Biologists take journalists to task for sensationalizing animal sexual behavior headlines

Aug 09, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
Penguins

(Phys.org) -- Andrew Barron and Mark Brown of Macquarie University, Sydney and Royal Holloway University of London, respectively, have a bone to pick with those who resort to tabloid sensationalism when creating headlines and indeed entire articles when writing for science journals and magazines, as they attempt to describe the sexual behavior of animals. In their commentary piece published in the journal Nature, they say that the media too often resorts to ascribing human sexuality terms to animals especially regarding atypical sexual relationships which can in some cases have negative connotations.

The two appear to be most concerned about authors and/or that use human terms to describe homosexual relationships between animals, describing them as gay, lesbian or in some cases transgender, when such terms are not just inaccurate, but are in some cases outright wrong. To bolster their case, they include a chart that lists actual titles or phrases used in scientific study papers, and the various ways writers and editors have butchered the words to help increase magazine sales or increase traffic on web sites. One such example: “The Ram as a model for behavioral neuroendocrinology” became “Brokeback Mutton” or “Yep, They’re Gay.” While somewhat humorous, the changes create the illusion that the behaviors exhibited by the real life ram, are somehow the same as those of gay human beings, which is of course utter nonsense because with humans, human emotions are involved, while emotions in animals, if they even really do exist, are not understood at all. But that’s beside the point, the real issue here is journalistic integrity, or the lack of it.

If a writer is writing for a science or web site, it’s imperative that he or she build a relationship with readers based on some degree of trust. Visitors come to such sites to learn something. If an author or editor resorts to tabloid headlines that distort what has been observed, they are violating that trust because their intent is no longer to inform, but to raise revenue. On the other hand, if the general media resort to such chicanery, it is assumed the public will understand that they are trying to be cute with their writing, though neither seems to care if the actual science behind the article ever emerges, which, as the two commentators point out, can lead to negative perceptions of the human beings that are being used for comparison. Reporting that an animal is engaging in gay or lesbian behavior in a sensationalistic way, for example, quite often comes across as an example of an aberration, which implies that there is something wrong with them, which in turn, implies that there is something wrong with humans that engage in same-sex relationships.

Barron and Brown conclude by suggesting that those in the media could be a little more careful in how they choose to represent animal .

Explore further: Flu at the zoo and other disasters: Experts help animal exhibitors prepare for the worst

More information: Science journalism: Let's talk about sex, Nature, 488, 151–152 (09 August 2012) doi:10.1038/488151a

Abstract
The media loves to sensationalize research on animal sexual behaviour — so be careful what you say, warn Andrew B. Barron and Mark J. F. Brown.

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antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (8) Aug 09, 2012
Journalists should be taken to task for sensationalizing science reports in general.

I understand that journalists want to make things more interesting. But the tools for making things more interesting are the use of metaphors, allusions, and other ways of insinuating a context into the subject matter that just isn't there.

Scientific papers are very precise for a reason: to limit misunderstanding by other scientists. That is why most everything in them is spelled out (and anything that ISN'T spelled out is not part of the paper). Especially drawing conclusions beyond what is presented in the 'results' sections leads to misunderstandings. Scientist are very careful about which conclusions can be drawn from their work and which cannot. If a conclusion you THINK follows from a paper isn't mentioned then it isn't mentioned for a reason - not because the researcher didn't think of it.
Having been at the wrong end of 'science journalism' myself I can fully empathizes with their position.
Squirrel
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 09, 2012
If science was not "sexed up", the tax paying public would not care if its funded stopped. Much of the reporting of the Curiosity Rover is over the top hype but by creating public engagement it could make the difference between NASA getting big or only small budget cuts. Do Barron and Brown want future funding of research into animal behavior?
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (7) Aug 09, 2012
If science was not "sexed up", the tax paying public would not care if its funded stopped.

There are some things which politicians should decide - and not the taxpayer. Some things shouldn't be decided by the averag Joe. That's the whole point why we elect politicians in the first place - because we hope/think they will make better decisions by the average Joe with a more long term mindset.

