Here is a story about the life-cycle of one 2009 evolutionary psychology study and its popularization. The study had a simple conclusion: Women are created by evolution to be gold-diggers. Too bad that this simple conclusion turned out to be wrong. Too bad that very few people even today know that it turned out to be wrong.
This is because the early publicity of the initial study (most of which took place before critics could get hold of the paper) offered the popularizers something they might dream about: A study which seemed to show that women had more frequent orgasms the higher their male partner's income was! Talk about click-bait! The story has sex in it, the story has the perfidy of women in it, the story has science which proves the perfidy of women.
The study by Thomas V. Pollet and Daniel Nettle was published and widely popularized in 2009. The abstract of the study summarizes those reasons for its popularity:
There has been considerable speculation about the adaptive significance of the human female orgasm, with one hypothesis being that it promotes differential affiliation or conception with high-quality males. We investigated the relationship between women's self-reported orgasm frequency and the characteristics of their partners in a large representative sample from the Chinese Health and Family Life Survey. We found that women report more frequent orgasms the higher their partner's income is. This result cannot be explained by possible confounds such as women's age, health, happiness, educational attainment, relationship duration, wealth difference between the partners, difference between the partners in educational attainment, and regional location. It appears consistent with the view that female orgasm has an evolved adaptive function.
The crucial point in that abstract is the argument that women had more frequent orgasms the higher their male partner's income was, even when other relevant variables were controlled for.
Then the popularizations:
The British Times reported on the study* as follows:
Scientists have found that the pleasure women get from making love is directly linked to the size of their partner's bank balance.
They found that the wealthier a man is, the more frequently his partner has orgasms.
"Women's orgasm frequency increases with the income of their partner," said Dr Thomas Pollet, the Newcastle University psychologist behind the research.
He believes the phenomenon is an "evolutionary adaptation" that is hard-wired into women, driving them to select men on the basis of their perceived quality.
The study is certain to prove controversial, suggesting that women are inherently programmed to be gold-diggers.
One of the Psychology Today blogs joined in, discussing the reactions to the study under the fetching title “Wealthy Men Give More Orgasms”:
Popular reactions to these claims in England, Australia, and the U.S. have varied from, "Don't bother, we knew it already," to angry denials that money is the real source of all the excitement. After all, partners of wealthy men are often wealthy women. Wealthy women are happier and healthier, so why wouldn't they experience greater sexual pleasure? They are more educated, so they can read up on sexual technique. Yet, happiness, health, and education are not likely to be responsible for income differentials in female orgasm because the authors statistically removed these factors in their paper that is soon to appear in Evolution and Human Behavior.
Isn't all that truly delicious? The comment about the study being controversial because it suggests that all women are gold-diggers? And those reactions from “we knew it already” to angry denials? And the little-known fact that these studies are popularized before they are available for actual perusal?
This is an example of the worst of today's science media. The reason? Because only a year later, in 2010, the main conclusions of the study were retracted by its authors:
In a recent article in this journal (Pollet and Nettle, 2009), we reported that women with higher-income partners reported more frequent orgasms in the data from the Chinese Health and Family Life Survey (CHFLS). We also reported, using a stepwise model selection strategy implemented in SPSS 15.0 (SPSS, Chicago, IL, USA), that partner income was a better predictor of reported orgasm frequency than a number of control variables. However, in an accompanying commentary, Herberich et al. show that the model-fit statistics produced in SPSS are not properly comparable between models. This led us to choose an incorrect model as the best-fitting one. As they show, the effect of partner income is no longer significant once the control variables have been accounted for. We therefore wish to correct the conclusions of our article. The association in the CHFLS data between partner wealth and self-reported orgasm frequency is best explained by the fact that women with higher-income partners are healthier, happier, younger, and more educated than women with lower-income partners. The data do not support a direct effect of partner income on self- reported orgasm frequency, once other variables have been controlled for.Bolds are mine.
Got it? The study did not find, after all, any direct correlation between a woman's self-reported orgasmic frequency and her partner's income. Or let me put this in terms that even the Times writer might get:
Nope. The man's income does not make a woman orgasm more. Or at least that's not what the study actually found.
Let's recap the life-cycle of this particular study: It was pretty widely popularized before it was even born, in the sense of being unavailable for criticism by curmudgeons such as me. It was then used as a basis for popular debates about whether all women are gold-diggers who orgasm on the basis of men's bank balances or not. The authors then retracted the whole conclusion of the study, admitting that they did not find any correlation between the man's bank balance and the number of orgasms his wife or sexual partner enjoyed.
Then? In the world of popular science media, what do we hear? What kind of corrections were offered?
None, as far as I could establish.
Wikigender did update its site (perhaps because I complained..), but even the abstract for the original article doesn't mention the retraction of the conclusions!!!
This is a serious problem if science writing has the goal of increasing our understanding of science and social science: Ordinary readers of popular science articles are left with the impression that the original study conclusions are correct and those flawed conclusions will still be quoted as scientifically proven. Popularizers should take some time off from looking for the most click-baity new studies and use that time for scanning through the retractions and correction to older study they may have once avidly popularized.
What I have to say in this post also matters in the light of the recent discussion of misogyny. Several of the misogynist sites believe that all women are innate gold-diggers. To leave flawed conclusions appearing to support that view uncorrected can be dangerous.
The Times link appears to be dead. Perhaps that's how the newspaper coped with the need to provide a correction? Just kidding.