Certain Oral Activities Linked To Intercourse Onset, New Research Suggests

I am thinking of changing the name of this blog to “New Research Suggests”, for these three words begin most press releases announcing dubious “scientific” results. Whoever first thought of this phrase knew what he was doing. It is at once suggestive, vaguely exciting, but non-committal, having a built-in escape clause. It is the advertising equivalent of “New and Improved”: it never fails to work its magic.

First, a naughtiness alert: today’s titillating topic touches tender territory. There is no way to discuss our subject without resorting to certain rough language. Ready?

“Having Oral Sex Increases Likelihood of Intercourse Among Teens, Study Finds” is the headline at Science Daily, a site whose existence depends upon reprinting press releases provided by universities. Universities, I say; entities who think it wise to employ staff to tout the triumphs of their tenured. The University of California, San Francisco, provided this press release.

It describes the work—to stretch a word—of Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, professor of pediatrics at UCSF, and Anna Song, also PhD, but residing at UC Merced. According to Song, “Our study demonstrates that through its relationship with intercourse, oral sex contributes to the total risk associated with sexual activity among teens, including sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.” Risk?

To be clear:

Among teens who reported becoming sexually active during the three-year study, most said they had intercourse for the first time after or within the same six-month period of initiating oral sex. According to Halpern-Felsher, this indicates oral sex is influencing the onset of riskier sexual behavior, underscoring the need to encourage open, honest discussion about sexual activity…

Teens who had engaged in oral sex by the end of ninth grade were at the highest risk of having sexual intercourse during high school. They had a 25 percent chance of having intercourse by the end of ninth grade and a 50 percent chance by the end of 11th grade, with most engaging in both oral sex and intercourse during the same six-month period.

In comparison, adolescents who delayed oral sex until the end of 11th grade had only a 16 percent chance of having intercourse by the end of that school year. The researchers explain that, based on these findings, the first two years of high school appear to be a particularly vulnerable period.

Vulnerable?

There are two kinds of bad science: the flagrantly and curiously wrong, and the ridiculously obvious. The study which intimated that common colds leads to obesity is of the first type. The effort of Halpern-Felsher-Song is, of course, of the second. There is no common cause for why wrong studies are published, mankind being infinitely deceivable. But there is only one reason that the banal finds its way into print: the relentless urge to publish.

It really is publish or perish in academics. Paper count and the hard stuff brought in via grant overhead (to support the administration at the level to which they have become accustomed) are the only things that matter: both need to be high and constant to ensure progress and promotion. Academics at all times are either working on a paper or a grant.

There are three tell-tales of obvious bad science. The first sign is deliberate high-falutinization of words. For example, the goal “To see if kids having oral sex also have the real thing” becomes “To (1) identify the temporal order between oral and vaginal sex onset; (2) test whether oral sex or vaginal sex is a risk or protective factor for the other; and (3) determine whether the relationship between oral and vaginal sex varies across time.” No one would fund a grant to investigate the first; while the later sounds like science.

The second sign is numerical over-precision: “adolescents who delayed [oral sex] until the end of 11th grade had a 16% chance of initiating vaginal sex by the end of 11th grade.”

Lastly, of course, is the of-courseness of it all. There isn’t anybody who would not have guessed that kids who have oral sex would also seek out greater pleasure. “Aha!,” you might say, “Sure, it all seems obvious, but we would not have known it scientifically! Plus, what if we guessed wrong?”

Such has been the triumph of statistics that people actually believe this, or something like it, devoutly. A truth isn’t true unless it is peer-reviewed, spoken in a journal, and accompanied by a p-value. This is good for my business, but bad for truth.

26 Comments

  1. No, no, no.

    Condoms cause sex. Haven’t you read the research? Condoms are found to be present in 90% of instances of sexual intercourse. They are clearly a contributing factor.

  2. Oral Sex is the Gateway drug to Intercourse. You get a little taste (pun intended), and before you know it, your on the skin boat to tuna town.

  3. I’m pretty sure this was already scientifically “proven” when we began calling oral and vaginal, “third base” and “homerun” respectively. It’s even got numbers in the names!

  4. Publish or perish — since that’s an ugly reality there are certain predictable (not that predictability really matters) perverse incentives & dynamics that result. An obvious being a sort of “if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” arrangement by researchers & reviewers.

    Given that those are usually university faculty their behavior is essentially the same as students conspiring to cheat on exams and to agree that nobody skews the grading curve to far on the tests in “hard” subjects or from “hard” instructors.

