SurveyFail redax: Downey adds to Lende

Daniel did a posting earlier today on Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail that explores a research project that self-immolated through bad design, horrible conflict management, and a number of other character flaws. I’m really glad Daniel did this because he’s the more tech-savvy half of this duo. I just saw this yesterday and started to read up on the commentary but quickly realized that I was over my head, having pretty much exhausted my ability to navigate communication technology and resulting subcultural movements with a Twitter-related post a while back.

But I did want to add a couple of points because I’m particularly interested in research design and ethics and because I like kicking researchers when they’re down. No, no, just kidding — because 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.

I apologize for not putting up some clever graphic, but I spent most of today helping friends build their mud-brick house and then went to a Showground Association meeting, where I was elected president (that’s kind of like the County Fairground in my town). My brain’s fried, but I don’t want to let this post sit for too long or it’s moment will have well and truly passed.

Research ethics

In my brief and incomplete survey of the discussions of this research, it became obvious that slash fans were particularly irritated, not just by the initial bad research design, but also by the seeming inability to apologize, learn from criticism or even simply back off on the part of the researchers.

This tenaciousness is interesting in a number of ways, not just that it layers on PR FAIL on top of initial Research Design FAIL. I serve on a Human Ethics Research Review board and have for a number of years, and it’s intriguing to see which researchers simply don’t get it, and then which ones also CAN’T get it when it’s pointed out to them. That is, even when their proposals get rejected or held up (which is surprisingly rarely), some researchers simply cannot think flexibly enough to come up with a new method for getting at something like the data that they initially expected. Moreover, the truly obdurate researchers often cannot see glaring ethical issues, even when they are pointed out and explained to them.

I often wonder if the ethics application process itself could be a sort of psychometric for testing what sort of ethnographic researcher a person might be (although I realize that these particular researchers were not ethnographers and never submitted a proposal to the ethics review panel or Institutional Review Board, IRB, at the university that they were ostensibly connected to, which I will not name as it does not deserve the guilt by implication). If a researcher can’t think of several ways to set up a survey or interview question to get at a particular bit of information, he or she should simply not be devising interviews.

In this particular case, for example, this subject population (the slash fans) seems extraordinarily capable of doing all sorts of things that a researcher would just love to have in any project: they’re great at doing online communication (oh man, this would uncomplicate some stages of data collection SO much), they’re opinionated, they’re eloquent, they seem to be self-reflexive and subject themselves to some pretty sophisticated introspection even without the researcher prodding with questions, they’re savvy enough to do things like create online identities (which makes the whole use of pseudonyms less problematic), some of them even seem to seek recognition so they might be interested in appearing in a book. Might. (Perhaps less likely after this whole debacle.)

In other words, this research should be a breeze compared to some of the projects that ethnographers do. For example, no offense to my rugby subjects, but YOU try getting long, in-depth, self-critical interviews out of some of them and then see how you feel about working with people who write — voluntarily — as a hobby!

So research should be a walk over. Done correctly, this kind of project, conducted by anyone with a modicum of genuine curiosity and sympathy for the people involved, should quickly be swimming in enough data to choke a hard drive. The only thing that could possibly go wrong… (suspense)… would be to steadfastly screw up, insult the people involved, not respond when someone points out several times that you were being insulting, refuse to apologize, still don’t ‘get’ it when people en masse start to come back at you, hold the line on the refusal to apologize, then imply you might do the project anyway, possibly by collecting data unethically from bulletin boards or chat rooms or whatever forums are being used…

In other words, you’d have to pretty monumentally stuff up and then tenaciously stay the course as everything around you screamed, ‘this is not working!’ Yes, I know that the bow has crunched into a reef, but if we just accelerate, we can push on through!

So, kudos to the researchers if they have managed to get any data that can possibly be used in a book because they may have burned an ideal subject population so that no follow-up research can be conducted without serious hurdles. What a great strategy: piss off your subjects so much so that no one can ever do a follow up study and show that you were completely wrong because of residual hostility.

But to get back to my original point, ethnographic research always requires a certain degree of inventiveness and flexibility. One organization turns out to be defunct or unapproachable, but you improvise in the field. A certain question turns off your respondents or sends them off on the wrong line of thinking, but you figure that out as you go and you stop asking it.

I know that these researchers are not ethnographers (thank God!), but these researchers, like the applicants to our ethics review board who can’t think of any other ethically-sound way to get the information they need, demonstrate a kind of inflexibility and lack of imagination which I think is anathema to pioneering research. It’s one thing to run an established and well-tested survey on a new population — even that can require some finesse — but to try to enter a fundamentally new area of research with a terribly blunt instrument shows another level of insensitivity (in addition to the ones many commentators have identified).

Having read through the commentary and bits and pieces of the original communications, I’m persuaded that the researchers were never really that serious about getting good data from this particular survey. Anyone with half a brain and basic knowledge of research methods knew from the get go that the data would be corrupted, inadequate to front the most basic peer review, inappropriate for the research ‘questions.’

Instead, the survey was a bit of a fishing trip, a chance to get some people to write some things on their survey that could get used in the book. Then, the authors could trumpet the sheer number of responses as a kind of proof (over 2000 people surveyed!), cherry-pick through the answers, and slap together a popular press book that wouldn’t hold up to any sort of serious scrutiny. But with a little right wing outrage (as Ogas anticipated), a book that argued ‘deep down, those kinky girls with their slash fantasies are just doing what their primitive brains want them to do’ would sell a stack of copies and get them on a few talk shows.

