The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

When social scientists go bad

November 14, 2005

A lot of people think that “crazy postmodernists” are the biggest threat to the integrity of social science. Certainly, in my field, it isn’t hard to find disciplinary statements that exclude “postmodernism” from the acceptable range of opinion about how to conduct social-scientific inquiry. I disagree. The real threat, in my view, is the practice of incredibly bad social science.

(Warning: the link and the rest of this post contain referencess to sexual activity)

Michael Scherer of

With those words, Brownback kicked off a 90-minute discussion of hardcore sex scenes, self-gratification and its negative impacts. “This is not just a simple, benign form of expression, but rather a potentially addictive substance,” explained one of the subcommittee’s panelists, Jill Manning, a sociologist from Brigham Young University. “People watch a movie, read a book, listen to music, but they masturbate to pornography. In that difference, you have a different stimulation to the brain.”

She went on to explain that the experience of masturbation activates about 14 neurotransmitters and hormones, causing a quick chain reaction of brain activity. “There have been some experts who have even argued that, in and of itself, overrides informed consent when encountering this material,” she said, apparently suggesting that an adult’s own sexual self-stimulation can lead to a loss of judgment.

I would imagine that it does.

Pornography, she continued, had been shown to increase the risk of divorce, decrease marital intimacy and cause misunderstandings about the prevalence of less common sex practices like group sex, bestiality and sadomasochistic activity. Men are not the only victims. Women, she said, make up about 30 percent of the audience for online pornography.

First of all, assuming her data is correct, I think Professor Manning might want to review the difference between correlation and causation, particularly in light of the risk of spurious correlations.

Second, judging from the speeches of some of our elected officials – *cough* Rick Santorum *cough* – I don’t think that pornography is a particular unique or significant cause of “misunderstandings” about the relative prevalence of “less common sex practices.” Indeed, as Scherer himself implies, rampant congressional hearings on sexual practices might be a significant source of misinformation.

Hat tip: Arthur Silber.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.