Cui Bono

Human behavior unpacked

Preconceptions May Color Conclusions about Sex Addiction

Believers' and skeptics' views are both influenced by non-empirical factors.

According to the textbook model of the scientific method, scientists are supposed to act like detectives, gathering facts and following clues wherever that trail might lead in order to get to the bottom of what is actually happening. Scientists, like detectives, create theories to account for known facts, but they are supposed to discard or at least revise theories that are contradicted by newly gathered facts. In my previous post, "Are Research Psychologists More Like Detectives or Lawyers?" I suggest that this model of scientific behavior is empirically false. In reality, a scientist is more likely to (1) develop an emotional commitment to a theoretical idea, (2) search for data and devise arguments that support the idea, and then (3) do whatever is necessary to persuade others in the field to accept the idea.

I did not come up with this alternative model of scientific practice myself. My model grew out of my understanding of the practice of science as described by N. R. Hanson, Thomas Kuhn, and Walter B. Weimer, who emphasized that there are no theory-neutral data, that pre-existing theories in the mind literally shape our perceptions of data.

My longstanding interest in the psychology of research practice was rekindled recently when an acquaintance pointed me to a research study dealing with apparently a very hot issue that is not at all within my area of expertise: whether there is such a thing as sexual addiction. Since I know only a little about addiction, I didn't (and still don't) have a strong opinion about whether sexual addiction is a real phenomenon. In fact, it seems to me that the argument is largely semantic—it depends on how one defines addiction. The authors of the study to which I was referred claimed to have found evidence that called into question whether sexual addiction actually exists. My acquaintance, who does believe in the reality of sexual addiction, asked me to read a draft of a critical response to the research study.

Editor
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So, I did what I have done so many times as a reviewer of, and consulting editor for, manuscripts submitted for publication: I carefully read the research study in question, considered my acquaintance's critical review, and came to a conclusion on what the study did or did not demonstrate. My conclusion was that preconceptions about the reality of sexual addiction colored both the interpretation of data in the published research study and the criticisms of my acquaintance. It seemed to me that the researchers of the published study found some interesting results, but drew inferences about the nonexistence of sexual addiction that went beyond what the results actually suggested. My acquaintance's draft critique, it seemed to me, contained some valid criticisms of the study, but also contained some unwarranted criticisms. In the tradition of N. R. Hanson and Thomas Kuhn, it seemed to me that what I had here was a case study in how different preconceived theoretical perspectives led to opposite perceptions of what the data in this study indicated.

When I first conceived this blog post and began to compose it about a month ago, my original intention was to describe in exquisite detail the specific ways in which I saw the proponents of opposite sides of the debate exaggerating or overextending their arguments beyond the actual data in the study. I subsequently changed my mind when I observed a firestorm of emotionally-charged rhetoric erupting among the debate participants. Not arguments about what the data logically implied, but ad hominem threats, including threats of legal action. I saw a PT blog post disappear, apparently because one of the parties demanded that it be taken down. I even received a couple of angry emails myself because one of the parties had heard that I had raised questions about the proper interpretation of the research in question in a scientific forum.

Running away from danger

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So, I have decided to quietly tip-toe out of the room. I have also decided to go ahead and post here what I had already composed a month ago, simply to present an example of my empirical claim that science is not a purely objective enterprise, and that actual scientists can become very personally and emotionally involved in their work. The controversy in question is also an excellent example of a common trend among U.S. researchers to overestimate soft-science results. If you want to look at the debate yourself, I invite you to head over to Porn Study Critiques, a new website that critically reviews research in this area. Just remember to wear your asbestos suit if you decide to get involved in these debates.

John A. Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University.

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