To hell with whether it's sexy or not. The more fundamental research is the less sexy it is. But that is also the research that will pay off most down the line by transforming entire economies. When budgets get decided on what will get the most votes (i.e. decision of what type of science to do is handed to the average Joe) then all is lost.
At that point you only get research into: "what are the coolest colors for Apps" and the like.
B__
5 / 5 (6) Aug 09, 2012
1. I agree with antialias, not only is the media doing a bad job with effectively representing scientific results, it has been known to jump on studies that have not been reproduced with under 10 participants, and make those claims as fact (rather than a fallible interpretation of objective data). I think what is really missing is any scepticism and criticism in science journalism.

2. "...human emotions are involved, while emotions in animals, if they even really do exist, are not understood at all."

"human emotions" are not understood either. Our neurological understanding of them is informed by animal studies, which a priori assume animals have emotion -- not to mention the inherent hypocrisy of assuming an animal has emotions and then torturing and killing zir. Evidence does support the existence of animal emotions.

Describing examples of queer-like behaviour in animals (emotional or not) supports the argument that queerness is natural and *not* an "aberration".
antialias_physorg
4.5 / 5 (8) Aug 09, 2012
the argument that queerness is natural and *not* an "aberration".

To be fair: What occurs in nature is natural. 'Aberration' is a human concept. The whole concept of whether queerness in humans is "right" or "wrong" is a sociological issues and not a biological one.

Biology just states the facts: Same sex intercourse occurs in humans and animals alike (which is not much of a surprise since we are part of the animal kingdom and not separate from it).
To NOT expect same sex intercourse events/predilections in humans when they occur everywhere else in the animal kingdom is not warranted.

So any type of value judgement as to the natural/unnaturalness of gay humans has nothing to do with how nature is - only with how some people would like nature to be (based on their ideas on morality).

But wanting something doesn't make it so.
Modernmystic
3.3 / 5 (4) Aug 09, 2012
There are some things which politicians should decide - and not the taxpayer. Some things shouldn't be decided by the averag Joe.


To insure I'm not misunderstanding. You're stating that some things shouldn't be decided by "average" people because they're not capable of making the decisions. However "average" people are somehow capable of determining who the best people are to make said decisions?

I'm sorry, but that reasoning violates its own premises...
panorama
not rated yet Aug 09, 2012
There are some things which politicians should decide - and not the taxpayer. Some things shouldn't be decided by the averag Joe.


To insure I'm not misunderstanding. You're stating that some things shouldn't be decided by "average" people because they're not capable of making the decisions. However "average" people are somehow capable of determining who the best people are to make said decisions?

I'm sorry, but that reasoning violates its own premises...

I may be misinterpreting but it seems like anti was trying to say that matters of sexuality shouldn't be involved in the politics. I could be wrong though.
axemaster
not rated yet Aug 09, 2012
No offense, but is it really surprising that journalists would do this? After all, someone who goes to school for journalism usually misses out on any kind of scientific education. Why should we expect them to be knowledgeable about topics that actually have clear "yes" or "no" answers?
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 09, 2012
To insure I'm not misunderstanding. You're stating that some things shouldn't be decided by "average" people because they're not capable of making the decisions.

The reasoning is simple: If you know someone you can decide whether they are good or bad at making decisions based on how those decisions worked out for them (and others around them) in the past.
So it's (relatively) easy to make a decision on who is a good decision maker.

But making a decision whether we should invest in what types of scientific research (or what foreign policy to pursue) requires that you are somewhat knowledgeable in that area - which the average Joe isn't.

A good decision maker isn't necessarily knowledgeable, either - BUT a good decision maker knows how to get the info on how to make a good decision (i.e. he knows what's of consequence and what is inconsequential in the decision making process) better than an average decision maker.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Aug 09, 2012
After all, someone who goes to school for journalism usually misses out on any kind of scientific education.

There are science journalists and they usually do have a scientific education. Obviously they can't be experts in any subject they report about (99% of other scientists wouldn't qualify for that) - but they should be able to ask the right questions.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4 / 5 (16) Aug 09, 2012
describing them as gay, lesbian or in some cases transgender, when such terms are not just inaccurate, but are in some cases outright wrong.
Well it depends doesnt it? If homosexuality is a natural form of population control then we would expect to find similar mechanisms in many species including our own.

Is homosexuality natural? If so then it provides some BENEFIT and was thus selected for.

