Media coverage of sex research is often misleading and sensational. Whether stating that sex aids prostate health when the real benefit comes from an orgasm (which can be had alone or with a partner) or representing one researcher’s interpretation of data as absolute fact, reporters tend to drop the ball and reinforce long-held stereotypes about sexuality.
But then there are times when they just make shit up.*
A commenter recently posted what I consider an excellent example of fake (as in completely
fabricated overstated) sex research news. Let’s use this wonderful hoax as a case study to learn critical thinking about sexuality research.
The news item above reads more like a piece from The Onion than a genuine article. How can I tell it’s a fake? Here’s a handy guide.
- Where did the news item originate? In this case it was News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s media company. Renowned for making shit up. If you search for this text you find it copied and pasted all over the internet including the news outlets reporting on it. (Ansa News contains nearly the same text as on the Fox news report. Red flag.)
- Where are the links? Without a link, you cannot easily verify where this source came from. The beauty of the internet is self publishing. Likewise, the danger of the internet is self-publishing.
- Does it mention an academic journal or university? Any academic research you read about will be published or mentioned in an academic journal or associated with a university at the very least.
- “Experts/Scientists say…” Attaching the term “expert” or “scientist” to a piece of information does not make it legit, but damn if we don’t love fancy titles.
- Check the Sample Size/Methodology. Our case study states the data comes from “[a] survey of 28,000 users.” Problem is, research is incredibly tedious. Not only do you have to find 28,000 participants but you must then code and analyze those 28,000 data points. This takes loads of work and trained data analysts and research assistants who must be paid or given tons of class credit. This means funding. Lots and lots of funding. [Counter example: the NSSHB, conducted by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and funded by Trojan, only had 5,865 participants.]
- Who are the experts in question? Just because Dr. Phil has a doctorate does not mean he is qualified to talk about sex. Now, in our case study, Dr. Carlo Foresta is an actual medical doctor and surgeon. However, he specializes in andrology and endocrinology. His most recent research papers were titled Bone Mass in Subjects with Klinefelter Syndrome: Role of Testosterone Levels and Androgen Receptor Gene CAG Polymorphism and Bone Mineral Density and Testicular Failure: Evidence for a Role of Vitamin D 25-Hydroxylase in Human Testis. His area of expertise has nothing to do with media effects on sexuality.
And how do I really know this is 100%
fabricated bullshit? There is no mention of “pronografia” in the SIAMS conference program, the Italian urology and sexual medicine society that held the conference where the alleged research was presented.
If there is anything we should be teaching younger generations it is media literacy. The internet seems to be where discussion often goes to die while zealotry and personal viewpoint reinforcement runs rampant. Look hard enough and you can find any article that agrees with your viewpoint. But what is the worth of that article? Where did it come from, who wrote it and is the viewpoint valid?
I worry about the older generation. Some researchers and academics seem hell-bent on proving their ideology with whatever crap sources they can dredge from the interweb’s depths. And then they go posting the sources as fact or citing them in their books only to look like complete fools.
So, please, try to be exceptionally critical of any information you receive firsthand. Or at least learn proper investigative and research techniques.
*I originally came to the conclusion that the piece was fabricated but it later came to light that this was reported in Italian language news outlets as well. I’m really thankful that was pointed out and I found a major blindspot in how I search for foreign language news items. For further commentary and insight about this, check out Thomas Roach’s excellent guest contributor piece at Tiny Nibbles [NSFW].