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Volume 24
Issue 8
October 2013

 

What do you do when you read about a piece of research that challenges your deeply held views? Do you a) dismiss it as the work of deluded crackpots who should know better; b) assume that because it’s research it must therefore be true; or c) follow it up and read the source material so that you can make an informed judgment?

  • The researcher: Would you believe it?

  • by

  • Barry McInnes
  • What do you do when you read about a piece of research that challenges your deeply held views? Do you a) dismiss it as the work of deluded crackpots who should know better; b) assume that because it’s research it must therefore be true; or c) follow it up and read the source material so that you can make an informed judgment?

    My eye was caught by a piece of research reported in the News section of June’s Therapy Today, related to the mental health of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) practitioners.1

    The item reported a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, which found that BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extroverted, more conscientious, more open to new experiences, less rejection sensitive and had higher subjective wellbeing than the controls.

    It’s not an area in which I can confess to having a great deal of experience but, having not long finished ploughing through Fifty Shades of Grey (purely for professional reasons, you understand), I felt entitled to my prejudices. Hence my immediate reaction to the reported findings was ‘No way!’

    I then did a very bad thing. I located the source material, principally so that I could discredit it, and thereby confirm the righteousness of my beliefs that practitioners of BDSM could not possibly be so well adjusted. Otherwise they wouldn’t need to do it, would they?

    Passing rapidly through lurid blog posts such as ‘Kinky people have better mental health than everyone else’2 and ‘Bondage benefits: BDSM practitioners healthier than “vanilla” people’,3 I located the journal article in question. My search stopped at the journal abstract and the point at which I was asked to pay up to read the full paper.

    In the same way we’re told not to judge a book by its cover, it is unwise to judge the robustness of research findings by a publication’s abstract. Nevertheless, reading the abstract and cross-referencing a number of other blog posts, I had to concede that there may be some truth in the assertion that BDSM practitioners may be ‘better mentally adjusted’.

    That isn’t really the point, though, however interesting such a finding might be. What I find more illuminating is the interplay between my own prejudices, the evidence I pay attention to, the actual quality of evidence, and the way that findings can be ‘lost in translation’.

    I’ve already fessed up to my prejudices and was open to having them challenged, so I’ll pat myself on the back for that. I could equally well have paid attention to other studies that served to confirm them, such as a systematic analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey4 that identified that Anastasia suffers reactions consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definitions of intimate partner violence and associated reactions known to occur in abused women.

    As to the research reported in Therapy Today, I could simply accept the findings as reported in the abstract. I could assume that such findings are generalisable to the population as a whole and that if I really want to improve my psychological health then I should abandon mindfulness meditation in favour of a jolly good thrashing. Such an assumption would be entirely unwarranted, given where the study samples were drawn from, but I won’t necessarily know that.

    Even if the methodology is robust, and the findings reported faithfully, we may still be fed a distorted picture of those findings. When a quality UK broadsheet newspaper reports that ‘A glass of red wine a day could help to prevent breast cancer, a new study shows’, we might assume that the study was based on the relationship between the drinking patterns and health outcomes of real women. It wasn’t. Rather, think red grape juice skins, cancer cells and laboratory dishes. Ben Goldacre, scourge of bad science everywhere, has a highly engaging TED talk5 that includes this study and numerous other examples of both bad science and the cynical manipulation of good science.

    So my advice to you, in the words of American author James Patterson, is: ‘Assume nothing, question everything.’ I read that on the internet. In the same search I also came across another quote, attributed to Abraham Lincoln: ‘Don’t believe everything you read on the internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it.’6


    To get in touch with Barry, email barrymcinnes@virginmedia.com

  • References:

    1. BDSM users are better mentally adjusted. News. Therapy Today 2013; June: 5.
    2. http://io9.com/kinky-people-have-better-mental-health-than-the-rest-of-510510381
    3. http://www.livescience.com/34832-bdsm-healthy-psychology.html
    4. http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/08/13/study-finds-its-more-like-fifty-shades-of-abuse/58393.html
    5. http://www.ted.com/talks/ben_goldacre_battling_bad_science.html
    6. http://weknowmemes.com/2012/07/dont-believe-everything-you-read-on-the-internet/