Overpopulation is an endemic problem with many species and mechanisms have evolved to counter it. Rabbit females in overcrowded warrens will absorb their unborn fetuses as only one example of many.

If these researchers want to consider humans as animals then they must be able to describe conditions such as this in natural terms.

Whether it is politically acceptable to do so or not.
antonima
3 / 5 (2) Aug 09, 2012
Every time I read a headline like " the secret sex life of nocturnal prawns " I want to gnash my teath and hide in shame for reading the same news as the mentally handicapped. Who would find this stuff amusing??????????

PS 'brokeback mutton' is pretty good however.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Aug 10, 2012
Is homosexuality natural? If so then it provides some BENEFIT and was thus selected for.

Not every trait that is expressed is of benefit and is selected for (or against).

For example: Susceptibility to some diseases may be a tradeoff because the organ that is susceptible the disease is of greater benefit than the negative effects of the disease. So while th eorgan is definitely a product of selection for fitness - the disease is not (even thoug it is implicitly selected for)

Any trait that is expressed after the age of procreation is mostly irrelevant to selection (with some provisos for ttaits that help a group to survibe as a whole).
E.g. hair loss happens in older humans - it is, however, not a characteristic selected for (or against). But it certainly is 'natural'.

And not all factors are purely genetic. Nurture does play a part. So some traits can occur naturally despite being genetically selected for or against - no matter what.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (13) Aug 10, 2012
E.g. hair loss happens in older humans - it is, however, not a characteristic selected for (or against). But it certainly is 'natural'.
Well it's hard to say. Do we know exactly why people go bald?

Gaydom keeps people contributing to the tribe who are not adding to it's growth. Perhaps it is an epigenetic action by mothers who, perceiving overcrowding, will neuter future children in the womb to reduce reproductive competition for their other children.

Factoid - younger brothers exhibit a higher incidence of homosexuality. Is this because mothers seek to reduce competition for older brothers they may perceive as their best chance for continuation of their genes?

Ever read 'The Selfish Gene'? We are only transport for our genetic stuff from one gen to the next. Do mothers perceive and favor 'quality' in one child over another, and wish to enhance it's chances to reproduce?

This is only a notion but it seems to make sense.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (13) Aug 10, 2012
And not all factors are purely genetic. Nurture does play a part. So some traits can occur naturally despite being genetically selected for or against - no matter what.
Nurture aids reproductive success. It can also be selectively applied by the mother to favor quality. Infanticide is endemic to our species as it is to many others, an extreme example of maternal selectivity and pop control.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2012
Gaydom keeps people contributing to the tribe who are not adding to it's growth.

But it's certainly not selected for (since gay individuals don't breed - only non-gay individuals breed). But it also does not seem to be selected against because otherwise there would be no gay people.

It may just be one of these things like shape of the nose: Not important enough to factor into selection any which way.

More gay people does also not neccesaily mean less children. The number of children is related to how bearing parents see the advantage/survivability of having X number of offspring.
In a large society with a high percentage of gays that number may be higher than in an equaly large society with less gays. In that case it would also not be selected for or against.

Do mothers perceive and favor 'quality' in one child or another, and wish to enhance it's chances to reproduce?
The gene is selfish to the next individual born - not a group.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.1 / 5 (14) Aug 10, 2012
But it's certainly not selected for (since gay individuals don't breed
Ccorrect - which is why mothers may neuter them epigenetically in the womb. This ability would conceivably be selected for.
More gay people does also not neccesaily mean less children. The number of children is related to how bearing parents see the advantage/survivability of having X number of offspring.
You seem to think pleistoceners had a choice whether to mate or not. We are tropical animals and are plagued with these tropical urges of ours.

But refusal, or offering non-procreative alternatives such as anal or oral intercourse, could also be expressions of the desire to limit family size. Ever watch apes in a zoo? Not pretty.

I think the trouble with animal couples that continue to have sex without producing results, is that both mates perceive that something is wrong physiologically and will begin to seek other mates. Producing neutered babies could maintain the relationship.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.1 / 5 (14) Aug 10, 2012
So maybe the Catholics were speaking from ancient experience; abstinence instead of contraception is better for relationships.

