Bad Science Journalism @ the NYT

The New York Times recently published a very bad article on a very interesting question: are some male and female behaviors, and in particular sexual behaviors, driven by evolution and therefore biologically constructed? Or are the observed differences in sexual behavior between men and women socially constructed?

The premise of the article is that new data shows that differences in sexual behavior appear to be reduced (or non-existent) if questions are asked in a different way. For example:

When asked about actual sexual partners, rather than just theoretical desires, the participants who were not attached to [a] lie detector displayed typical gender differences. Men reported having had more sexual partners than women. But when participants believed that lies about their sexual history would be revealed by the [..] lie detector, gender differences in reported sexual partners vanished. In fact, women reported slightly more sexual partners (a mean of 4.4) than did men (a mean of 4.0).

Another example is a classic study (1989) that relied on a stranger asking subjects if they were interested in a date or in casual sex. Men were more likely to be interested in casual sex. But, the articles recounts, a new formulation of the question where the casual sex is to be had with a close friend or a celebrity, seems to make the difference go away.

These studies are worth whatever they are. But what the journalist seems to miss is that they say nothing about the existing, or non-existing, differences being culturally acquired or not. The fact that the difference in willingness to have casual sex disappears for close friends is interesting, but does not have much relevance to find if source of the discrepancy in the original study comes from biology or culture. The fact that men and women who believe they are under a lie detector report similar number of partners is a very interesting fact, but it does not shed much light on the question of what role do biology or culture play in the tendency for men to exaggerate their reported sexual activity.

Moreover, why should we assume that if we observe “equal behavior” that would have a non-social explanation? Certainly if one hypothesis that we are willing to explore is that culture shapes men and women to have differences in sexual behavior and there is little biological basis, then another valid hypothesis should be that there is a biological difference that then culture flattens out. Therefore, proving equality in sexual behavior still leaves the source of the observation unexplained! Studies seeking to find equality or difference in sexual behavior and their dependence on the way the question is asked etc, are interesting. But they are not going to do much in illuminating the biological vs cultural source of that equality or difference.

This is a very interesting topic. And a very poor article, with faulty logic.


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