I write this as an author working on a ‘popular’ book (I put it in quotes because I would sort of have to sell some copies before it was technically ‘popular.’). I can’t really know what’s in the mind of the researchers, but I suspect it was not to do any sort of real research, but instead to suture together some researchy looking survey with some legitimate findings by other scientists, throw in plenty of titilating online erotica, and finish off with a big dollop of whipped evolutionary psychology to explain it all. Which brings me to my other issue…

Who is attracted to an evolutionary explanation for sexuality?

Sweet Jesus, can we officially amend the saying, ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ to point out that renegade scientists often seek cover instead in evolutionary psychology? The red flag that goes up so often that it’s tattered around the edges and turning pink from sun bleaching is the assumption that human sexuality is a kind of drive rooted in some deep and primitive part of the brain.

Yes, I know, I teach evolution, so I’m aware that reproduction is necessary for our species survival… yup, got that. So please don’t write a response to this which treats me as if I haven’t spent WAAAAAY too much time reading heaps of evolutionary theory. I know the physiology of sexual arousal and am aware of the species preserving effects of heterosexual sex.

Of course, I also know that, with a few quick and dirty calculations, anyone can see that sex isn’t just about reproduction — average age of female sexual maturation in foraging groups (18), four year birth spacing in same groups, approximate chance of getting pregnant having sex with no birth control, child mortality rates and only slightly greater than replacement population growth rates over most of human history… A lot of human sexual contact is way over and above any sort of evolutionary imperative. We’re a heavy parental investment reproducer with heaps of sexuality unaccounted for in the absolutist account of evolutionary fitness.

But do the people making these arguments really even stop to think about what they’re saying half the time? The logical inconsistencies are pretty mind-blowing. I mean, every time I try to figure out what Ogas and Gaddam could have been arguing, I’m just struck by the most patently obvious fact: ‘Rule 34,’ that every type of imaginable porn already exists or will soon exist, seems to inherently undermine any argument about the ‘primitiveness’ or universality of human sexuality. That’s the very point of ‘Rule 34′ (and the implication, that porn variation is growing, would seem to necessarily include that human creativity was expanding the realm of visual erotica or porn).

By the way, Rule 34 is new to me, but I suspect that it has heaps of exceptions; most of the examples in the Urban Dictionary, for example, focused on food and cartoon characters, which actually seem to me to be particular areas of cultural elaboration for the sorts of ambivalent associations with which sexuality plays. Contrast the prevalence of these things with inanimate objects, for example, especially those of a character or scale that make anthropomorphism more difficult (the Urban Dictionary brings up Rule 34 itself and abstractions as counter-examples, also). But then again, human creativity is a magnificent beast…

If you like, I’m happy to be proven wrong about the Rule 34 suspicions, but we’re a family blog, so please do so with a modicum of restraint.

The very fact that so much of this sexual diversity is expressed through writing and reading, two activities that are both vicarious (in terms of physical interaction) and evolutionarily quite young, show precisely how flexible sexuality in humans can be. Dogs don’t dig porn. Nor do they read or write erotica. We breed horses at our farm and believe me, there’s no creativity or much flexibility involved (actually, it’s a pretty scary mix of chasing, kicking, biting, and a few moments of mounting followed by general disinterest all around).

In addition, slash writing always seems to focus on fictional characters: score one again for imaginative construction rather than innate compulsion. That is, writing erotica about imagined characters, better yet, someone else’s imagined characters, is gaining sexual stimulation or gratification from layers of imagination, creativity, and collective creation, your own and someone else’s, sometimes several someone elses. Some of the commenters make this point, but I think it bears repeating: slash literature is especially good for demonstrating three traits of human sexuality — innovation, flexibility (the ability to get satisfaction from a range of activities), and collective creativity (aka, culture).

Assumptions about the brain and sexuality

As Daniel’s original post points out, we’ve made hay here at with slack ‘evolutionary’ descriptions of human sexuality before, so much so that I hate to retrace some of these arguments. But the assumptions in this study seem to be particularly egregious by the standards of this literature.

However, I agree with some of the points that seem to be made in the argument for reasons opposite to the intentions of Olgas and Gaddam (to the best of my ability to figure out their intentions). Daniel quotes one of the pair’s communications with eruthros:

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.

I agree whole-heartedly. These ‘circuits’ (c’mon though, get over the computer metaphor!) do function differently in men and women. And among men and among women. And in the same person over the course of a lifetime, perhaps even over the course of a day or a sexual encounter; ‘dude, that was so sexy… now, for God’s sake, stop it!’ And over time, the actions of some of these neurohormones can change the underlying functional links among different brain areas and subsequent rounds of productions of hormones.

Lots of researchers have pointed out that, if you really want to focus on differences, you can do so, but that there’s a huge number of similarities between men and women, even in terms of sexuality and sexual arousal. After all, it’s not like men (or women) were dropped here from a different planet (Mars or Venus) with some fundamentally different biochemical composition or radically alien anatomical structure.

