by Doctor Science
You're probably going to come across coverage of Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam's book A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire, released this week.
But judging by Ogas' article in the WSJ or his interview at The Daily Beast, they're not going to tell you that Ogas & Gaddam are a byword for how Not To Do It -- where "It" includes science, research, communication, thinking, and human decency. As Ned Pepperell of RMIT University (Australia) put it,
the whole thing unfolds something like a live action version of the phenomenon Justin Kruger and David Dunning discuss in their “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”.I had a front-row seat.
In the summer of 2009, I was one of several fans active in the fanfiction-producing end of fandom whom Ogas contacted. He said he was
a cognitive neuroscientist at Boston University studying the brain mechanisms involved with creativity and sexual behaviorIt sounded a little off-the-wall to me and I didn't really see how they were going to draw any kind of useful conclusions, but I exchanged a number of emails with them. They were trying to develop an online survey to give to fanfic fans and writers, and, I later recalled:
I kept *thinking* it was going to turn into something clever, because no-one could seriously think that you could figure out what people are *hard-wired* for by looking at *fan-fic*.Meanwhile, fans with more finely-calibrated Bullshit Detectors than I were realizing that (a) Ogas and Gaddam weren't actually working at B.U. or any academic institution (B.U. made them stop implying any affiliation with them), (b) their approach violated all standards of survey design, privacy, human subjects protocols, and logic, and (c) they had received a very substantial advance from Penguin to write a pop-evolutionary-psych book on a topic about which they knew nothing.
Also, as we were discussing at dinner, when Guy & I did occasional psych experiments for $ in college they *never* told us what they were *really* studying, so I kept thinking this would maybe turn out to be a Cunning Plan to study, I dunno, font usage.
 my new least-favorite phrase. Seriously, someone's getting *stabbed*.
The resulting storm is known as "SurveyFail", well-summarized in this Fanlore article. To really appreciate why fandom reacted the way we did, you have to look at the screencaps taken of Ogas/Gaddam's posts (before they were yanked):
screencap archived here
I found this literally unbelievably stupid -- it took some persuading for me to credit that yes, that's really the level Ogas & Gaddam were operating on. That's why Pepperell called them a scientific example of Dunning-Kruger, and why cultural anthropologist Greg Downey put it:
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.Despite the immolation of their "research" project, Ogas & Gaddam forged ahead with their book. I haven't seen a copy yet, but I feel confident that it will live up to the product tags fans have been adding to the book's Amazon page: my favorite is the one I used for the title of this post, but I also like your sample population hates you now, unhindered by scientific rigor, and phds written in crayon. Sorry, Steven Pinker, you and all the other pre-publication blurbers go into my Never To Be Taken Seriously Again file.
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.
Ogas isn't just wrong, he's so completely wrong that makes it hard for me to argue against him, because I don't know where to start. For instance, the WSJ article basically says: online, men look for porn and women look for romantic stories. This is because the male sexual brain is a simple, goal-driven thing, while women have an inner Miss Marple looking for clues to male suitability before it lets us get aroused. In other words, men never read love stories, women never objectify men shallowly.
The most popular fan fiction website—and the world's most popular "erotic" site for women—is FanFiction.net, which boasts more than two million different stories and more than 1.5 million visitors a month.Yes, fanfiction.net is extremely popular and high-traffic. But -- as I told Ogas directly -- it is *not* an "erotic" site, and it is *not* "for women". FFN (also known as "The Pit of Voles" or just "The Pit") kicked off the explicit sex stories in about 2001 -- not because "women aren't interested in direct, physical descriptions", but because the average FFN user is under 18. I call FFN "The Kiddie Pool", because it's where teen and pre-teen writers and readers tend to hang out.
Then he says:
Fan fiction also reveals another fundamental difference between male and female sexuality. Men almost always consume pornography alone. But in the fan-fiction community, the online discussion of a story is as important as the story itself. This reflects one of the primary investigative techniques of Miss Marple: soliciting information from other detectives.Ogas has absolutely no self-awareness: no clue that he has disproven the existence of stripper parties, for instance. Nor does it seem to have crossed his mind that people who have created something (a story, for instance) might want to talk about the thing they've made.
Ogas is fractally wrong: mistakes, over-generalizations, and blithe assumptions permeate his work on every scale:
Fractal Brain from the blog Cognitive Design
The real story about the human mind here is how eager so many of us are to reinforce certain kinds of differences. I agree with Greg Downey, who says:
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.One of the most enraging aspects of SurveyFail for me was, as Downey says,
The problem with Ogas and Gaddam is not that they are scientists; it’s that they are really BAD scientistswho make science -- and especially evolution, my chosen field -- look bad.