One paper reports, “People who watch porn more than once a week tend to become more religious, a researcher claims, while those who watch racy videos occasionally tend to drift away from religion.”
Seems if we want godlier people, we should serve up more hardcore, right? Well, it’s science, and science specializes in discovering anti-intuitive things. It’s dangerous to question science.
The research referred to is “Does Viewing Pornography Diminish Religiosity Over Time? Evidence From Two-Wave Panel Data” by Samuel Perry, published in The Journal of Sex Research.
Now this work has its own difficulties, which I’ll outline. But it is also a prime example of what has gone wrong in much research. For instance, Perry begins his work with this comment: “persons who score higher in religiosity tend to report viewing pornography less frequently”.
Maybe you didn’t notice the fundamental error, accustomed as we are to numbers. Numbers, numbers, everywhere numbers. We are under sway to the same idea that gripped Lord Kelvin, who said, “I often say that when you can measure you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.” So used to numbers are we that we rarely stop to ask: can we really quantify a man’s religiosity, or any emotion or belief?
If you think we can, ask yourself how happy you are right now. On a scale from -17.2 to π2. We need this numerical scale; it after all is the numbers which turn your happiness into science. What value do you give? Well, are you at ease? Or feeling benign? Or ecstatic, pleased, of good cheer, crapulent, irrepressible, smirking, sanguine, ebullient, exultant, tickled pink, winsome, content? Or maybe you aren’t so happy and are on the sad side of things. Maybe you’re merely melancholic. Or sadhearted. Or forlorn, horrible, or aggrieved or grieved, or woebegone, edgy, shattered, black, downbeat, grim, joyless, distressed, iridescent, glum, or just plain awful.
We have so many words for states or absences of happiness, or for any other emotion, because moods are infinitely shaded and impossible to capture perfectly. Literature is a better guide to human nature than slide rules.
Anyway, suppose your neighbor scores himself a 2.017 on our happiness scale, and you say 2.016. Is your neighbor happier than you? Always? In every aspect?
So how religious are you? Just what does being religious mean? Exactly, now. Are you always as religious as you are now? Or do you vary? How do you capture this variability? And how much porn do you watch? Are you into gay sex? You can tell me. It’ll be our secret: I won’t tell your wife. Are people who are more religious likely to rate material as pornographic as non-religious?
The conceit of science is that emotions or states of belief can be captured and graded numerically. Though no scientist claims numbers assess emotions perfectly, scientists do act as if the unmeasurable aspects of emotions and beliefs can be safely ignored. This always leads to the Deadly Sin of Reification, where the measurement becomes the thing; the numbers become all that is seen. Yet the reality must surely be that that which can’t be quantified is essential.
All this introduction is necessary to understand the central criticism of Perry’s work (and other works like his). He says:
While the general assumption is that religiosity leads to lower levels of porn use, recent research suggests that more frequent porn consumption, especially for religious persons, is associated with guilt and embarrassment, potentially diminishing interest in religious or spiritual activities while also potentially creating feelings of scrupulosity that may draw individuals away from religious community.
Academics specialize in making the simple sound important with highfalutin language. They also create for themselves claims of discovering things already known well by common people. But skip that.
Perry’s idea was to look at surveys of some folks over a six-year period asking them of and then quantifying their “religiosity” and porn habits. Perry admits “social desirability could discourage honest answers, given that porn consumption in larger amounts is still viewed as morally objectionable.” Still.
His numbers were input into a statistical model the limitations of which Perry is apparently unfamiliar. (Regression with quadratic effects on porn viewing.) There isn’t space here to criticize his technique (I have done so here and here), but suffice to say his technique cannot prove cause, and that it’s far, far too easy for the method he used to declare “significance.” Worse, Perry does not show the numbers from the survey; instead, he gives only the output of his statistical model.
Now Perry admits his model agrees that, as all non-scientists already knew, “viewing pornography can reduce religiosity over time” and that porn is “secularizing agent, helping to weaken religious vitality among those who consistently view it.”
But then Perry’s model says porn viewing “at more extreme levels may actually stimulate, or at least be conducive to, greater religiosity”. Which sounds absurd—but only to those who have, say, a Christian notion of “religiosity”. Echoing this, Perry says “greater levels of religious practice do not necessarily amount to traditionalist sexual views” and that some porn viewers “see no severe moral conflict between viewing sexually explicit materials and their religious beliefs”. If this is true, it also means his quantification of “religiosity” has no comparative meaning, but so hungry for numbers is he that he didn’t notice this.
That his “finding” is likely a statistical artifact did not occur to Perry. And he, like nearly all researchers, shows no comprehension of the severe limitations of quantifying human behavior.