Daniel highlights how, in their responses to some of their critics, Gaddam offers the blanket explanation that, ‘When we talk about the ‘oldest parts of the brain’ [the subcortical regions], 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.’ Daniel points out that Gaddam describes an opposition in the brain between the ‘oldest’ pre-cultural, primitive elements and these newer cortices that produce culture; nature v. culture played out in brain layers.

I agree with Daniel’s critique, but I also would add that the example of slash fan fiction clearly demonstrates that, like so many other human brain functions, sexual desire stretches through these layers, triggering processes that link together ‘oldest’ and ‘newest’ parts of the brain. Like I said, this is erotica: written, visually-processed, imagined, arousing, sexually stimulating… a cascade of stimuli and effects (with plenty of loops and doubling backs) that combines different brain functions, spanning the neural equivalent of virtually the entirety of chordate evolution as it appears in human neural architecture. As Marc Hauser (2009) recently argued in Nature, it’s the human brain’s ‘promiscuous interface,’ the ability to link together functions and inputs from parts of the brain that are specialized and separated in other animals’ brains, that is one of the crucial characteristics of our species.

The ‘tectonic struggle’ is a very old model of the internal conflict between dangerous desire and self-restraint, id and superego, passion and reason, one that stretches back to at least Classical Greek thinkers, and hardly takes its starting point in neurological data. For example, the metaphor could easily have been lifted out of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, albeit without the snazzy neurospeak that makes it seem so timely and up-to-date.

Last point: do we really need ‘discourse’ to get at this?

eruthros wrote a great response to the researchers when approached about the survey (see, I told you they’d be an amazing subject pool — if one of my interviewees gave me this sort of discussion in an email correspondence, I’d jump the next plane to see them, rush to their workplace, and hug them if I could see through the tears of joy). The irony is that I don’t fully agree with eruthros, although I do agree with the problems identified in the researchers’ proposal.

I don’t want to be churlish, but part of the problem with ‘research’ like that conducted by Ogas and Gaddam is that it tends to polarize the science/anti-science battle lines that proved such a brutal theatre in the Great Post-Structuralist Wars. As a scientist (of sorts — social scientist), I feel like we need to be surgical and precise in our attacks on Ogas and Gaddam because they do NOT represent the current, quite interesting moment that we have in the neurosciences, the opportunity to really forge a new kind of trans-disciplinary study of the brain.

Here’s eruthos’s discussion:

Your field [Yikes!], and others like it, rely on “biological adaptation” and the evolution of an efficient, adaptive brain to produce concepts of universality and universal maps of human behavior, unmediated or minimally mediated by cultural practice [okay, so it's hard to be surgical when you're really, really pissed]…

Biological adaptation means that evolution has shaped our brains, and that culture does not – no matter how much neurologists talk about experience continually re-shaping our brains. We are not denying biological differences and biological realities; we are asking why some biological differences become differences that matter. And it is fairly clear that they become defined as differences that matter as the result of cultural discourses – and that you are reinforcing those definitions. (See, for example, Butler on pregnancy and the definition of sex.) And these biological adaptations of sexual behavior, biological differences that you have defined as important, lend support to the “naturalness” of certain categories of sex practice. They mean that heterosexuality is normal and understandable and biologically necessary – after all, evolutionary success can only mean genetic success can only mean only having heterosexual intercourse in the missionary position. They mean that homosexuality and kink practices are not only deviant, queer practices in American culture, but that there are underlying biological reasons for the perception of homosexuality as deviant. They reinforce our position as objects of fascination; they reinforce our political status as secondary citizens; they reinforce violence and certain kinds of violent response against the sexually deviant (“gay panic”). When we are in the DSM, when we are objects of fascination, when we are biologically determined as deviant and queer and perverted, you have taken popular discourses of sexuality and made them concrete and real. And we want to make trouble in those discourses, to point out the problems and the flaws, to stand outside categorization and to make you work to fit us in. We’re not going to do that work for you.

Although I agree with the general anger and outrage of eruthros, I have lots of objections to this statement, such as PLEASE don’t think everyone who talks about or thinks about evolution engages in this kind of sloppy thinking — unfortunately, the ones who like to write newspaper columns that actually get printed (no, I’m not bitter) tend to be prime offenders. For example, I just lectured on brain evolution last week (ironically, I’ll do sexuality on Wednesday), and one of the things I point out is not just the inefficiency, but the quirks in brains and thinking that demonstrate how evolution works. This is a well worn strategy for demonstrating the relevance and evidence for evolution.

The thumbnail sketch eruthros draws of evolutionary discussions of homosexuality apply to some, but certainly not to all scientists in the field. The problem with Ogas and Gaddam is not that they are scientists; it’s that they are really BAD scientists (at least in respect to this project).

But some of eruthros’s points, while understandable in terms of outrage, misrepresent this battle anachronistically, assuming that the ‘enemy’ is an old familiar one called out by Judith Butler. The battle lines have changed, in my opinion, although eruthros is probably justified in attacking Ogas and Gaddam on this point because their research design was itself pretty anachronistic. In the past, the question was about how categorization and discourse fixed upon certain biological differences, making them salient over others, imbuing them with social meanings. Butler sort of won that fight, albeit with a bit of unnecessary hyperbole that may have gunked up the attempt to build a successor synthesis.

