How evo psych is laying waste to responsible science journalism
Today at XX Factor, I counter a lot of the reporting on a Johns Hopkins-based study of 6 sub-Saharan African nations and the factors that influence sexual frequency. Researchers found that the more decision-making that a woman did in her household, the less frequently she reported having sexual intercourse. For those of us who spend a lot of time reading about public health research, this study read like many, many others that are like it, which are looking at the intra-personal politics in areas where there's a lot of negative health consequences related to sex (high maternal mortality and HIV transmission are the biggies), with an eye towards developing interventions that will reduce the incidences of these kinds of problems. For instance, what someone might take away from this study is that women who have a lot of power in non-sexual negotiations at home probably has more power when it comes to sexual negotiations, which can in turn make it easier for a woman to prevent HIV transmission and time her pregnancies.
What this wasn't was an evolutionary psychology study, as far as I can tell. But, as I report at XX Factor, that's exactly how it was read by many journalists. Reporter after reporter decided to spin this as if it were researchers suggesting that not only do "bossy" women get laid less, but that the researchers were suggesting that this is due to an evolved, genetic response in men to abhor assertive women. The Huffington Post even went so far as to compare this research to some bullshit nonsense being asserted without evidence by a evo psych devotee at Florida State. (He found evidence that greater gender equality leads to women having more sex in various countries, but he did not actually establish evidence for his convulted theory that this shows women are hurt by feminism because it forces them to put out more—which he asserts, evidence-free, women don't like to do.) There's nothing in the comments from the researchers I've read that suggest that they were saying such a thing, or that they were interested in extrapolating genetic theories from their research at all. The head of the Johns Hopkins study is Michelle Hindin from the department of population and family health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—I'm guessing a public health researcher who has no relationship whatsoever to evolutionary psychology, because she's probably too busy doing real research.
As I note at XX Factor, what this study probably shows even more is that sexual choice-making is highly influenced by culture and circumstance, because these women, living in areas where HIV prevalence is way higher than here and where it's primarily transmitted through straight sex, have a different environment than empowered women in countries where women have lower risks. I suspect strongly this influences their idea of how much and what kind of sex is good for them.
So why was this study touted as some kind of evo psych bullshit "proving" that men lose their hard-ons when women start making decisions, and that this is inborn and not something anyone can change by changing society? Well, I think it's because there's such a constant stream of such bullshit evo psych research being sent to newspapers in chipper press releases that this has become the dominant model of reporting on science looking at sex and gender. Evo psych ideologues don't even need to spell out their claims that most to all sex-and-gender choices are programmed genetically and unchangeable. They've trained (oh irony!) journalists to fill in that assumption themselves. So much so that when a study that has no relationship to evolutionary psychology comes across reporters desks, they apply the "men are like this, women are like that" evo psych model of assuming that misogynist stereotypes are biological facts, and they run with it.
It's really disturbing to see the 21st century version of phrenology get so much play in the mainstream media. But now it's gobbling up real science coverage. That's fucked up.
With all that in mind, I'd like to invite anyone that's going to be in Brooklyn tomorrow night to come to Union Hall for the next installment of the Story Collider series. Story Collider is a story-telling series that focuses on stories about the personal impact that science has had on the lives of the story tellers. I'm honored to say I've been invited to tell a story, and I'm going to write about how being a critic of evolutionary psychology made me more interested, as a writer, in science overall. The headliner is Carl Zimmer, and he'll be joined by Anna North, Mark Katz, Bora Zivkovic, Tricia Rose Burt and myself. Buy your tickets in advance, if you can, because it often sells out.