Sex and Bias

A report by Slate’s Jordan Ellenberg discusses the methodological knicker-twisting that two Heritage Foundation researchers have recently engaged in. A published study by two academic sociologists found that teenagers’ "virginity pledges" had no significant impact on sexual diseases. The researchers at Heritage – a conservative thinktank – then used clearly dubious means to critique the findings.

Of course, this kind of thing isn’t unknown in Australia. I suspect 4/5 of those who describe themselves as immigration researchers would not publish a finding that showed any downsides of immigration. I’d be greatly surprised if the Centre for Independent Studies ever did research that concluded that inequality causes any problems for society. ACIRRT is unlikely to publish a study showing that raising the minimum wage costs jobs. And the Australia Institute will probably never put out a finding showing that economic growth is good.

This is less of a problem for organisations whose "research" mostly consists of pulling together literature reviews, but it does become serious when organisations claim to have gone to the data and produced new findings.

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7 Responses to Sex and Bias

  1. Mike says:

    You have to love the Americans here is an extract from The Boston Phoenix in January 2001 it reflects its thoughts on Virginity Pledges:

    “In 1998, a survey of freshmen and sophomores at Southern colleges showed that, according to the New York Times, “a quarter considered anal intercourse as abstinence and more than a third surveyed did not consider oral sex to be sex.” The figure rose when no one involved had an orgasm. Numbers were similar for masturbation with another person. If you think this is surprising, hold on to your hat: a 1999 survey disclosed that nearly a third of health educators believe that oral sex constitutes abstinence. It seems Bill Clinton wasn’t so far off the mark after all.

    The tragedy here is manifestly self-evident: you can still contract sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes, through unprotected oral sex. Likewise, unprotected anal sex is highly conducive to HIV transmission. But there’s also a delicious irony: by insisting on abstinence, the “just say no” culture of Christian conservatism is producing a generation of youth who’ve embraced sexual acts that not only are traditionally considered “deviant” — but are illegal in 18 states. ”

    The whole article is here :


  2. Andrew Norton says:

    Surely there is an important difference between cooking the books (presuming Heritage has done this, I am not competent to comment on the stats) and having an agenda? At least CIS and the Australia Institute don’t publish research in the fields you mention because everyone else does – their role is to provide sceptical voices on the conventional wisdom. In my experience, significant errors from either organisation are pretty rare, even if people radically disagree over how to interpret data and what data is emphasised. Factual error rates within academia are higher, because invididual academics are under much less internal and external scrutiny than think-tank employees.

  3. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Speaking of strange methods, I received an email from a former country-man now at Emory in the US. He was commenting on a new study that shows HIV to have a higher prevalence than previous thought. I’m attaching the main comment.
    ” This study makes me so MAD! How on earth can any competent researcher sample pregnant women —- who, BY DEFINITION, are having unprotected sex — and then extrapolate the incidence rate of HIV in that sample to the entire South African population. Duh!!!!!”

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    Andrew, I guess it’s about asking questions you don’t know the answers to. I’m happy for thinktanks to pick particular issues, but when I’m paying half their budget (I assume donations to thinktanks are tax-deductible these days), I want to know that they’re driven by their data, not their priors. You make a fair point on academia, though, and I wasn’t meaning to exempt my profession from this critique.

    Sinc, duh is putting it kindly.

  5. Andrew Norton says:

    “but when I’m paying half their budget (I assume donations to thinktanks are tax-deductible these days)”

    Ah, but this is because of your social democrat’s assumption that all the money in Australia is the the government’s, and they generously allow us to keep a certain percentage of what we earn.

    But more seriously, the think-tanks are excellent value for the very small sums they cost government through deductions. For a few hundred thousand dollars a years they get far greater contributions to public debate than provided by universities that are given millions for ‘research’. And the worst of the think-tank work is a lot better than the worst of academic work, as regularly highlighted on my blog (and that is just the small number of fields where I am competent to say something), suggesting better quality control and accountability.

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    Andrew, you can be very cruel sometimes 😉

    Still, I guess I should be glad I’m not Marion Maddox.

  7. Andrew Norton says:

    We should all be glad that we are not Marion Maddox, and even gladder that we are not one of her students.

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