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Pajiba Dirty Talk: Pseudo-Science Strikes Again

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | April 27, 2011 | Comments ()


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Remember our friends from a couple of weeks ago, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam? The ones who tried to argue that feminism ruined sex because it makes women less willing to be sexually submissive? Well, you can expect to hear a lot more about them over the next few weeks, as they have a book out: A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire. I can't tell if the experiment they're referring to in that subtitle is their own work or the existence of the internet, but given the general attitudes of the authors, I'm guessing it's the egomaniacal one. The book describes analysis of a billion internet searches about sex from around the world, and is being reported on as a scientific study. Which it ain't. Nobody in this day and age publishes scientific studies as books. They publish them as articles in peer-reviewed journals. Publishing this "study" as a book basically means its methods and conclusions weren't vetted by other scientists in the field. It can't be trusted to be any more scientific than the surveys run by outfits like Cosmo.

Ogas and Gaddam got their information about web searches from the search engine Dogpile, which is a metasearch engine that compile results from popular search engines like Google and Yahoo and presents the results to the user. It's not clear from the reporting whether the searches analyzed by the authors were ones conducted on Dogpile or ones that Dogpile somehow pulled from more popular sites (I'm sorry, but I'm not wasting my money on the book to find out the specifics). It doesn't sound, on the surface at least, like the most reliable way to conduct a scientific study. The sample is self-selected-- people who search for sex topics online-- and I have no idea how you'd determine demographic info like sex, race, and age when it comes to internet searches (and yet, they do make claims about differences between the sexes in the book). For their previous books, the authors at least used online surveys, which appear to have used misleading information and poorly designed question, but at least with a survey you can ask about demographic info. For this book they don't appear to have actually asked any questions, they just observed internet searches and interpreted them as being representative of universal human desires.

It doesn't really matter how reliable the data is anyway. The bigger problem is that the authors use the results of the internet searches and surveys to draw over-arching, gendered conclusions about human sexuality that you simply can't make based on the kind of data (and that the media is buying into the hype and treating this as science). They argue that anonymous web searches reveal things about people's sexual interests that they would never admit to a researcher, which is true to an extent, but just because people look up something on the web doesn't mean they are sexually interested in it. (Who among us hasn't turned to google to figure out what some phrase meant only to find that it's an obscure sexual practice invented by 13 year old boys with too much imagination and no actual sexual experience?). You can't rely too much on internet searches divorced from context.

The main conclusions from the "study" that are being spread around the web are mostly harmless, at least, as far as faux-science goes. According to the New York Post article, the top ten sex-related searches as described in the book are: 1. Youth (13.5%) 2. Gay (4.7%) 3. MILFs (4.3%) 4. Breasts (4%) 5. Cheating Wives (2.8%) 6. Vaginas (2.8%) 7. Penises (2.4%) 8. (Blocked out in the book apparently. Who knows why.) 9. Butts (.9%) and 10. Cheerleaders (.1%). Those statistics aren't surprising, but the way the conclusions are framed makes it clear the authors aren't just analyzing hard data but putting their own interpretations on things. For example, they state that men fantasize about group sex more than women do. Men may do more internet searches about these things (though, again, I'm not sure how they determine the gender of people doing internet searches), but it's an awfully big step from what people fantasize about to what they type into a search bar. They note that straight men prefer amateur porn, and theorize that it's because it seems more authentic, but uh, it's also more free, a major concern for a lot of people who don't want to spend money they don't have to or don't want to give their credit card information out. They interpret the ubiquity of foot-fetishes to be proof of an evolutionary desire for fertility (small feet are apparently a sign of high estrogen production), without putting any deeper thought into the cultural forces that drive this particularly common kink. They conclude that the number of searches for transsexuals or overweight or older women are signs that the more men are attracted to such women than most people realize, which probably has some truth to it, but their numbers are likely over-inflated due to the fact that there's no need to search specifically for skinny blonde women with big breasts, for example, because those are gonna pop up in any generic porn search. If it's mainstream, people won't search for it with specific tags because they don't have to. It's only the things that are less common that you have to dig for.

There are lots of kinks out there, and the internet facilitates a lot of sexual exploration that people might otherwise keep to themselves. I have no doubt that a well-conducted analysis of internet search data could reveal a lot about human sexuality. But Ogas and Gaddam did not conduct that study. They took a bunch of raw data and used it to justify their own beliefs about human sexuality (women are submissive, men like boobs, sexual attraction is all about fertility). And now they're profiting off of it and tricking news organizations and the general public into thinking that their method is scientific. Or trying to anyway - the tags on the books Amazon page include things like "mansplaining, " "bad science," and "PhDs written in crayon." If only supposedly reputable news agencies understood what the majority of Amazon users seem to.

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.




Pajiba After Dark 4/27/11 | Oh, Baby, Rowsdower Saves Us.






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