Popular media reports about a recent study linking musical tastes and sexual behaviour among teens have turned moderately interesting statistics into grossly flawed conclusions, with headlines and articles both suggesting that sexual lyrics actually cause teens to have sex. Contrary to what popular media reports might have you believe, the research actually says nothing of the sort.
An Associated Press article carried by the American Psychological Association gets right to the point: “Sexual Lyrics Prompt Teens to Have Sex“!
Oh, my goodness: lock up those iPods now!
The news article reports on a study linking musical tastes and sexual behaviour among teens, and according to the Associated Press, listening to music with sexual lyrics — and degrading sexual lyrics in particular — causes teens to begin having sex sooner. Allegedly, this message was actually reinforced by the study’s lead author Steven Martino (of the Rand Corporation), who according to the report, “tried to account for other factors that could affect teens’ sexual behavior, including parental permissiveness, and still found explicit lyrics had a strong influence”.
However, critical readers who take a moment to read the abstract or the whole study, published in the journal Pediatrics, will immediately recognize that it says nothing of the sort.
There is an embarrassingly basic distinction in science between correlation and causation, and the popular media reports like that run by the Associated Press (which will now be syndicated all across the world) don’t seem to get that. The data reported in the study are simple correlations, without any apparent evidence of causation. In other words, the researchers have found two things which tend to go together, but they have not shown that one actually causes the other. This is a bit like showing that there tends to be a significant degree of correlation between the following two conditions:
- the air smells fresh
- the streets are wet
Following the reasoning of the Associated Press report, we might think that all we need to do to have fresh air is make sure we keep our streets wet: after all, these two things show a significant degree of correlation. However, having wet streets does not cause the air to smell fresh. Sometimes, rain might cause both conditions to occur, which is why the two conditions are correlated, but wet streets do not necessarily indicate anything whatsoever about the freshness of the air.
Likewise, it could be that listening to music with degrading sexual lyrics really does cause teens to begin experimenting with sex sooner — but the study provides no evidence to support that conclusion. It could just as easily be the case that an interest in sex leads teens to listen to music with degrading sexual lyrics. In other words, such musical tastes might reflect a prior cause common to both music listening and having sex — namely, interest in sex — rather than actually being the cause of having sex.
To assume that correlation implies causation — and to assume a specific direction for that causation — is, in my view, irresponsible reporting, not to mention exceedingly bad science. Again, it might be that the preferred interpretation expressed by the Associated Press reporter is exactly correct; it’s just that the report cited doesn’t support that conclusion at all.
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