Bad Science, Reported Badly, and Then Corrected Thanks to Your Intrepid Blogger!

I read a lot. One of my favorite online magazines is Slate.com. It is a wide-ranging online mag that covers politics, news, the arts, business, and science. I was reading the other night and noticed an article by the writer Will Saletan that was looking at some scientific research on “Gaydar”. Gaydar is the supposed ability to discern whether a person is homosexual simply by looking at them.

In the original article, Saletan quoted research by Nicholas Rule, Nalini Ambady, Reginald Adams Jr., and Neil Macrae at Tufts University. The researchers took personal ad photos from gay and straight men, and then had college students look at them to rate whether they were straight or gay. For some reason the researchers chose to use correlation coefficients or R scores to report their data. The highest R scores were 0.31, which in the original version of the article Saletan incorrectly stated was the equivalent of an accuracy rate of 65%. I’m not sure where he got the 65% number, but I immediately recognized that this was a mistake. An R score, when squared, represents the percentage of the variance being explained. So squaring an R score of 0.31 means that roughly 9% of the variance has been explained. That means that 91% of the variance in the dependent variable is still unexplained.

In the original article Saletan had called these experiments “impressive”. Given the tiny bit of variance explained by even the strongest of the experiments, I would call them less than impressive. And given the subject of the experiment, I would actually call them “oppressive”. This is a great example of taking extremely weak scientific findings and spinning them into something approaching meaningfulness. There are so many alternate explanations for why tiny findings could have happened that do not require any assumption of accurate “gaydar”.

I wrote a comment on the article explaining the mistake.   To the credit of Saletan (and Slate magazine), they noticed and read my comment on the inaccurate reporting of statistical findings, and after an e-mail correspondence with me regarding the accurate interpretation of the statistics, posted a revised version of the article. That’s honest and impressive. It also shows that it’s worth writing comments on online articles, and that writers read the comments.

I still think the original research doesn’t merit even the corrected coverage that Slate gave it, but at least the science is accurately reported. Of course, the biggest flaw in the research was that they were only looking at photos of gay men who were openly gay, and the article really is about can you tell if a man is secretly gay. So the bottom line is that even if the researchers had done better research, it still wouldn’t answer the original question of the article.

I should add that I question the use of science to pursue questions that tread dangerously close to prejudice and stereotyping. But we live in a free country, and scientists have every right to do research on any topic they choose. I’m just not sure that the National Science Foundation should be funding such research. In any case, I was glad to be able to correct misinterpretations of the statistical results of the study.

Notes:

The original version of the article is in Google’s cache,  here, at least for now. (Google updated the page, so now it’s the same as the corrected page.)

The corrected version of the article is here.

The research that the article is based on is here.

 

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions



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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and other difficulties using evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.