The new battle, to me, is not to stand up to biology while acknowledging that ‘We are not denying biological differences and biological realities,’ but to truly understand that the ‘biological realities’ themselves are not being accurately represented by people like Ogas and Gaddam. It’s not eruthros v. biology, but eruthros and good biologists v. bad biologists like Ogas and Gaddam. Cognitive science is shifting and large fragments of the field are calving away in directions that would place eruthros’s critique on solid neurological footing.

eruthros goes on to say, ‘We are operating in discourses with tremendous institutional and institutionalized power – your power, your medicalizing discourses, your determinations of what is natural and normal and what is deviant and unusual and fascinating.’ Collapsing of ‘science’ into a second person ‘discourse’ alongside various oppressive institutions — government, media, church, etc. — is a hallmark of some kinds of post-structuralist critique in cultural studies, but it is certainly not terribly helpful from within the sciences, trying to convert and remake them. This ‘discourses’ discourse, which is also very very theoretically strong in anthropology, can be corrosive of crucial distinctions for understanding how science might leverage social change. A discourse is like a stiff current; step in, and the assumption is that you become part of it, floating downstream toward certain powerful social conclusions. In fact, there are scientists trying to swim in different directions, although Ogas and Gaddam may be water-skiing downstream at high velocity.

This is not really a critique of eruthros, who’s writing from a very different position, feeling face-to-face with prejudice and exoticization targeted at the fanfiction community. I’m glad that slash fans have called out this research project: there seems to be no way it could have ever ‘succeeded’ by any scientific standard, but the community resistance may have scuttled the planned book. But as I prepare for my lecture on human sexuality, reproduction, child rearing and evolution this Wednesday, I appreciate the reminder of how important these topics are for affecting human prejudices and our sense of self and belonging.


Hauser, Mark D. 2009. The possibility of impossible cultures. Nature 460: 190-196. doi:10.1038/460190a (abstract)

Also see the other posts in the Slash and SurveyFail Series:

Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail
“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…’ 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.”

Nature/Nurture: Slash to the Rescue
“Quite simply, nature vs. nurture is an oppressive division. Slash reworks the relationship between nature/nurture in ways that help us in our thinking and that are closer to the actual reality of how nature/nurture works.”

39 thoughts on “SurveyFail redax: Downey adds to Lende

  1. Pingback: SurveyFail redax « Geoff's Blog

  2. If you like, I’m happy to be proven wrong about the Rule 34 suspicions, but we’re a family blog, so please do so with a modicum of restraint.

    For what it’s worth, I would suggest an interpretive footnote to Rule 34. The classic formulation is, roughly, “If it exists, there is porn for it on the internet.” But the in-practice formulation is more, “If you’re looking for it, there is porn for it on the Internet.” And the in-practice version is probably true, inasmuch as it relies on the fact that there are huge numbers of smart and creative and weird people here, and by definition if you’re looking for it, you have to have thought of it. If you’ve thought of it, odds are overwhelmingly high that you’re not the first, nor yet the second, person to have done so, and at least one of the people who thought of it before you did will have done something about it.

    But what this also means is that you may well be technically correct: there may be no porn for the kinds of things you suspect would be terminally unlikely to produce any. Because by the nature of the beast, no one is looking for it. Like dark matter, it doesn’t register on our instruments.

    If it helps at all, you (and scientists like you) are the reason that I don’t really think our friends Ogi and Sai have closed the community to serious research by real scientists. We’re obviously a community with a lot of diversity, but I think it’s fair to say that most of us aren’t inherently suspicious of scientists, nor of scientists taking on questions of cognition and behavior. Like you, we just have a problem with junk science, and especially with junk science designed to reinforce objectionable ideologies and make the offenders lots of money. And one thing this episode has demonstrated is that collectively, we have the tools to know the difference.

    • Your explanation is more logical but less fun than mine, which it that because of the Quantum properties of the fanfic universe, just speculating about whether such a thing *might* be written shifts the universe such that it turns out to have been written *already*.

      Quantum causality, dude.*nods*

      Speaking of “inanimate objects, for example, especially those of a character or scale that make anthropomorphism more difficult” — here is some not particularly explicit porn about plate tectonics.

      • Yeah… quantum causality. Oh, yeah [nods like he knows what the hell we're talking about...]

        But I warned you about our blog being family friendly, and thoughts of plate tectonic porn is going to make me log off and do my farm chores before I find myself compelled to click on these links… oops, too late.

        Oh, man, Tasmania is waaaay more interesting than the author gives it credit for.

        but now the tomato plants must go in before the wind dries them out.

      • Actually, I considered the quantum causality hypothesis before settling on the Big Internet hypothesis. As you say, it’s more fun — or to put it a bit differently, it has an aesthetic quality that the Big Internet model lacks. But I had to give it up in the end, because it’s not testable, or at least, not by me. I don’t have the mathematics for it.

        But if you do, I promise that on this one, I wouldn’t mind being proved wrong.

  3. Phoebe —
    I suspect that I would have a hard time finding an exception to your version of Rule 34. I’m probably not the right person to do it, but it would be interesting to locate some of the ‘dark matter,’ the areas of life or objects that actually did NOT show up in internet porn, that are not liable (well, not liable without concerted effort) to pornification (apologies for unnecessary neologism). I don’t know why, but when I was grabbing for straws or examples of possible areas that were NOT Rule 34 liable, I came up with dams, large boats, and small insects.
    But now I suspect I’m wrong about small insects.