Sex is an inextricable part of conception. Mates who do not perceive the physiological changes of successful mating will subconsciously feel they are wasting their time and energy, and look to apply it elsewhere.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2012
Ccorrect - which is why mothers may neuter them epigenetically in the womb. This ability would conceivably be selected for.

Why would it? Since both survive with equal probability there's no selection pressure for favoring one over the other. Certainly it's not currently a selection criterium.

But refusal, or offering non-procreative alternatives such as anal or oral intercourse, could also be expressions of the desire to limit family size.

Sex is more than just a means of procreation. It limits aggression - which is important in a society (and also a reason why armies tend to be all men. People who want to have armies want to use this aggression potential)

Nothing ever only serves one purpose in biological beings. That would be wasteful (and is also a very mechanistic/reductionist view which doesn't really fit with biologicals)
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.7 / 5 (12) Aug 10, 2012
Why would it? Since both survive with equal probability there's no selection pressure for favoring one over the other.
There is ongoing contention over how group interaction can have anything to do with genetics. Dawkins used to reject the possibility but I don't know what he thinks at the moment.

But obviously, tribes whose individuals were able to work better together would tend to prevail over others and as von dennen, Darwin and others have pointed out, this IS selection. This would include things like controlling its size relative to regional carrying capacity.

But also, a mother who could discern the genetic quality of her offspring and seek at an epigenetic level to assist these children to procreate by limiting competition from siblings, WOULD be selected for. Her lineage would have a greater chance of surviving to procreate, being stronger, smarter, and better adapted. And they wouldn't have to be selected for in the traditional manner, through competition.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (13) Aug 10, 2012
Sex is more than just a means of procreation.
Yeah right. The SOLE biological reason for having sex is to procreate no matter what oprah says.
It limits aggression
What?? Our overactive, tropical urge to reproduce is the main cause of contention among males. A mans prerogative is quantity while a womans is quality, as she has far more invested in each pregnancy.

Once the man wakes up he is ready to go. Yes?
- which is important in a society (and also a reason why armies tend to be all men. People who want to have armies want to use this aggression potential)
Yeah. Not to mention that men are larger and able to best most any woman in combat. This has always been true since alpha male apes went on the warpath, and up until they invented weapons with buttons.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.3 / 5 (12) Aug 10, 2012
Amazons? There was supposedly one such tribe on the southern shore of the black sea. They died out didn't they?
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (13) Aug 10, 2012
But also, a mother who could discern the genetic quality of her offspring and seek at an epigenetic level to assist these children to procreate by limiting competition from siblings, WOULD be selected for. Her lineage would have a greater chance of surviving to procreate, being stronger, smarter, and better adapted. And they wouldn't have to be selected for in the traditional manner, through competition.
There is ample precedent for maternal selection in the animal world. Mothers will push runts out of the nest. As I said, infanticide is rife in nature. But homosexuals in the group may share some of the same advantages as the post-menopausal woman, another mystery.

Some think grandmothers were essential in birthing as the baby comes out face-down and so requires a second set of hands to deliver. And grandmothers can assist in rearing large broods while mom is out gathering. Perhaps gays served the tribe in similar ways.
gopher65
not rated yet Aug 11, 2012
Not every trait that is expressed is of benefit and is selected for (or against).

You're right, but that doesn't mean their isn't a benefit to homosexuality in humans or other animals. It means their doesn't have to be.

Research into homosexuality among birds (like albatrosses) suggests that there is a strong reason to have ~2 percent of the female population homosexual. Those female birds don't mate with males, and thus are available to help raise and protect the young of other members of the nesting area. There has been some suggestion that this may be true of primate species as well, though there is scant evidence for this to date.

Thus far the only reason for male homosexuality that I've seen is that it's a genetic accident caused by the necessity of female homosexuality. Of course, all of that is pre-civilization, so it's irrelevant to our society today, but it could help us understand how such traits formed in the first place:).
Thadieus
not rated yet Aug 12, 2012
There are some things which politicians should decide - and not the taxpayer. Some things shouldn't be decided by the averag Joe.


To insure I'm not misunderstanding. You're stating that some things shouldn't be decided by "average" people because they're not capable of making the decisions. However "average" people are somehow capable of determining who the best people are to make said decisions?

I'm sorry, but that reasoning violates its own premises...