    Curiously,* James Randi’s upcoming book has a related observation (see the whole excerpt provided at the JREF site at: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1110-science-magic-and-arthur-c-clarke.html

    There, Randi notes the following with regard to his observation that [and I’m grossly paraphrasing here] scientists generally tend to be objective & try to be honest…and thus are much more readily duped by the unscrupulous:

    “My admittedly brief experiences with Soviet scientists – in situ – showed me that they appeared to operate on rank and position; a scientist of a higher rank was always right, regardless of the weakness of his/her case. Now, this is certainly not unheard of in other societies: In France, I found abject and immediate surrender to academic authority, and it happens right here in the USA, too – more frequently than we can afford. I’d very much like to take a team of a few carefully-chosen persons to various countries and give seminars in double-blind experimental design, a provision that is often impatiently bypassed. I believe that a good approach to instruction in this facet could use traditional conjuring techniques to demonstrate firmly that no matter how well educated, or how basically intelligent, trained, or observant a scientist may be, s/he may also be a poor judge of a methodology employed in deception.”

    NOTE: in Russia “higher rank” of the scientist led to the conclusion of the higher ranking scientist; in France it is “immediate surrender to academic authority.”

    AND IN THE USA (and elsewhere) with regard to AGW [in particular] it is deference to “Peer Review” and those that claim the title of “climate scientist” (a specialty for which there is, as of yet, no formal academic educational criteria) — which, semantics aside, is the exact same problem Randi observed.

    * “Curiously” because Randi’s associates overwhelmingly resort to with respect to AGW the very same tactics he is, in his upcoming book, railing against as quoted above. Such has the state of “skeptical inquiry” from that bunch evolved.

  5. Are you suggesting with this article, mr Briggs, that there is no fundamental difference between knowledge and scientifical knowledge?

    Wow, isn’t that curious?

  6. Luis,

    I not only suggest it, I affirm it: there is no difference between scientific knowledge and knowledge. Knowledge is knowledge. “Science” is only useful as a card catalog to where the knowledge is stored.

  7. * “Curiously” because Randi’s associates overwhelmingly resort to with respect to AGW the very same tactics he is, in his upcoming book, railing against as quoted above. Such has the state of “skeptical inquiry” from that bunch evolved.

    This has also baffled me but only to some extent. I subscribe to Bad Astronomy feed, and it’s amazing the number of posts where he praises the nature of skepticism, be a skeptic, always a skeptic, this is how to be a skeptic, and so on. Usually, the people who praise such kinds of attitudes so much is not because they understand it and breathe it, it’s exactly the other way around, it’s because they do not understand it, they do not breathe it, are baffled and impressed by its mysterious ways and have to work a lot to emulate such behavior.

    In AGW case, it just falls apart, of course, because the important thing about AGW is not the science (it is settled, don’t you know?) but the politics. And these “skeptic” folks are usually from the left, progressive and supportive of AGW politics.

  8. I not only suggest it, I affirm it: there is no difference between scientific knowledge and knowledge. Knowledge is knowledge. “Science” is only useful as a card catalog to where the knowledge is stored.

    Well then, I don’t know what the fuss was all about the other day. Perhaps you change your philosophies with your matinal mood?

  9. A Bing search on “experts say” returns 144,000,000 (or so) links. “New research suggests” only 31,800,000.

    New research suggests that these are mildly interesting numbers, some experts say.

    New research suggests Neanderthals weren’t stupid
    New research suggests fat mass helps build bone mass in girls
    New Research Suggests BPA Linked to Weak Semen
    experts say children suffer due to lack of unstructured fun
    Drug Experts Say Alcohol Worse Than Crack or Heroin (sounds familiar)
    Experts Say CAFE Still Kills Despite Congressional Support
    Leave Boys (Warts and All) Unvaccinated, Experts Say
    EXPERTS SAY: Mel Gibson’s Threatening Rants To Ex-Lover Oksana Could Land Him 8+ Years In Jail

  10. The words Science and Scientific have long been used as a seal of authenticity of whatever you want to propose. Holy water. A liturgical oil to anoint one’s views. I remember that character in a Scott Fitzerald novel, who was pushing some race related sociological ideas. When he met with skepticism, he answered: “It’s scientific stuff. It’s all been proven”. A couple of decades before, phrenology was cutting edge science, like climatology is today.

    It’s no coincidence that social scientists have insisted in having the word “Scientist” attatched to their profession, whereas for example chemists usually don’t demand to be called “chemical scientists.”

    You could assume (my assumption is shamelessly non-scientific) that the softer sciences suffer from some kind of phallic-envy towards mathematical physics, or math itself, so they try to imitate it as best they can. The softer they are, the bigger the envy. In the 1970s, a form of literary criticism called “structuralism” resulted in thousands of essays being cluttered with all sorts of formulas and graphs charting (with the help of a homemade analytic geometry) the interaction of ideas, traits of characters and whatnot. Jacques Lacan, one of the most gifted and succesful charlatans in history, could write mathematical psychoanalitic formulas using the number i, no less, and could explain them with sentences like:

    “Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of “jouissance”, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the [square root of minus one], of the signification produced above, of the “jouissance” that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).”

  11. Well, in light of what you are saying or suggesting here, I just don’t understand the exchange the other day, when I spoke about scientific knowledge, you advised me to read more carefully some philosophy, here:

    http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=3097

    Knowledge is knowledge, and I am happy to agree with you on that. Obvious things are obvious.