    Like I said, happy to be proven wrong, but curious about what you so nicely call the porn ‘dark matter’ (but if dark matter NEEDS to exist for certain accounts of the universe, we just can’t see it, what does that mean ship and dam porn?).

    And like you, I’ve been very impressed by the high level of critique and the speed with which public opinion in fandom quickly ferreted out all sorts of things: problems with research design, major issues with theoretical foundations, and even background on the characters involved. I tend to be a bit of a techno-skeptic, unimpressed by claims that the ‘world is changing’ lickety-split because we have home internet connections, but this is clearly a case where a motivated, technologically literate and articulate community can move pretty damn fast. I suspect it has as much to do though with the habit of writing regularly as it does with the technology involved; that is, this community is a writerly community, well practiced in forms of essay production (although they wouldn’t necessarily call it that) and pretty skillful at it.

    I don’t want to sound like a complete gushing idiot about it, because I’m sure that there are other populations that would be equally capable of generating an informed communal consensus, but I’m sure Ogi and Sai didn’t fully appreciate how dynamic the community could be (especially not if they thought this was all about ‘primitive’ subcortical parts of the brain).

    • You know, that’s an interesting question about dams and large boats. I don’t want to go too deeply into matters that would be inappropriate for a family-friendly blog, but my first reaction would be that some of the answer may depend on how firm a line we draw between what we label porn and what we label erotica. If one doesn’t have to go into much by way of explicit detail, I wouldn’t feel safe in saying that Dam/Large Boat would fall outside Rule 34 by its nature. (There’s a certain inherent antagonism there that could appeal to some writers and readers. I’m just saying.)

      Perhaps like you, I’m always a little bit uncomfortable with sweeping statements about how technology has utterly changed our world, although in my case it may have to do with the gushing and overstatement that so often accompany that kind of thing. But I do think technology’s made a difference in terms of the sheer speed with which a community can examine any given issue or problem. To the best of my knowledge, active fandom has always been a very literate and highly educated community, but pre-net, it was one that operated in small circles that didn’t necessarily have many connections to one another. And it was limited to the speed with which things could be typed, photocopied (or even mimeographed), and mailed. I do think that the degree to which we’re used to writing little essays all the time, and to reading them, is part of what enables the response speed; I also suspect that the general habit of analyzing one another’s stories makes for a population that’s going to be particularly good at spotting purported experts who’re actually not making any sense.

      Still, I’m not sure a pre-Net fandom could have dispatched Ogi and Sai quickly enough to undercut what they were trying to do in any meaningful way. Of course, it’s not clear we managed it this time, either — they may have fled fandom, but I haven’t heard anything about their book deal being cancelled. If the deal dies, I think, then we’ll have some evidence for a serious internet effect.

    • 4chan has a recurring meme of “centipedes in my [lady's redacted]” which is based on a somewhat prodigious subset of japanese porn.

      I’m pretty sure I’ve read Peter Mandelson/yacht fics.

      And let me tell you a story about a little boy who stuck his finger into a [redacted that likes other lady dams]…

      Of course there really should be a addendum to Rule 34 that states “if you can think of it, there’s an ancient myth involving it”.

    • Thank you for this!

      Another link: Could be “erotica” although she calls it “Green Porno” – Isabella Rossellini’s inspired depictions of the sex lives of small insects (and in series 2, small sea creatures). She did them for Sundance, but the vids are certainly all over the net.

  4. The Judith Butler references you seem to be making are also a bit out-of-date. Both Judith Butler and the critical mass of people engaged in both science and the humanities have shifted and developed. Yeah, some of the most egregious abuses (like Ogas & Gaddam) now get called-out by scientists — but this doesn’t mean that any further remarks by humanities and science-studies people can be dismissed. Science is no longer in the same place as 20 years ago — but neither is the social, philosophical, and semiotic examination of science. Establishing not only what categories “matter” but what divisions of the raw mass of data and concepts into categories are usefully descriptive is still a matter of concern. Yes, science has improved — but the popularity of both the old kinds of fail (Ogas & Gaddam) and the new (the continued tendency to act as if averages are sufficient grounds for generalization, particularly with ranges as wide as we see with just about anything human) seems to suggest to me (as a current student in both sciences and humanities) that science ignores the psychology and ideology of its practitioners at its own peril.

    • Nicely put. But I wasn’t the one who brought up Butler. That was exactly my point in suggesting references to Butler were anachronistic given the current problem areas and divisions within the sciences.

      Agree, too, about the problem with averages, but for different reasons: as I’m interested in potential for induced variation in human perceptions, physiology, responses, and the like, most data cleaning techniques that are in wide use specifically wash out the sorts of individuals who are most interesting to demonstrate what is possible. I suspect that most of the folks I’d find really helpful in my work wind up in the waste bin of other researchers as ‘outliers’ (for example, the athletic outliers in most tests of human physical or perceptual ability).

      But also a very good point about ignoring the psychology and ideology of practitioners. I suspect some scientists would see these as fighting words, as an attempt to impose a kind of ‘right thinking’ litmus test on project design, but in practice, the abuses makes it clear that this is exactly what needs to be done. The question would be how to do it with enough finesse and good faith to keep the good scientists on side while still putting enough teeth and spine in any examination to weed out the problems. As the case of Ogas and Gaddam shows too, even sophisticated critical consultants can get snowed by a seemingly friendly, open-minded research who actually turns out to be, deep down, an obdurate, retrograde jerk.