Nice one James Holmes
DarkHorse66
not rated yet Aug 13, 2012
Why would one assume that an animal humping another of the same sex is gay anyway?There are plenty of species where,during the mating season,the air is thick with the smell of females in estrus.Of course the male is going to be randy.If he is randy enough,& there are some males mixed in with the 'girls',the odds that he will mount another male in his frenzy, are there.I'm sure that some of you have seen or at least heard of bulls or stallions mounting each other, where it turned out that there was at least one cow or mare in another paddock.Under those circumstances, how else would one expect them to get rid of a persistent& frustrating hard-on?It's only in human societies where we have a whole heap of taboos(usually religious in origin) surrounding this kind of stuff.I dare say(pure speculation,of course)that even the caveman didn't have as many taboos as modern humans.What evidence we have, points to element/spirit worship(eg lightning=supernatural)& not actual gods giving ordersDH66
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.7 / 5 (12) Aug 13, 2012
Why would one assume that an animal humping another of the same sex is gay anyway?There are plenty of species where,during the mating season,the air is thick with the smell of females in estrus.Of course the male is going to be randy.
Waste of time and resources. Our selfish genes want to propagate at any cost. If gaydom has some benefit it is to the group not the individual.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.6 / 5 (11) Aug 13, 2012
It's only in human societies where we have a whole heap of taboos(usually religious in origin
The surviving religions are ALL designed to maximize growth in order to be able to overrun the enemy. Any religion that wasn't, has been overrun.

As such religion vilified any alternatives to non-procreative sex. This produces overcrowded pops full of miserable, angry people. Religions blame their misery on the other religions which have the land and resources they do not deserve.

THEN they open their books to the sections like the old testament which tells them exactly how to rectify this unfortunate situation.
SatanLover
not rated yet Aug 13, 2012
It's only in human societies where we have a whole heap of taboos(usually religious in origin
The surviving religions are ALL designed to maximize growth in order to be able to overrun the enemy. Any religion that wasn't, has been overrun.

As such religion vilified any alternatives to non-procreative sex. This produces overcrowded pops full of miserable, angry people. Religions blame their misery on the other religions which have the land and resources they do not deserve.

THEN they open their books to the sections like the old testament which tells them exactly how to rectify this unfortunate situation.

including the jewish religion where they overrun your wealth.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Aug 13, 2012
As such religion vilified any alternatives to non-procreative sex.

Celibacy does not seem to be vilified everywhere. Celibacy is pretty widespread in Buddhist monastic tradition and, of course, in the christian hierarchy of priests. (Though I think in the christian setup this is mainly a method to prevent assets from being handed down to children and therefore out of the control of the church)

Striving for absence of (sexual) desires is part of Buddhism - yet that religion seems to do quite well.

Certainly outbreeding your competitors is a powerful tool to becoming a dominant group - but it isn't the only tool that works. If you can manage to convert more people than your opposition can produce then you can still 'win' in the long run. And this is why the fundamentalists always eventually fail.
CapitalismPrevails
1 / 5 (1) Aug 13, 2012
There are some things which politicians should decide - and NOT THE TAXPAYER. Some things SHOULDN'T be decided by the average Joe.

Well that's very amusing and spoken like a true utopian statist might add. How do you make the distinction between what taxpayers should decide and what politicians should decide? Your reasoning only works subjectively. Ever heard of taxation without representation? How about vice versa, representation without taxation? These maxims prove there are conflicts of interest if politicians aren't inline with their taxpayers/voters.
Deathclock
not rated yet Aug 13, 2012

There are some things which politicians should decide - and not the taxpayer. Some things shouldn't be decided by the averag Joe.


In this country politicians are (if not worse than) the average Joe... It's a sad state of affairs in the U.S. when many of our leaders do not believe in Evolution or an old Earth or have been quoted as saying that we don't need to worry about global warming because the condition of the planet is in God's hands...
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 13, 2012
In this country politicians are (if not worse than) the average Joe...

Difference between idea and reality.

Then again: I shudder to think what kind of decisions 'mob rule' would produce. We can see it in the protests in Spain and Greece: They take to the streets to stop the austerity measures - and what exactly would that accomplish? It would put the country and its credit rating right down the drain to the point where the creditors would come to collect. And there would be NOTHING left after that and things would look MUCH worse that they do now.