Master Class in Science Writing Gone Wrong
Traditional news giant Time now publishes the Top 10 Everything including the Top 10 Things We Learned about Parenting. The good news, I think, most items either focus on a recent study or at least include a fresh statistic or two. The bad news, it’s a tutorial in not-quite-right reporting from start to finish. Nothing in recent memory better exemplifies poor science writing than this single paragraph, a confused and confusing discussion of a provocative study of questionable scientific and practical value:
8. Size Matters in Men, But Not in the Way You Might Expect.
And while we’re on that topic, a new study revealed recently that testicle size plays a role in whether or not a guy is an involved dad, but this is one time less is more: the smaller the family jewels, the better the family man. There’s a law of diminishing returns at work here, the greater the semen output in each ejaculation, the less engaged the dad. Researchers couldn’t say whether the testes size caused the difference or whether the act of becoming a dad caused the testicles to shrink in men who were diverting their attention from mating to fathering.
Forget the semen, mating, and diminishing returns, none were measured in this study or clearly explained here and this vague evolutionary talk, however impressive, distracts from the rest of the mess. Look at the familiar confusion of correlation and causation. We first learn “size matters” and “testicle size plays a role in whether or not a guy is an involved dad,” but then we are warned it’s not clear whether testicle size caused differences in nurturing…or the reverse. Actually it should have been the reverse – becoming an involved dad shrinks the gonads (not the mere “act of becoming a dad”). This lack of nuance obscures the whole point of the study, to test one theory for why some fathers take an active interest in their children’s lives and others don’t.
Whether this confusion arises from carelessness, a tight deadline, a tight word limit, a misunderstanding of scientific findings, or a combination of these factors, it characterizes too much of the parenting media today. It’s a roll call of bad behavior from the implied causation, the unclear terms, the unclear links (e.g., between large semen output and absent fathering), the ambiguous evolutionary references, the sensationalism, wow, it’s all there and I even omitted the bit about height and flaccid penis size. It's only missing a few other usual suspects like dramatic risks (e.g., 200 percent more aggressive behavior, 4-fold increase in obesity) or my personal fave, a researcher expressing surprise at his or her own findings.
It took my remaining self-discipline for the week to not go and on in that column (Monday off plus two snow days!). You can imagine my wandering thoughts about the practical implications (or lack thereof) behind the Shrinking Gonads study. Do we put at-risk fathers into parenting classes? Sign men with early warning signs (i.e. the physical markers of poor parenting) up for a year's worth of Mommy and Me classes? Maybe women considering pregnancy would like to take matters into their own hands and perform their own pre-pregnancy screening. I should stop. Now.