Teaching Us Values and Calling It 'Science'

September 15, 1990|By Richard E. Vatzand Lee S. Weinberg | Richard E. Vatzand Lee S. Weinberg,Mr. Vatz teaches rhetoric and communication at Towson State University. Mr. Weinberg teaches in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

HOORAY FOR US! While ''55 Percent in U.S. Flunk Survey about Knowledge of Sex,'' according to The Sun's headline, we got all the questions right.

The thing is, we don't really know any more about sex than anyone else, but we know the normative values of sociological researchers, so we know how to figure out the ''right'' answers to loaded questions.

Take, for example this question from the Kinsey Institute's much ballyhooed ''scientific'' survey:

''It is usually difficult to tell whether people are or are not homosexual just by their appearance or gestures.''

The required answer, obviously, is ''true.'' That may even be the correct answer. But how does anybody know? Has any scientist ever tried to verify this proposition by lining up random groups of people and having random groups of guessers try to pick out the homosexuals among them? If any scientist tried such an absurd experiment, would it prove anything? (What does ''usually'' mean? How difficult is ''difficult?'')

In fact, June Reinisch, director of the survey and of the Kinsey Institute, in her write-up of the survey, provides no data or studies justifying the answer of ''true.'' But it is consistent with most social scientists' desire to teach tolerance.

True or false: ''Most women prefer a sexual partner with a larger-than-average penis.''

Here is another attempt to teach values and call it science. The ''correct'' answer -- false -- is simply not provable by surveys (in which many women may not wish to admit such a base motive) or ''letters we receive,'' which are anecdotal. Rather than testing sexual knowledge, the question seems to intend to promote a ''healthy'' view of sex. Revealingly, Dr. Reinisch points out the importance of this information in relieving the ''obsessive concern'' of many men and teen-age boys.

Dr. Reinisch confesses to her purpose when she says her survey demonstrates that ''we need to educate or re-educate virtually everybody.'' That may be a worthy endeavor, but let's not confuse it with a scientific demonstration that Americans lack basic sexual knowledge.''

The process of human reproduction and the generation of sexually transmitted diseases are well understood, and possession of this knowledge is essential to informed and safe sexual behavior; consequently, a survey which validly demonstrated widespread ignorance of such matters would rightly be seen as quite significant and disturbing. For example, that, in the words of another survey question, ''a woman or teen-age girl can get pregnant during her menstrual flow'' is biologically known, scientifically verifiable and important to know.

But about half of the survey's 18 questions do not deal with biological fact. They are about unverifiable sexual behaviors and alleged sexual beliefs and preferences. Even if the ''facts'' in these questions could be scientifically proved, they would be matters of interest only, not critical knowledge.

The researchers appear to be trying to communicate their values about sexual behavior under the guise of testing for knowledge of scientific facts. Why else would they include questions about the extent of female masturbation or the alleged ''fact'' that ''three or four'' men out of ten ''have had an extramarital affair?''

If the questions which legitimately measure knowledge relating to disease and reproduction reveal widespread ignorance -- and several do -- there is reason for concern. But there is no evidence that the survey's 18 questions are representative of what constitutes ''basic knowledge'' for a sexually informed population.

Andrew Weigert, a University of Notre Dame sociologist, has argued that much social-science surveying has a ''rhetorical'' agenda, intending to ''persuade and socialize people as to how they should look at the world, more than to measure or assess how in fact respondents do look at the world.''

Invalid instruments and methods should not surprise us when they come from popularizers like Shere Hite, but we expect better work from the well respected Kinsey Institute.

It may not be surprising that the Johns Hopkins sexologist John Money immediately termed the Kinsey Institute survey ''very significant'' and ''scientifically and statistically sound.'' Calling such surveys ''scientific,'' as Dr. Weigert argues, ''silences challenges.'' But serious and disinterested observers cannot be excused for jumping to accept and publicize them. And serious media need to be more sophisticated and less credulous in evaluating headline-seeking ''scientists.''

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