      Unfortunately, I suspect the same problem comes up even with normal ethics review for research. The real problem cases will posture and manipulate for the review board and sail through (unless they’re also dumb enough to be caught) and still do unethical things, while perfectly well-meaning and ethically sound individuals, reporting what they are doing honestly, get caught up in persnickety rule-bound bureaucratic issues. The most serious ethical violations I have observed or read about are often done in the course of research, long after review is done and dusted.

      • What I think I was after with treatment of Butler is that her positions now won’t be exactly the same as they were 10 or 20 years ago. Yes, some of her criticisms have been addressed — but some haven’t, and others have arisen in her work in the meantime.

      • Fair enough, M. Groesbeck. I’m not trying to score cheap points on anyone. I’m not a real big fan of Butler — though I suspect I have more Butler-authored books on my office shelf than many fans — but it’s mostly because I think she oversells performativity (and since I specifically deal with how culture can become anatomy, you can understand why performativity grates, being as it’s opposed to my own pet theory and close enough to throw sparks; sometimes I think of this as the ‘belligerence of small difference’).

        There’s also significant style differences between the way cultural theorists write and the way that scientists write. For a while, cultural anthropologists in the US were tending more toward the cultural studies model. I, too, was into it and saw my work as a combination of cultural critique (that was really the badge in the 1990s) and political action through scholarship. But I ran up against people who were better at this than I was: more strident, more bellicose, more impassioned, better positioned socially and through identity, less restrained with accusations that other people’s research was ‘bad politics.’ I found that this style sort of sucked the air out of the room, making it hard to have any sort of reasonable debate.

        It seems to me that when you’re dealing with work like the OgiSai project, you need this sort of vigorous push back, but within a single department or discipline, when responsible people agreed a lot on the broad overviews and were working productively on good, sound research, one person starting to engage the rest of the group this way could be incredibly destructive of morale, working relations, even the ability to change opinions and learn from each other. Sometimes I feel my career is transforming into an attempt to take some of the more grenade-throwing critiques and create a DMZ where we can try to use these amazing tools from cognitive science, neuroimaging and the like, to generate some better research.

        So, yes, I agree that Butler is an incredibly important theorist; I’ve read a number of her works, haven’t kept up with everything she’s written, agree that there’s probably more in there that I would find to like in her recent work (which I haven’t read), but have to make choices about what to read and what not to. I wouldn’t dare to write a piece reviewing her work without doing my homework but I would be interested in what particular lines of her current work you find interesting. I suspect I would stand a lot to learn.

      • I’ve drifted away from Butler a bit, specifically in terms of critiques of bad science (which really aren’t her focus, at least when you’re talking about sciences other than psychology — though while, say, Giving an Account of Oneself may have more to do with Hegel and psychology than with most of the sciences, the psychology and philosophy of science and the people who practice it are still relevant). Butler, though, has become a bit of a symbol of a whole class of critiques — including those by people like Anne Fausto-Sterling and Donna Haraway who do have more of a background in science.

        And some of the differences in writing are less a background cause of misunderstanding than precisely one of the aspects of how science is done which could be examined more critically than it usually is — and not just from within each discipline. It’s the very agreements over what constitutes “good, sound research” which need to be examined in terms of how much they assume and how those assumptions act as a social practice. My science is physics, so I have less to offer on the matter at hand than I might, but…the whole narrative part of developing theories and models (in which, obviously or otherwise, how well a descriptive model satisfies a culturally-conditioned sense of narrative necessity) tends to be something that the sciences resist examining. (Physics is terrible with this, sometimes, especially when the narratives are buried under a few layers of mathematics and assumptions about how mathematics and formal logic may/must relate to reality.) This is one of the more interesting points that Butler applies to psychoanalysis, but it pops up with distressing regularity even in the more “descriptive” sciences. It definitely seems to be part of what happens with people like Ogas & Gaddam — they’ve developed an evolutionary narrative which they feel fits what they see and intuit about groups of people (particularly “men” and “women” in the case of SurveyFail), and their argument seems to rest mostly on how satisfying they find their narrative. None of the data they seem to have been trying to gather even seem to relate to distinguishing between their model and models which emphasize culture (or some combination of the two) — rather, they seem to have been trying to gather data which fit their narrative and use that as “proof” of not only the usefulness but the concrete reality of their model. Most of the “evo-psych” crowd, especially less recently and especially the pop-psych crowd, abuse the same process quite extensively.

        (There are branches of the vaguely “post-structuralist” feminist philososphere which do take material differences as a more central point — Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway both tend to privilege material difference/différance. The criticism, though, is over how differences are used to form theorized categories, essentialist or otherwise.)

      • Interesting, M. Groesbeck — it was actually a year-long fellowship with Anne Fausto-Sterling at Brown that really helped confirm my move into the space between biological and cultural anthropology, so your name dropping is having the appropriate knee-weakening effect. She turned me on to dynamic systems theorists, showed me their wild ways, and I’ve never looked back. I know what you mean about Butler being symbolic of a whole stream of thought, but again, being an anal retentive academic, I’d want to pick and choose and highlight the differences within this stream (this fastidiousness and hair-splitting, of course, being job security of a sort in my field).

