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.
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.