I make it a point to keep up with the latest sex and relationships news but, unfortunately, I find that a lot of the media reports on these topics are not very well written and tend to be overly sensationalized. Part of the problem is that many of the people we trust to report on science don’t have a solid understanding of statistics and the scientific method. As a result, I constantly come across articles that are misleading or, in some cases, completely false. What I’d like to do in this article is share some of most sensationalized articles I’ve come across in recent years and explain where the reporting went wrong.
10. Housework Cuts Breast Cancer Risk – Based upon the title, you’d think that the only thing a woman needs to stave off breast cancer is a mop and bucket, right? This is a prime example of how people frequently confuse correlation with causation. Just because two variables are statistically associated does not mean that one is causing the other! It’s possible that the association isn’t meaningful at all or is explained by something else entirely (e.g., perhaps women who do more housework are just generally in better physical shape and that’s what actually accounts for the lower cancer risk).
9. Recession Causes Increase in Teen Dating Violence – Notice how the title says the recession “causes” dating violence. In the study this article was based on, the researchers found that 1 in 3 teens reported abuse or threat of abuse by a relationship partner. They also found that 3 in 4 teens reported that their families experienced economic problems in the last year. Based upon these two completely separate findings, it was concluded that the down economy “caused” the reported violence. This is an astoundingly poor leap in logic, and it doesn't take a degree in statistics to see that.
8. Sexual Lyrics Prompt Teens to Have Sex – More correlation/causation confusion. Although listening to sexually explicit music was statistically associated with having sex at a younger age, it doesn’t necessarily mean that raunchy music was “prompting” sex. There are a ton of other factors that could explain why these variables could be related (e.g., perhaps both are a function of low levels of parental supervision, different personality types, etc.).
7. Facebook Causes 1 in 5 Divorces in the U.S. – More inappropriate use of the word “causes” (are you sensing a theme yet?). While Facebook may be increasingly cited as a factor in divorce cases, is Facebook really the “cause” of so many divorces, or is this just a reflection of the fact that many people cheat and Facebook simply provides a convenient way of doing it?
6. Higher Beer Prices ‘Cut Gonorrhea Rates’ – So if we want to eradicate STDs, all we need to do is raise the price of beer? Sigh. Another overhyped correlation.
5. The Pill Can Lead to a Long Marriage of Bad Sex – The original study found that women on the pill were less sexually satisfied than women who weren’t taking oral contraceptives. However, women on the pill were not truly having “bad sex.” Overall, these women were still mostly satisfied with their sex lives and were just as likely to achieve orgasm, so this headline is just blatantly misleading. For more about the poor reporting of this study, see here.
4. Crying Over Spilled Semen: Why Women Who Don’t Use Condoms Feel Happier – Between these last two headlines, readers may be left with the impression that any form of contraception is a real mood killer! This particular article talks about how women who have unprotected sex are happier because they have become “chemically dependent” on the mood-elevating properties of semen (no joke). But isn’t it possible that women who fail to use condoms (and are thereby exposed to more semen) may be different in some way or have different types of relationships, and perhaps that’s what explains the mood differences?
3. The Baby Girl Diet: Trying to Get Preggo? Want a Girl? Eat This, Not That – Sorry, but this is total B.S. This article hypes a survey in which women were asked what kinds of food they ate around the time of conception. Even if the women remembered and reported their diets accurately, it’s unlikely that their food choices affected the sex of their babies. Sex is determined by the chromosomes carried by the sperm and egg cell that join together. It’s a myth that sexual positions, diets, and planetary rotation patterns affect a child’s sex. Think about it—if it is this easy to pick your baby’s sex, why is sex-selective abortion so common in some parts of the world? Wouldn't it be a whole lot simpler to adjust your sodium intake instead?
2. Breast Implants Lower Cancer Risk But Boost Suicides – Again, correlation is not causation. Perhaps breast implants don’t “boost” suicides—maybe it’s that people who are more inclined to commit suicide in the first place (e.g., people who are depressed) are more likely to get breast implants.
1. Teenage Sex “Leads to Bad Moods” in Later Life – Based on the title, you’d think that researchers followed people over time to determine whether early sex is linked to mood changes, but you’d be wrong. This article does not reveal until the fourth paragraph that the research was based upon hamsters, not humans! That’s right—hamsters. For a more elaborated discussion on the shoddy reporting of this study, see here.
In short, be careful that you do not look only at headlines because they frequently create a very inaccurate view of human sexuality! Read the whole article and, if possible, consult the original source material to evaluate the merits of the work for yourself.
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