Thursday, February 11, 2010

An assault on reason by unethical frauds

Well, try as I might, it becomes just about impossible to escape the Parents Television Council's unrelenting assaults on mainstream American attitudes and values - not to mention basic reason and logic - all bolstered by non-existent data and a complete incomprehension of social science methodologies. I have written about this on the blog numerous times, but a new editorial - a call to censorious action, as their editorials usually are - by the PTC has just staggered me by the audacity of its unethical, dishonest misrepresentation of a study.

When I wrote about the PTC's mangling of the Kaiser Foundation's study on children's media use, I wrote that I felt that the PTC's laughable conclusions were due perhaps to their sheer ignorance, ineptitude, and blind ideological dogma, rather than willful dishonesty. I no longer say that after reading a piece by PTC member Melissa Henson. Here, she does not merely mangle social science data, but attacks the character of Fordham Professor Paul Levinson. Since I know Dr. Levinson, since I got a chance to read and listen to his defenses of free speech and expression, and know his honesty and integrity, Henson's article is especially offensive to me. But once you get a chance to read the actual study she uses to make her arguments, you realize that you just read the work of a con artist, a fraud, a liar who wilfully distorts clear data for her extremist social agenda.

You can read Henson's piece right here.

Now, not to put myself too high on a self-righteous pedestal or anything, but I do give my readers the references to everything I talk about. Henson does not.

But Henson's piece is an editorial piece on the web page of a group called The Church Report. They are an evangelical organization that characterizes its own social activist positions as "Christian. Conservative. Concise."

The meat of Henson's article - and its many underhanded, unethical distortions - starts right in the title: "TV Trash is Harming Our Children." This is a conclusion Henson reaches after having read a study on the sexual attitudes and behavior of teenage boys, put forth by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The actual study itself can be read right here. You owe it to yourself to check it out. It's not a difficult read at all. Now Henson does tell us that the study has also been quoted in a Seventeen Magazine article. For a moment or two, this does make me wonder about Henson. Might her offenses be just a result of her obtuseness. Maybe she only read the Seventeen article and never bothered to check out the actual study. You can find it quite easily on Google! But, again, reading her sleazy little attack on Dr. Levinson, I hesitate to blame her absurd article on her ignorance alone. This is a profoundly dishonest and unethical editorial she writes. But, back to the meat of the article...

Henson tells us that the study has concluded that children are "harmed" by "trash" on television. She makes an argument for some causality when it comes to the kind of life children are living. She claims that somehow children - mainly boys - are hurting today and this harm has been caused by television. This could not be farther from the truth.

The study is made up of a several quantitative data sets, all compiled from surveys. That means the study lists numbers. Numbers as in statistics gathered by asking the subjects closed-ended questions and multiple choice questions where they could only choose from a given set of possible answers. Based on this research methodology, the study lists lots of percentages. So what do all these numbers tell us? As it so happens, the numbers paint a surprisingly positive picture of boys and their attitudes toward sex, toward girls, and sexual mores.
Now the authors of the study tell us this right in the beginning!! I'm not sure how Melissa Henson could have missed this. There is plenty to be happy about. In fact, I think the numbers of this study paint a portrait of America's young boys that shows a generation that is surprisingly mature, well-balanced, sensitive, and decent. We find out things like the fact that the majority of boys (66%) would rather have a meaningful relationship with a steady girlfriend than just sex, the same percentage would be happy in a relationship without sex(!), and a majority (75%) prefer to date an exclusive girlfriend instead of sleeping around and playing the field. Furthermore, 75% of the boys say they have more respect for girls who are not quick to say "yes" to sex, 56% are "relieved" when their girlfriends tell them they want to wait to have sex, 74% think other teenagers take sex "too lightly," and 75% want to lose their virginity with someone they are in love with. Moreover, there is also quite a bit of empowerment of girls in many of the relationships, with 78% of the boys saying that their girlfriends greatly influence their sexual decisions. Sounds pretty good, right?

