The media plays a hugely important role in public understanding but as their primary objective is to sell copy, much can be lost between academic paper and headline as press releases and journalists play Chinese whispers with the most marketable aspects of the story.
Take this article for example. One aspect of the findings makes for quite the snappy headline but if we read between the lines, the conclusion is not what it seems. The outline of the study appears to have been an attempt to prove the existence of the female G-spot* by studying twins. The conclusion is that in a study of twins, the G-spot’s existence was not proven via the methods involved.What we do when we conduct research is to isolate what we want to examine from as many contributory factors as possible and then study our phenomenon according to a clear set of criteria. The wonderful thing about twins is that they can provide as close to a control as is possible in the study of people. However, they are far from perfect as a control and as with so many types of experimentation; any results are subject to an extensive list of conditions. As such, research is often about proving what is not, rather than proving that which is. My MA thesis for instance gave a strong case for the psychology of players being a useful consideration in assessing economic development. It did not show that the psychology of players was neither better nor even equal to other factors for assessing economic development, merely that there was a place for it. In short, I showed that previously considered factors were not the only factors.
It can be strongly indicated (‘shows fairly conclusively’ to use Tim Spector’s words) that the existence of a G-spot in adult females in a study of twins is a subjective thing. What that means is that a single specific test failed to find the G-spot by using its outlined criteria. The value of this to the field of research is that some questions about the G-spot have been answered and others raised. For example, if the G-spot exists, is its development triggered by environmental factors? (A question that could explain why there was no correlation in the twin study.) But in no way does it provide a conclusive answer (nor even did it seek one) for the G-spot debate.
The media’s portrayal of such research can be confusing and annoying; leading readers to wonder whether the so-called experts have any idea what they’re talking about. All too often the term ‘researchers’ or, (in higher quality publications) ‘some researchers’ are used in lieu of names and institutions leading the typical reader to (to a degree) reasonably lump them all together when of course the research produced isn’t just from different individuals and institutions but from different fields of research, the public and private sector and to entirely different sets of objectives. One study proving that x number of women have a clearly defined area of nerve endings does not necessarily contradict another study proving that there is no correlation between twins and propensity to report G-spot experience.
None of this is meant to disparage the media. The media is far from some single monstrous body chewing through facts and spitting out ambiguity. What newspapers and other news sources seek to do is tell the latest story. It is only in the later pages of the Sunday papers and on news discussion programs that the latest piece of news can be set in any kind of context. It would make for terribly dull reporting if every story referred endlessly to previous material and for the most part I believe the methods used are the best available.
Responsibility for the confusion lies somewhere between unclear reporting and consumers lacking the ability to contextualise what they read; news articles could be clearer but consumers ought not passively accept whatever they are spoon-fed. I recently had a conversation with someone who believed in a number of conspiracy theories. He argued against my scepticism by citing the example of a television program that had “exposed” the conspiracy before accusing me of burying my head in the sand in the face of facts. I asked what material the individual had sought out that told the other side of the story and was met with silence. I explained that I had, as it happened, heard the story of the program he had seen but that I had also encountered information that suggested that his theory was unfounded. I said that I wasn’t ruling out the possibility of a conspiracy entirely but that I wasn’t convinced. He of course restated his case, which demonstrates the importance of not arguing with conspiracy theorists!
One of the reasons I like forums is that the hard work is done for you. Someone will post a link to a news story with a glib remark and this will, more often than not, be met with a link to a story which appears to contradict it. It is not so important that rarely do people point out that the stories may be quite unrelated aside from a key word (and G-spot is a word that tends to catch ones attention) but that they are engaged and aware of the world of research. And if they feel the need to speak out against public monies being used to fund research because they don’t understand its importance then they create a platform for the academics and that is something we academics really like! Some of us even start websites in an effort to be heard.
* What did you think I was going to link to? I know you know what it is (or at least what it is meant to be)!