Pseudo-science makes sloppy journalism
Ross Douthat should be ashamed of himself.
His May 30 editorial titled “The Birds and the Bees (via the Fertility Clinic)” violated the trust readers should be able to have in an Op-Ed writer.
He started OK: reproductive technologies are indeed creating families and new kinds of families. It is also true that there is a
freewheeling fertility marketplace whose impact on American life keeps increasing
Gamete donation (sperm and egg) results in lots of wanted children who otherwise would not have been born. The resulting “marketplace” in donor sperm and donor egg does challenge many basic beliefs about individual freedom, collective responsibility, and the meaning of being human.
And it is especially true, as Douthat also writes, that we need to understand the “inner lives” of children born from using these technologies.
But such understanding can not result from applying the “lessons” of pseudo-science to these complex questions, and that is precisely what Douthat did. One should expect a certain amount of scientific literacy even on an editorial page. Relying on advocacy group pseudo-science is beneath what should be minimally expected from someone in Douthat’s position.
As my colleague and friend Jack Drescher wrote in a letter published in today’s NY Times,
Ross Douthat cites the Institute for American Values’ recently released “study” of children conceived by reproductive technology. But advocacy-group reports like this one are rarely subject to blind peer review, a minimum requirement for scientific objectivity.
Without critical feedback from scientific peers, such reports usually support the pre-existing prejudices and assumptions of the authors or the organization financing the work. These “studies” offer little scientific understanding of the complex issues involved.
New York, May 31, 2010
The writer, a psychiatrist, is a past president of the New York County district branch of the American Psychiatric Association.
I don’t want to get too “wonky” here so bear with me. When you look at the actual methods and the numbers in this so-called “study” they do not license the claims made in the report, claims Douthat treats as settled scientific fact. In fact when you look closely the report he relied on would not get through an introductory methods class let alone actual scientific peer review.
Let’s just look at one data point used to support the first of the 15 “Major Findings” they make in the “Executive Summary” section of their report. They claim they have found that
Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.
If true, that would be important. Such a real finding would influence educational, counseling, and therapeutic interventions. But it is not real, it is conservative advocacy, not research. After they make their pronouncement, the report offers some results from the Internet survey they conducted. This is supposed to provide empirical support. It does not. For example (and this is just one of many data points ill-equipped to support the claims they make), the second sentance in support of this “Major Finding” states,
Forty-five percent agree, “The circumstances of my conception bother me.”
But does this support their conclusion. No. First problem is they don’t report numbers for children born from traditional methods of conception; I’m pretty sure that children conceived while their parents listened to Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell would probably also be significantly bothered.
But it gets worse the deeper you look, and more and more pseudo-. In this survery item people are being asked to choose whether they “Strongly agree,” “Somewhat agree,” “Strongly disagree,” “Somewhat disagree,” or “Don’t know” with the statement “The circumstances of my conception bother me.” When you look at the numbers, guess what; 50% disagree and 30% disagree strongly (the most frequent response). Hardly supporting the supposed finding that “Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.” In fact, the numbers seem to suggest that more kids than not are not bothered by the circumstances of their conception.
And it gets “worser” (and, I guess, I get wonkier). When children born to lesbian mothers are considered the number drops from 45% to 33%. Why is this significant? Well, it suggests in part that at least 12% of those who are bothered by the facts of their conception may simply be expressing empathy for the struggles their parents had to endure to have them. Or that lesbians make better Moms. Or that two Moms are better than one. But no alternate hypotheses are considered anywhere in this report, just a bunch of claims that have no empirical support but can be dressed up to look science-y.
I know science has its problems. Peer review is not perfect, far from it. But scientific procedures make it much harder just to make things up like this report did. The inner lives of children born via reproductive technologies is far too important a topic to leave to the pseudo-science of advocacy groups, and to the journalists like Douthat who should know better than rely on pseudo-knoweldge.
Of course, Douthat gets to have his opinions, in fact his opinions are why he’s writing. But he doesn’t have the right to abuse his platform by presenting agenda-driven advocacy as though it was objective science.
Drescher told me this morning “that this kind of ’study’ is typically intended to confuse a larger public that does not understand the difference between a scientific study and a politically-motivated one.” I agree. Clearing that confusion is a journalist’s responsibility and perpetuating that confusion is the shame I think Douthat should feel with which I started this piece.