I think so, although the study is not all a rosy picture. It does indicate that the knowledge of a lot of boys about safe and effective contraception and birth control techniques is sadly lacking. Furthermore, a lot of the classic double standards are still alive and well in boys, like expecting girls to take care of contraception. But what this data also seems to indicate is that the antidote is rigorous and thorough sex education for kids starting in the middle school years and into high school. Aye, but therein lies the rub, don't it...?
The sort of far right wing social conservatives like the Church Report organization and people like Henson's PTC/MRC/CMI organization have always fought tooth and nail to keep sex education and contraceptives from teenagers!

And what bothers Henson the most out of this entire report? A section of a sentence that tells us that boys "feel way too much pressure from society to have sex." At this part in her editorial, Henson is off and going. Or, perhaps, we should say that she is flying off on auto-pilot, unreeling all the usual PTC talking points about the "trash" and "sleaze" and "garbage" on TV. This is where her editorial turns into a scummy little canard against Paul Levinson, insinuating that he prefers children to watch scenes of "bestiality," "adult/child" sexual contact, and contact between children and prostitutes. But even when it comes to that single statement of "too much pressure from society," Henson's conclusions perfectly demonstrate the usual PTC two-plus-two-equals-five logic. In the section of the study where the "pressure" from "society" phrase comes up, there is not one word about the media, about TV, about advertising, about the internet, or anything of the sort. Instead, in the same paragraph we are told that teen boys sometimes feel pressure to become sexually active from girls and that they might sometimes lie about their sexual experiences in order to stop OTHER KIDS from pressuring them into becoming sexually active. In fact, the study does mention that boys (as they always have since time immemorial, no doubt, and certainly well before advertising and TV) often lie about their sexual prowess, their conquests, and proficiency. In other words, the classic, teen macho "locker room" behavior. And this sort of sexual posturing has always been a part of adolescent and young adult male behavior. Anthropologists will even tell us that it might be a part of a genetically-programmed part of the male psyche with evolutionary advantages. One can find all that stuff in the sorts of book that The Church group people probably don't read much.

Now when it comes to analyzing the data to get some sort of a picture for where TV and all that sleazy, Satanic porn come into play, one should go to the later parts of the study and look at a table under the question "how much does each of the following influence your decisions about sex?" Do we not raise our eyebrows about the ambiguities in that question? Pop quiz folks: how can something like "decisions about sex" be interpreted in all sorts of ways? Moreover, the subjects gave their answers to this part of the survey by filing out a Likert Scale questionnaire. Those are the things that go on a spectrum between "a lot" to "a little." So, in other words, there is no discussion, no question and answer interaction between the researcher and the subject. But even so, the "influence" of porn is still below that of girlfriends, parents, friends, religion, and sex education in school. Below porn is information coming from doctors and TV only shows up on the list below that. Only "online" information about sex has less of an impact on boys than television.

But finally, I would also like to draw a bit of an attention to who exactly Melissa Henson is. Just what makes her so qualified to come to such drastic, apocalyptic conclusions about the study's data. Her bio under the editorial claims that she is a "noted expert on entertainment industry trends and the impact of entertainment media on children and pop culture." Yet her more extensive bio on the PTC web page tells us that she is merely the Director of Communication and Public Education (doesn't public education sound kind of Orwellian?) of the PTC. She's their PR person! She also somehow became a "noted expert" in social science research with only a BA in "Government" from the University of Virginia. In 1997, we are told, she started at the PTC as an entertainment analyst, documenting instances of inappropriate content on television." So she was one of the people watching hours of TV for the PTC, counting every utterance of a "hell" or "damn" on television shows.

In the words of Crystal Madison, the New Jersey chapter president of the PTC, one of our former Culture Wars guests who tried to rally the PTC to put financial pressure on St. Peter's College, the sort of "studies" the PTC conducts are worthless. Or, specifically in Madison's words (check it out right here) "we're not a lab, nor are we scientists."

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