Presidential Column

Everything to Do With Science

My fellow coffee drinkers at Tully ‘s, the morning establishment that I frequent, can attest to the profound irritation I felt upon hearing the news that the American Medical Association dismissed the longtime editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The editor had just published a study on the attitudes of U.S. college students towards sex. In this survey of 599 students, 60 percent said that oral sex did not constitute “having sex.” It was probably natural for people to associate this finding with the controversy surrounding President Clinton, although the authors of the study, both PhDs with a connection to APS, made only minimal reference to that controversy. They wrote, “Recent public discourse regarding whether oral-genital contact constitutes having ‘had sex’ highlights the importance of explicit criteria in contrast with implicit assumptions in this area.”

The editor of JAMA was fired for “inappropriately and inexcusably interjecting JAMA into the middle of a debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine.” That was the line that sent me through the roof almost causing me to spill my coffee. This study — its methods and findings — has everything to do with science. Our science. Psychological science. We are, of course, interested in topics like beliefs and attitudes, and have developed excellent ways of measuring these things. Through competent survey methodology, we have learned a great deal about what people think about many topics, sexual matters being one of them.

Would the executive who fired the JAMA editor also say that the survey research on attitudes towards drugs, conducted by psychologists from the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research, and funded by NIDA, had “nothing to do with science?” What would he think about the publication of a widely cited paper called “Problems in the Use of Survey Questions to measure public opinion?” in Science. That the standards of Science were slipping?

On matters of sex, scientists in our field have spent countless hours trying to figure out how to get accurate information from people about their past sexual partners. This kind of information is important not only for psychological scientists who are interested in knowing more about sexual practices, but also for epidemiologists and public health officials who are concerned with tracking the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. There are many reasons why people give distorted information about their sexual past, even when they are trying to answer in good faith. One intriguing new bit of research shows that men and women give distorted information because they use different strategies for answering questions about past sexual partners.

According to University of Alberta psychologists Norman Brown and Robert Sinclair, both APS Members, men often give rough estimates and women count. It’s the woman who is likely to report that she’s had six partners, and knows this because she counted all the names she remembered, or 27 sexual partners because she knows that her current boyfriend is number 27. Meanwhile, males are more likely than females to provide estimates that are expressed with some uncertainty, as in “Rough guess, give or take one or two partners.”

The JAMA findings provided additional scientific fuel for understanding why information about past sex life might be poorly reported. People vary in terms of what activities count as “having sex.” In the JAMA study, nearly 20 percent said they would not even count penile-anal intercourse as having “had sex.” The implications of these results for sexual history taking and for prevention education couldn’t be more obvious. The relevance for any physician questioning a patient about possible sources of infection couldn’t be more evident. Thus, the JAMA study had everything to do not only with science, but also with medicine.

Whatever the fate of the poor JAMA editor who dared to publish a survey on attitudes regarding sex, the letter he received terminating his employment reveals another weak spot in psychological science literacy. In the pages of the Observer, you’ve heard a lot recently about improving literacy amongst high school students and the general public. But this sorry experience points to the need to also figure out how to enhance the psychological literacy of executives of major professional organizations.

Observer Vol.12, No.3 March, 1999

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