        This evolutionary narrative that Ogas and Gaddam employ does have a kind of self-fulfilling tendency, especially when the ‘researchers’ involved can cherry-pick data from the wide-wide world of human sexual variation. I’m not going to spend much more of my time thinking about these yabbos, but I do agree with you: I’m finding it hard to even draw connections between their ‘data’ and their theory. That is, even if they got everything they ostensibly wanted, they’d still have to draw a hell of a long arc to get to their theoretical arguments. And I agree with you about pop evo-psych — I have another unpublished post on a diabolical column that appeared here in the newspaper, written by an invertebrate geneticist (no s***), arguing that rugby league players involved in a recent group sex scandal were just ‘doin’ what evolution makes ‘em do!’ We have a number of posts on this site heaping scorn on this sort of craptastic pseudo-scientific free association masquerading as ‘evolutionary theory.’

        But, on a totally unrelated point, do you fanfic people have any idea how much fun you are to write about? I guess this gives me sympathy for Ogas and Gaddam (well, not really). The comment-to-readership ratio has skyrocketed on these posts, and traffic is up in what has been a sleepy month (mostly to Daniel’s posting). We’ve been so distracted with other stuff, including conference planning, that we haven’t been posting as much. What a charge to have readers so actively engaging with us! I’m going to have to find another excuse to write about slash just because I enjoy the virtual company so much (*sniff*).

        Alright, I’m going to turn off my wireless for a while so that I can finish prepping tomorrow’s lectures.

      • But, on a totally unrelated point, do you fanfic people have any idea how much fun you are to write about?

        We are just fun in general.

        Seriously, why do you think so many of us are so involved in fandom? We converse. We interact. We think. We argue. We share. We are a community.

      • But, on a totally unrelated point, do you fanfic people have any idea how much fun you are to write about?

        I’m not sure if it’s more or less interesting because there are a pretty decent number of academics in the fanfic/slash/general-fandom crowds. It definitely gets a bit self-referential when people who are fanfic readers/writers start looking at our own fan community as academics (or academics-in-training)…

      • But, on a totally unrelated point, do you fanfic people have any idea how much fun you are to write about?

        You could always start a new LJ community and start writing fic about fandom. Maybe start with an AU of the SurveyFail mess in which, thanks to the efforts of fandom, OgiSai’s book deal falls through, and they’re left begging for spare citations at the local library.

      • We’ve been so distracted with other stuff, including conference planning, that we haven’t been posting as much. What a charge to have readers so actively engaging with us! I’m going to have to find another excuse to write about slash just because I enjoy the virtual company so much (*sniff*).

        If there is something written about us, with us, around us, or within six degrees of us, we have an opinion on it and, provided we are not writing, we will give it, in detail. Even if we have to google and lexus/nexus for context. I really wish there was a rule name for this, but honestly, it’s kind of part and parcel of being in fandom, or at least, the parts of fandom this has affected.

        I’m neither academic or scientist, just a fic writer, but I wanted to finally comment on how fascinating your commentary on this has been. Granted, this has been like stuffing a college semester into a week to follow along at times with the entire surveyfail, but this is why there is wikipedia and journal extracts and the power of google.

        Rule 34 – somewhere, I wrote about the torrid affair between relativity and quantum mechanics (for conception purposes of String Theory) after reading The Elegant Universe, but I have no idea where it is now. I meant to go on to quarks, but then there was something shiny that distracted me. So I agree with the idea that if it’s been thought, it’s probably been done, but with the additional condition that if you say it, someone will post it in your LJ comments, usually by your closest friends. So the fastest guarantee of proofing Rule 34 is to simply ask where it is, and make your comments a Field of Dreams for it to come to you. This is not, however, recommended.

  5. I think it would be helpful to point out that fandom and the sciences are not two separate entities. Quite a few of the main critiques in fandom were coming from scientists. So we are well aware of good science and I am guessing that the reason OgiSai even got 2000 responses is because we are curious and enthusiastic about scientific analysis of our community. I actually emailed a scientist friend of mine saying, “Throughout this whole mess, all I can think about is how you would have done this right and how amazing it would have been.” Additionally, without too much digging, you can find scientific analysis of our community (do I need to preface that with *good*?) and we do hold that up as examples of how to do it right and what we expect from researchers.

    In reading your comment NOT Rule 34 liable, I came up with dams, large boats, and small insects.
    But now I suspect I’m wrong about small insects
    , my immediate thought was, “oh I bet there is large boat pr0n out there somewhere” and upon reflection, there is probably pr0n with dams in it, too. ;)

    Thanks for a wonderful analysis. While I may not agree with everything you said, I appreciate the thoughtfulness that you put into it. You are right, we truly do rock with being communicative, opinionated, eloquent, self-reflexive, introspective and savvy. I’d like to add that we are very open and accepting and helpful. During the initial part of the OgiSai trainwreck, so many people were willing to be helpful and were waving arms saying, “Trainwreck! Turn around!” before OgiSai’s utter idiocy and lack of comprehension put us in a position of letting them crash while working on minimizing damage.

    • I think it would be helpful to point out that fandom and the sciences are not two separate entities.

      Shh, you’ll spoil our cover.

