"Atheist have better sex" study: I was wrong

Sometimes, you just gotta 'fess up when you were off the mark.

Recently, I re-posted a story that was going around in the news (and various atheist blogs) about a study which purportedly found that atheists had better sex than believers. Now, the protests of some (you know who you are) struck me as predictably reactionary. But the reality is that a lot has come to light about this test that more or less discredits it, the first of which is the author, Darrel Ray. I don't really care that he's the author of The God Virus. An atheist doing research on atheism (or anything else) is fine, as long as the methodology is sound. I was under the impression that he was psychologist at KU, and he was simply working with one of his undergraduates on the study, which would not be particularly unusual. However, while some news articles described this as a "KU Study", he's just an "independent researcher", not part of any university faculty, which means it's a lot easier to get away with sloppy methodology. He simply worked with a young woman who's an undergraduate at KU – hardly a university study. 

Our favorite Christian commenter protested that the survey was done via the internet, likening it to one of the many surveys that PZ Myers sabotages for kicks. PZ can do that because they're not scientific surveys whose results can be extrapolated to the general population. They are "unrestricted samples" where anyone can just jump in and fill them. However, just because a researcher uses the internet doesn't mean that this is an issue. Researchers can use email solicitations (which were used in the study) and what are called "screened sample questionnaires" in which a respondent is asked a series of questions before being directed to the survey itself. But in both cases, the respondent must be qualified before filling out the survey itself. I had been under the impression that a screened sample questionnaire was used to pre-qualify the desired respondents for the study, but this is not the case – both the email and the website, it turns out, took respondents directly to the survey, not to a screening questionnaire. I even found some comments by nonbelievers who'd taken the survey complaining that the questions explicitly assumed that they were apostates, when of course many atheists are lifelong nonbelievers.

In the comment section of my original post, I conceded that the headline, which I'd hastily copied and pasted, didn't accurately reflect the claims of the study – which is simply that apostates report better sex after leaving religion, as measured by less guilt associated with sexual activity. But that's just the problem: the only thing that can be discerned from the study is that some apostates (the ones who decided to fill out the survey) report less guilt associated with their sex lives. Because it was self-selected, it can't even be extrapolated to the general population of actual apostates. There are a myriad of factors that go into a happy sex life and while it's great not to feel guilty about the sex you're having, two minute missionary in the dark is still not that exiting, with or without the guilt.

So, yeah. This "study" is a turd that does a disservice to both believers and nonbelievers, and I apologize to my readers for giving it undue press.

Speaking of dumb studies.... there's another one floating around saying that the boring kind of Protestants have larger brains than Catholics, "born-again" Christians or non-believers. The media is butchering it because the study only measured atrophy in the left and right hippocampus, not total brain size. The study was done on elderly people who had already been selected for a study on depression, and the results are completely correlative, not causal. So, what can actually be concluded from the study? Absolutely nothing.

I think the moral of this circus is to never trust the media to report science. Remember the whole media hoopla about some scientist who claimed to have found fossilized microbes on a meteorite? Haven't heard much about that one, have you? That's because it was totally discredited well after the media charade had died down. When it comes to science news, I'll stick with reputable places like Scientific American and ScienceNOW.

p.s. Jerry Coyne has an in-depth write up on the recent study about acceptance of evolution. [link]


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