and unattractive) famous individuals, friends, and same-gender individuals. Next, I assessed factors associated with likelihood of agreeing to the casual sex proposal. The extent to which women and men believed that the proposer would be sexually skilled predicted how likely they would be to engage in casual sex with this individual."

Conley's conditions do seem too strong to me ("guaranteed positive experience" or "experience which, even if not that great in itself, will be something to brag about for years").

4) "I examined these factors in the context of actual encounters from the participants' previous experiences, and the results were replicated in this context." Seems valid to me, though I'd like to hear more detail (I don't have access to the full text).

My opinion: "Women are less willing to have casual sex because they think it might not be a positive experience" doesn't contradict "women are less willing to have casual sex" at all. Indeed, Clark and Hatfield say, "We know that this is so. We are not quite sure why this is so.... Of course, the sociological interpretation---that women are interested in love while men are interested in sex---is not the only possible interpretation of this data. It may be, of course, that both men and women are equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with accepting a sexual invitation than did women.... Also, the remnants of the double standard may make women afraid to accept the man's invitation." Clark and Hatfield wonder about the reason for this, and Conley makes attempts (some of them flawed) to figure it out. The problem I see is that everyone is so eager to interpret new results as overturning old ones instead of as refining or elaborating on them.

Edited to add: The relevant part of Eagly and Woods. "For example, the classic finding that men are more likely than women to agree to have casual sex with a stranger depends on the social context and the sexual opportunity. No sex differences in interest in casual sex emerged when the potential partner was a famous, attractive person or someone reputed to be sexually skilled." This is not a claim that the original study has been overturned. Clark and Hatfield's proposers were not actors famous for their physical attractiveness, not were they locally famous for their sexual prowess.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2013-08-29T02:54:51.507Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This whole line of investigation seems to make unfounded presumptions of equality. Giving a woman an offer of sex with a man, and giving a man an offer of sex with a woman, are not the same offer. So it is unsurprising that the acceptance rates would be different.

Biologically, men don't get pregnant, and men are less likely to pick up STDs from women than vice versa. Socially, in many subcultures, men risk much less by being known to accept casual sex — the "stud vs. slut" dichotomy.

Sex — and choices to have it — don't exist in a vacuum where the only things to consider are the pleasure of the experience itself. In the absence of biological equality (e.g. near-perfect contraception for both partners — or, while we're fantasizing, a transhuman future with artificial wombs, too!) and social equality (e.g. male sluts and female sluts treated equally well [or badly] by their peers), it would be odd to expect willingness to have casual sex to be equal.

comment by hairyfigment · 2013-08-29T22:38:26.212Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It is, however, a claim that Sell denies.

He's right that the question he mentions seems really bad, ignoring cognitive dissonance. (I'm assuming here that he describes the order correctly.) But he shows no awareness that according to Conley et al:

Although women orgasmed only 32% as often as men in first-time hookups and 49% as often as men in repeat hookups with the same sexual partner; they orgasmed 79% as often as men in established romantic relationships (Armstrong et al., 2009)."

So to answer his question: Yes I think you could get positive response rates about equal to a women asking men for sex, if women knew you gave them orgasms ~100% of the time! Just how different do you think their brains are? I was given to understand that orgasms, and also failures to obtain one, are neurologically similar.

comment by kalium · 2013-08-30T03:24:02.683Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was going to mention that result but was too lazy to find it and then my comment got excessively long. Thanks!

comment by [deleted] · 2014-02-10T16:29:37.011Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GWMight it be that women with anorgasmia are less likely to stay into relationships for some reason?
comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-08-30T06:31:17.841Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Although women orgasmed only 32% as often as men in first-time hookups and 49% as often as men in repeat hookups with the same sexual partner; they orgasmed 79% as often as men in established romantic relationships (Armstrong et al., 2009)."

So to answer his question: Yes I think you could get positive response rates about equal to a women asking men for sex, if women knew you gave them orgasms ~100% of the time! Just how different do you think their brains are?

Well, that is itself a neurological difference.

comment by kalium · 2013-08-30T20:11:07.583Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Neurological similarity: Most male orgasms result from stimulation of the penis. Most female orgasms result from stimulation of the homologous organ, the clitoris.

Anatomical difference: Standard sexual intercourse stimulates the penis very effectively, but stimulates the clitoris only moderately.

In a non-iterated interaction, the male partner has less incentive to perform activities likely to result in female orgasm. No brain difference is required to explain this effect.

comment by JQuinton · 2013-08-30T12:58:11.266Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When I first read the Conley study a couple of years ago, it struck me as odd that people could think you could overturn an empirical study with a hypothetical one. Though experiments can't overturn empirical ones.

I would be a lot more satisfied if someone could do an actual empirical study where women were approached by a man who was known to be good in bed and whether they said yes or no to casual sex on the spot. Maybe a guy being seen in the company of a lot of women doing the proposal? I dunno.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-08-29T01:41:14.110Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When politics and good science collide there is no reason the public should bet on science.

Not really news, particularly in social sciences. "Studies" are often laughably ham handed in their efforts to manufacture the results they want.