      – An astrophysicist in fandom (who has had to sit through several days of human research ethics training despite never ever needing it in her field)

  6. with inanimate objects, for example, especially those of a character or scale that make anthropomorphism more difficult

    But not impossible, there’s a whole genre of Anthropomor-fic

    In addition, slash writing always seems to focus on fictional characters: score one again for imaginative construction rather than innate compulsion.

    Again, in the spirit of Rule 34, there’s a whole lot of Real People Fiction (mostly slash), currently mainly about guys in pop bands but also actors and politicians and pundits. I’m not sure if it’s innate compulsion but it does have a hold on us.

  7. Thank you so much for your excellent commentary. It has been extremely gratifying to see outsider scientists and academics providing their perspectives on SurveyFail.

    “The problem with Ogas and Gaddam is not that they are scientists; it’s that they are really BAD scientists (at least in respect to this project).”

    YES. This. This is why I decided to speak up on the neuro side, and then about research in general in my post Recognizing and Responding to Legitimate and Illegitimate Researchers. Because there is worthwhile and well-done research and then there is…whatever the hell these two attempted.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think there is a huge risk that fandom will close to outsiders who want to do research, given that a reasonable and vocal portion of the community are academics themselves. But there will be a HELL of a lot more caution for at least a little while.

  8. Pingback: » Wearing the Juice: A Case Study in Research Implosion

  9. Pingback: Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue « Neuroanthropology

  10. Pingback: Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail « Neuroanthropology

  11. I haven’t the time to do your post, or the previous comments, the honor of a correspondingly “thinky” response, but I do want to say how much I enjoyed (and have saved) your intelligent critique.

    As an academic working in comm studies as well as sciences (and a fan! another of those aca-fen!), I appreciate your noting that the speed and close networking of fandom communication was a big part of OgiSai’s survey implosion. It speaks volumes for the hype that has been trumpeted about the internet as the “new frontier,” the “global commons,” the “new village square,” etc., that when this predicted cross-linkage of discourse and dialogue actually occurs, people are taken by surprise. The online newspaper “comments” sections, like this blog, are basically still no more dialogic or synchronous than snail-mailed letters to the editor or paper interoffice memos.

    Also, your suggestion of inflexibility as a characteristic of ‘bad research’ is interesting. I’ll be thinking on this some more. It would be nice if IRBs asked about this, but my feeling is that the research design process taught to most PhDs works toward the opposite: to set up very detailed, rigidly finalized designs that respond well to questions from one’s committee, less well to the real world thereafter where the research must be carried out. But that’s the hierarchy of priorities in academia: social and bureaucratic rules trump research realities quite often.

    I doubt fandom is not entirely soured for good researchers by the OgiSai’s unbelievably poor survey design and, as you beautifully termed it, their “craptastic pseudo-scientific free association masquerading as ‘evolutionary theory.’” Partly because so many fans are educated, and also because as you say, fans are highly self-studying and open to a wide range of theories. They’ve seen decent research before (they read it) and also, OgiSai was like a lot of hurricanes, intense where it happened, but quick and so localized that many fans will never have heard of them.

    Also, as it happens, the majority of fans with college education skew toward the humanities end of things, with some social science and far less natural sciences, and they tend more toward a deferential respect for science than the critical stance that more familiarity might bring them. In short, there’s less pomo or science studies critique in most universities than one might expect after the vitriol of the Science Wars. (Too bad, I might possibly add.) That tendency to respect scientists slinging around credentials and long words helped OgiSai get those purported 2000 responses, I believe (the “do it for science!” appeal was pitched perfectly). It wore off pretty rapidly, of course, in the face of their inability to clarify their goals and reluctance to give any direct answers, but the willingness to be helpful ended only because of their ineptitude.

    I hope to come back and digest more of your comments about biological-cultural connections; my PhD now being completed attempts to sketch out some of these, in the area of “meanings of soil” (i.e., why does “dirt”=”disgust”, along with other both positive and negative associations). The efforts to cross the 2 cultures divide, to make these “promiscuous” connections transparent not simply in the brain, but in social systems of meaning (and environmental meanings) are truly fascinating, and very new, and I would love to see them all worked out! (It would certainly have made my own research easier.)

    I’d love to see you write more about slash fanfic and fandom communities. Do think about some research! Or help us ponder some “FAQ for would-be fandom researchers, including questions for fans to ask *them*”, which we appear to need and likely to be formulating. You’re right about the amazement of a community that is articulate and willing to truly jump into participatory research. I trained as an anthropologist, and laughed out loud at your comments on non-talkative informants. I’ve had that feeling working with two groups in the US – farmers, and scientists. Fandom is such a delight by comparison!

  12. Pingback: Sex on the brain & neuroanthropology on sex « Neuroanthropology

  13. “From relieving boredom, to keeping the peace or curing a headache, women have sex for many reasons but romance and passion come rather low on the list, a new book has revealed.”

    Link to story

  14. Personally, I think the point of Rule 34 is less that every possible type of porn exists (despite what it literally says) and more that the statement “No one could possibly make porn out of that!” instantly causes the internet to correct the oversight… especially if you sound really horrified while you say it.

  15. Pingback: Greg Downey’s top 10 of 2009 « Neuroanthropology

  16. Pingback: true, but not for you « Letters from Titan

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