Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail
Posted by dlende on September 6, 2009
Neuroscience researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam have done a massive FAIL through bad research, failed ethics, and greed. They created an online survey targeted at slash fiction fans that was a debacle start to finish.
Slash fiction takes prominent characters from movies, television, and fiction and explores their relationships in unconventional ways. The founding example is Kirk/Spock, where the slash indicates a story about Kirk and Spock getting it on. The creators and consumers of slash fiction are generally women.
Earlier this year Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam signed a deal with Penguin for a popular book with the initial title “Rule 34: What Netporn Teaches Us about the Brain.” Rule 34 is simply that online “If it exists, there is porn on it. No exceptions.”
Slash fiction fans became one of their “netporn” targets. Ogas and Gaddam created and distributed their online survey that aimed to prove their basic premise (well, my take on it): “When in doubt, the brain causes everything. When that’s something we don’t really understand, then it must be the primitive parts of the brain.”
Here’s how I derived that premise. First comes shaggirl’s description of Ogas’ response to criticism (Note: Ogas took down the survey and the livejournal that discussed the project, so I am relying on people who have captured their words):
He defends his comparison of women liking slash to straight men liking transsexuals because “some deep sense of pleasure or satisfaction ultimately rooted in subcortical circuits” compels us to seek out slash/transsexuals despite fearing exposure to society at large.
In describing the purpose of their original survey, Ogas and Gaddam wrote:
The structure and activity of our subcortical circuits are shaped by neurohormones such as testosterone, estrogen, oxytocin, progesterone, and vasopressin; these circuits function differently in men and women… We’re deeply interested in broad-based behavioral data that involves romantic or erotic cognition and evinces a clear distinction between men and women. Fan fiction matches this criteria perfectly.
Thus, subcortical circuits drive us to do deviant things, and men and women are fundamentally different in how they think due to neurohormones. We have taken on this sort of research before, for example, Bad Boys or Bad Science about hormones and juvenile delinquents and What do these enigmatic women want? about sex research on women. It is just plain wrong, relying on biology-as-cause and essentialist explanations that reduce people to caricatures of categorical thinking.
There’s not much need to do the same for Ogas and Gaddam here, as great critiques already exist. N Pepperdell at Rough Theory first called out to Neuroanthropology through a post covering the survey controversy, Wearing the Juice: A Case in Research Implosion. Sabrina discussed the present state of our knowledge and statistical differences versus real differences in I Need To Walk Away From This Trainwreck. Neededalj took on the neuroscience side in Why Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam Are Phrenologists. Those looking for a general account of the failings, look no further than the wiki SurveyFail. Finally, Alison Macleod provided an excellent overview in The curious case of the game show neuroscientists, or how NOT to research an online community.
What is really disappointing is that Ogas and Gaddam represent the extreme end of what is still the general approach in neuroscience today. It starts by claiming the interdisciplinary mantle, as Ogas and Gaddam do. It points to overcoming previous limitations, such as recognizing that brain imaging does not tell us everything. And it speaks to things that matter to us as people, such as this snippet that described their research goals, “For our research, we’re quite interested in learning about how people creatively use text and fiction to express and explore sexuality.”
But then it often crumbles apart. As eruthros pointed out about everything surrounded that snippet:
In their pm, they (unintentionally) made it quite clear that their intent in their project is to talk about human universals — to use our fannish experience, our erotics and our desires, to reinforce ideas of universal, hard-wired, biological desire.
They are outsiders to fandom. They are outsiders to fanfiction. They are outsiders to slash. And they haven’t tried to learn, or to understand, or to think about fannish communities. Instead, they have made assumptions about who we are, about what we read, about what we find hot; they plan to use those to explain what makes women tick, what our brains make us do.
They do not believe that culture mediates our desire at all; they don’t believe that we are shaped by our communities and our experiences; they want to put us into neat, biologically determined boxes
As Sai Gaddam wrote to eruthros, “When we talk about the ‘oldest parts of the brain’, it is in the context of the tectonic tussle between these and the prefrontal cortices that give rise to the peaks of our culture and the terrain of our behavior.” This is nature/nurture recapitulation – nature occupies the old, uncivilized parts of ourselves, and nurture comes from culture and goes straight into our prefrontal cortices. But nature/nurture is dead (except perhaps in slash?), and we know now the brain is more plastic and interconnected than we ever imagined.
These particular researchers make everything worse. First comes their incredibly naïve and prejudiced assumptions about fanfiction and the people involved. As numerous people pointed out in response to Ogi Ogas’ shemale comparison, the logical equivalent for slash is not shemales but men who enjoy reading about two women engaged in lesbian sex (a rather standard feature in most male-oriented porn). Their online survey is also incredibly flawed and often offensive. You can see Part 1 and Part 2 here, but this image sums up just how bad some of the questions are.
This research also lacked any sort of ethical oversight. Boston University, which the researchers claimed as home institution, has disavowed both researchers by removing their websites. No human subjects review was performed for this research – the Boston University Institutional Review Board says they never received any information about Ogas and Gaddam’s survey.
Finally, it is clear that this “research” has been clearly driven by profit. They initiated it for their popular book. Even more telling is this comment which reflects on how they approached research: “As you may have noticed, we took everything down. We had a conference with our agent and he doesn’t see any benefit in continuing to try to engage fandom. I wanted to finish a detailed description of our research, which I spent the morning writing, but he’s a better judge of the long-term view of these things than Sai or I.”
If only Ogas had used some of the same imagination and creativity in drawing on neuroscience as a game contestant in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, then we might have seen something better. Then again, perhaps not. Here’s his description of winning $500,000: “My neurohormones whipped from black misery to shining ebullience, saturating my brain in a boiling cauldron of epinephrine and endorphins.”
I’m pretty sure the opposite process has happened under the storm Ogas brought down upon himself. To me, that is actually one of the more interesting components of SurveyFail. It failed because of the community reaction, of people drawing on their own knowledge and connections to fight back.
Ogas has already drawn the wrong conclusion from this reaction, “Personally, I’ve been the recipient of massive flaming on a larger scale than this (though I admit this is starting to hit similar levels), and since I believe in what I’m doing, I try to be as sensitive as possible to others’ concerns and do my best to elevate the conversation… Ogi”
Ogi, one suggestion. If community created this “massive flaming,” then community certainly played a role in why people get involved in fanfiction in the first place.
That brings me to my final disappointment over Ogas and Gaddam’s massive fail. Questions of desire, imagination, sexuality, and gender are both fascinating and important, since they go directly to what it means to be a person. Capturing even a small part of how these are central to our lives is a great achievement, whether it is for Nepalis who write love letters or women who enjoy slash. But biological determinism and misguided research are not the way to approach such questions.
How would I do it, you ask? I’d start with questions that give me insight into why people become involved with slash. Such a question could be as simple as, wait for it, “How did you become involved with slash?” That way people could tell me their own stories, and not the one I want to spin.
I would also take the time to read some slash. To that end, here’s one that’s quite apropos. It’s Ogi Ogas/Sai Gaddam.
We have another two posts in the Slash and SurveyFail series:
SurveyFail redax: Downey adds to Lende “I find the focus of ‘evolutionary’ theorists on the supposed ‘hard wiring’ of sexuality to be one of the more irritating and, well, hard-wired theoretical assumptions, even in the face of OVERWHELMING evidence to the malleability of human sexuality.”
Nature/Nurture: Slash to the Rescue “Instead of nature vs. nurture, now we have nature/nurture in a non-canonical relationship. And nature and nurture aren’t straight anymore.”