You know, more information tends to come out of studies than the median.

This little item in the New York Times on the discrepancy between men and women’s reporting on of their lifetime number of sex partners has generated a bit of heat in the blogosphere, because there seems to be a bit of confusion about means vs. medians in the article (the reporter cites some figures about medians, and then reports some conversations with mathematicians that are clearly about means). A number of commenters (and more than one blogger) got their panties into a knot about how there could, theoretically, be a distribution of sexual partners where the means match up and the medians do not match. Some commenters went so far as to claim that this obviously explained the entire difference.

None of them seemed to notice that someone has all the data from these studies, and had probably published what the mean as well of the median of these studies, or that they, brave bloggers that they are, could JFGI. In fact, men reporting more sexual encounters with women than women do with men is a well documented phenomenon. Multiple scholarly papers have been written about it (and yes, those papers were talking about means, not medians). So maybe in the future people could do a little Googling before accusing David Gale of not knowing the difference between a mean and a median.

Even worse, people seemed to miss the real travesty of this article, which that in this day and age, the New York Times think’s it’s fine to refer to a study without providing a link, or even enough information to allow an interested reader to figure out what study they’re talking about. Come on, people; I know you’re working on a deadline but if Wikipedia can do citations, so can you. In the days of the internet, just your say-so is really not good enough anymore.

Somewhat less of a travesty is that the New York Times thought that David Gale’s speculations on why men report more sexual partners than women was a good use of their newsprint. I mean, he’s a smart guy (and this isn’t the first time that his work has touched on the course of love), but he can save that for his blog.

(Speaking of saving it for my blog, here’s my (entirely unscientific) 2¢: it’s the double standard plus the fact that people will say ANYTHING on surveys. Surveys whose data are entirely inconsistent with reality are nothing new (for example, see this paper on people’s tendency to lie on surveys about whether they voted). In particular, people tend to tell the interview what they think s/he wants to hear and what they want to believe about themselves, which for men is about their Casanova-like powers over women, and for women is their chaste virtue. I know that my first reaction to the numbers in the NYT article was “Sweet! I’m above average.”)

5 thoughts on “You know, more information tends to come out of studies than the median.

  1. You seem to think that the New York Times is a web site, or maybe even a blog. No, it’s not. It’s a newspaper that just happens to be online. That’s how they see themselves, it seems; they view the print newspaper as their core business, although it wouldn’t surprise me if they have more online readers than print readers.

    Also, I kind of suspect that most of the women I know would be proud of their numbers being above average. But the people I hang around are an absolutely horrible sample in terms of sexual behavior.

  2. Perhaps the male tendency to exaggerate the number of sexual contacts explains why one of my coworkers used to scream “it burns!” when using public urinals. A big strong and very tough welder, he also screamed so loudly at the dentist’s office that people in the waiting room turned pale. I figure that these things were forms of rough humor, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.

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