Thursday, February 17, 2011

Million dollar sex challenge

Last week I linked to a guest post on Blag Hag about sexism at an atheist conference.  In that post, there was a deleted section about the Million Dollar Sex Challenge, because there was a lot of dispute over whether it was accurately portrayed.  Obviously, I wasn't there and don't know what happened, but I just read a favorable portrayal by Richard Dawkins... and I am appalled!
A lecturer offers all the male students in the audience the following wager. You undertake to pay me a million dollars if, by the end of the day, you fail to find a woman who, having never met you before and knowing nothing about you, will consent to have unbribed sex with you. If you succeed, I pay you a million dollars. The lecturer then offers the corresponding bet to all the female students in the audience. The empirical result is that men almost always decline to take the bet. Women almost always would accept it.
The point is simply that we all have the same folk psychology: everybody knows that there is a huge sex difference in willingness to have sex with a previously unknown partner. Women are far more likely to be choosy. Men far more likely to be a pushover.
Why does the recounting of a fact give offence, if it is true? Part of the reason seems to be the old fallacy that if something is 'biological' it is inescapable and can be used to justify bad behaviour.
It's not even so much that I'm offended as a queer or on behalf of women.*  This offends my skeptical sensibilities!

The problem is not in recounting fact.  The problem is in recounting fact, and then offering an unsupported interpretation as if it were the only one.  Dawkins is fine when he described the empirical results.  But then he interprets it as a simple confirmation of what "everyone knows": women are choosy, and men are pushovers.

It's great that Dawkins understands that biology is not destiny, but who is to say that biology is even the biggest factor here?  The first explanation that jumps to mind is not that the folk psychology is true, but that people buy into the folk psychology, and make their decisions as if it were true.  Or perhaps they are making rational decisions based on a social and cultural environment which enforces the folk psychology.

Dawkins also cites an experiment by Clark and Hatfield, where they compared male and female responses to invitations to sex.  That sounds like a very different experiment than the million dollar sex challenge, with different possible explanations.  Also, if you read the discussion in the paper, they don't quite agree with Dawkins:
Of course, the sociological interpretation - that women are interested in love while men are interested in sex - is not the only possible interpretation of these data.  It may be, of course, that both men and women were equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with accepting a sexual invitation than did women.
This isn't a case of Dawkins seeing the truth and accepting it.  This is a case of Dawkins grabbing upon the one explanation which confirms his preexisting beliefs, and forgetting all alternative explanations.  And those preexisting beliefs aren't exactly making Dawkins look good.  Well forget him.  I always liked PZ Myers better anyway.

*Though there is something to be said on this front too.  I am all for spreading truths no matter how uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean that you should subject your audience to social experiments, especially one as ill-conceived as this.  When you do real science, there are ethical guidelines...

(I never thought I'd say this, but thanks to the swarming pharynguloid masses for bringing this topic to my attention.)


Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

You're the smartest guy I know, miller.

SlightlyMetaphysical said...

It's just BASIC scientific literacy- if my hypothesis were false, could we still have seen the results we saw? If so, then the experiment clearly hasn't proved my hypothesis. In a world where women will have decreased social standing for accepting casual sex, be generally less able (because of average strength differentials) to defend themselves in case of sexual assault, be unlikely to be believed in case of sexual assault, be encouraged to use sexual negotiations for other things and be less likely to have a pleasurable encounter with a random person of the opposite gender because of cultural narratives around sex, would we see this result, EVEN if women are not naturally less sexual? Dorkins has failed really badly here.