  12. Lacan is funny, when he is. But then we have Slavoj Zizek, who is hilarious. Highly recommended. Order some marijuana while listening or reading him.

  13. Science knowledge, just as nescience is ignorance; so “scientific knowledge” is a redundancy. My back also goes up a little when I read “scientific evidence.” Scientific, schmientific – evidence is evidence. However, I do concede that the “scientific method” is the best & most reliable method we have for acquiring knowledge, and should be as widely applied as possible.

    I gave up on Skeptical Inquirer & CSICOP several years ago. They preen and strut and lecture us on the “burden of skepticism” – and demonstrate their skeptical rigor by debunking ghost stories & UFO sightings. Really demanding work, that. But they cow-tow to AGW authority with a servility that would make an 17th century French courtier blush, and worry about the “irrationality” of people who stubbornly refuse to accept the settled science. One issue of SI actually had a full-page spread – picture of the then-president of the AGU, with accompanying op-ed piece.

    A complete overhaul of the research funding process is way overdue, but let’s face it – it ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. And I would argue that the publish-or-perish culture in academe is just one manifestation of a much larger phenomenon: As society grows more mechanised and wealthy, a smaller & smaller percentage of the population is required to provide primary & secondary needs – food, water, shelter, and clothing; transportation, energy, IT, etc. The growing majority of the population will be employed in non-essential industries, which will grow ever more silly and useless. Compounding this will be excess wealth & leisure time, which will lead to, among other things, the further prolifieration of NGOs. NGOs are a perfect employment fit for the incompetent “knowledge class,” (Briggs once referred to some of them as “nervous busy-bodies”)which will also continue to grow on the excess wealth produced by the competent classes . The Knowedge Class’s preoccupation with intellectual & moral superiority, reinforced by chronic pessimism, and its strong desire to mold human culture to its vision will be one of the major challenges of the next century.

  14. First sentence shld have read “Science is knowledge . . . ” w/ emphasis on is (guess html codes don’t work here).

  15. Was it ever determined whether or not the common colds study controlled for age? IIRC, several responders cited studies showing that particular virus did induce weight gain clinically in rodents, right?

  16. RE: Luis comment/observation re skeptics being to dogmatic (not skeptical) re AGW (post at 10:55 am):

    Consider Mencken’s observations about skeptics:

    AT the following link: http://www.mencken.org/text/txt001/elliott.leo.1998.mencken-01.htm

    Use the following as a “Find” search term (without the quote marks):

    “This has been the main effect of skepticism in the world”

    And start reading.

    Here’s the first paragraph:

    “This has been the main effect of skepticism in the world, working over long ages: that it has become gauche and embarassing to admit certain indubitable facts. Their unpopularity is due not to their destruction or abandonment but simply to the forensic talent of the skeptics, a bombastic and tyrannical sect of men, with a great deal of cruelty concealed in their so-called love of truth. It is not altruism that moves them to their assaults upon what other men hold to be precious; it is something no more than a yearning to make those other men leap.”

    Curious that Luis references the Bad Astronomy site to illustrate his observation. The author of that site, Phil Plait, recently made a speech he called, “Don’t Be a Dick” in which he solicits his fellow “skeptics” to be less confrontational. Relative to Mencken’s observations (some 80 years ago!) Phil seems to be confirming that Mencken is still correct.

  17. “…the of-courseness of it all…”

    An important new paper from the AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF WINE ECONOMISTS

    Includes a a nice Chi-Squared test and some lovely P-values!

    http://wine-economics.org/workingpapers/AAWE_WP36.pdf

    “Can People Distinguish Pâté from Dog Food?

    John Bohannon1, Robin Goldstein2 and Alexis Herschkowitsch34

    Abstract
    Considering the similarity of its ingredients, canned dog food could be a suitable and inexpensive substitute for pâté or processed blended meat products such as Spam or liverwurst. However, the social stigma associated with the human consumption of pet food makes an unbiased comparison challenging. To prevent bias, Newman’s Own dog food was prepared with a food processor to have the texture and appearance of a liver mousse. In a double-blind test, subjects were presented with five unlabeled blended meat products, one of which was the prepared dog food. After ranking the samples on the basis of taste, subjects were challenged to identify which of the five was dog food. Although 72% of subjects ranked the dog food as the worst of the five samples in terms of taste (Newell and MacFarlane multiple comparison, P<0.05), subjects were not better than random at correctly identifying the dog food."

  18. A superb recent statistic – was it the Guardian or NYT that published it? – ranked this last decade as the hottest on record.

    The same article contained the info that records covered the period from 1980 onwards. That would make the last decade the third coldest on record. Or the last three decades would simultaneously be the coldest or hottest thirty-year period on record.

    But I suppose if you’re a regular Guardian or NYT reader…

  19. I always thought Intercourse was a town in Pennsylvania, until I discovered Science Daily. That said, my experiences before I visited there in 1968 would seem to contradict the research.

  20. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, and Anna Song, also PhD…

    It’s from an old, unused Monty Python script; The Ministry of Silly Names.

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