Why It’s Time to Stop Writing about Bullshit Social Trends

The blowjob is dead! Horrible as it is to contemplate, people have entirely abandoned fellatio. So Geoff Dyer of Esquire Magazine informs us.

When you do research on sex, you end up reading, in addition to academic studies, a lot of social commentary in popular media and on websites. A lot of this latter is dedicated to identifying new social trends. And the vast majority of this writing is, to put it frankly, complete and utter bullshit. We need good writing about social trends, especially when it comes to sex. Society’s attitudes towards sex have changed a lot in the last half century, and they are continuing to do so. This matters. But getting an accurate read on how this is happening is hard work, and for some reason magazine and newspaper editors hold their “trend” writers to a much lower standard than they do their actual reporters.

Since social trend writers, and their editors, are clearly having trouble figuring out how to do their jobs, I would like to propose a few simple rules that I think will help.

Neil’s Rules for Writing about Social Trends.

1. Have data.

Most social trends articles fall into the category of “stuff the writer heard people talking about when he or she was at a cocktail party somewhere in Manhattan the night before”. Brilliant social scientists often have an uncanny ability to see in the world around them important social facts other people would miss. But, and this is important, people like that get out, look at the world, and talk to people outside their own social group. And they generally don’t live in Manhattan. Oh, and they then go out and get data before they open their mouths.

There is a corollary to this rule, which is: If the data contradicts you, you’re wrong. As it happens this week the CDC released a fascinating new report, “Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States”, with lots of actual data for any social trend author who bothered to read it. And it shows that, at least between 2002 and 2008, there was no dramatic decline in the amount of fellatio being done in the United States. Maybe the last four years have brought a collapse. But I doubt it. I guess we’ll see in the next report. Here’s another example. I read a New York Times article once about how the attitudes of teen-age women were being shaped by Sex in the City. The author admitted that the show’s ratings among teen-age girls were actually very, very low. But all her friends’ daughters were watching it, so – well, so there. Which brings us to…

2. Your friends are not data.

Geoff Dyer, in his blowjob article, writes: “I recently undertook a small survey of some more mature male friends, and the results, while not unanimous, were overwhelming.” Where to even begin? Statisticians have ways of calculating exact margins of error down to a tenth of a percentage point. But they don’t generally do this with surveys of “a few friends”. And the reason is, they don’t have to. Such surveys are totally and completely useless.

Again, this seems to be a particular problem if you live in New York City. Carrie Bradshaw says in one episode that people who don’t live in New York are in some sense kidding. I don’t know if New Yorkers really believe this — I’d need data — but it does seem to be true that social trend writers tend to think that the people they meet at cocktail parties really are representative of society at large. If people in Ohio or Iowa or Idaho (and yes, New Yorkers, those are all different places) don’t resemble the people they meet at cocktail parties, it must be because those heartland people are behind the times.

3. TV shows are not data.

I know this will come as a shock to all the countless trend authors who have been using Lena Dunham’s new HBO series Girls as proof that that there is some crisis among women in their twenties, who are adrift and trapped in emotionally-unsatisfying relationships. For some reason, to social trend writers, who spend a lot of the time they’re not at cocktail parties watching television, tv shows, especially ones on expensive cable channels, really seem to have profound social significance. Otherwise that voice they hear in their head while they’re on the couch watching – “We spent two hundred thousand dollars on your education, and you consider this your job?” – gets very loud indeed. But here’s the problem.

If you are a social trend writer, TV shows are written by people who are a lot like you, except that some of them live in Los Angeles, and sometimes their characters will remind you of your friends. This may make it seem like they are therefore identifying a social trend. But please refer back to Rule 2. “But,” you say, “what if it’s a show that lots of people watch?” Well, lots of people watch EVERYTHING that’s on tv. (Remember when the NBC exec asks George Constanza why anybody would watch a show about nothing, and George says: “Because it’s on TV!”) I guarantee you that whatever the ratings for the premiere of Girls, they will be lower than the finale of The Sopranos. When that aired, did you write an article about how middle aged men today all run crime syndicates and end up possibly getting whacked in a diner? No, you didn’t. And PS, using the word “zeitgeist” in your article doesn’t make your trend more credible. It just annoys your readers.

4. Other writers and bloggers are not data.

I once read a New York Times article on a hot new trend: the dark memoir. There were two pieces of evidence for the trend: an article in the latest New Yorker, and a book by the film critic for the New Yorker. If someone has written something, or blogged about something, or even started a website, like The Mankini Revolution, about something, that still does NOT make it a trend, unless that person also has data. In which case, use their data. You haven’t got any further just by citing them.

All of this bad writing, besides being inherently annoying, has ethical significance. When you don’t have data, your readers end up believing or disbelieving your argument based on whether or not it confirms their own intuitions and prejudices. We have an entire network dedicated to playing to people’s prejudices. It’s called Fox, and its viewers are an abject lesson of where data-free analysis gets you. Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe such analysis. We need less truthiness and more truth – especially when it comes to sex. And this means paying attention to data. Even if you are a writer and live in New York City and have lots of interesting friends.

Have you read a data-free social trend piece? Email me! I’m starting a little collection.

(Incidentally, I mean “bullshit” here in its strict philosophical sense, as identified by Harry Frankfurt. Frankfurt says that bullshit is different from lying in that the writer of bullshit may or may not be writing something true. She doesn’t actually care. Her main concern is not purveying truth but, generally, conveying something about herself – her intelligence, wittiness, etc. This describes most social trend writers perfectly.)

Image: U.S. Government photo of a crowd gathered outside the New York Stock Exchange as the market collapses (1929)

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One Comment

  1. Excuse my ignorance but is this article meant to be ironic?

    Chastising “social trend writers” for making blanket statements without reference to data while claiming :

    “And the vast majority of this writing is, to put it frankly, complete and utter bullshit”

    “Most social trends articles fall into the category of “stuff the writer heard people talking about when he or she was at a cocktail party somewhere in Manhattan the night before”.”

    and to top it all off:

    “When you don’t have data, your readers end up believing or disbelieving your argument based on whether or not it confirms their own intuitions and prejudices. ”

    I mean don’t get me wrong I find this all very interesting and I do agree with you but as Bart Simpson said “the ironing is delicious” and I just couldn’t resist.

    Also, can we really expect accuracy and statistical validity to be high on the list of magazines that are designed to sell lipstick and $1000 dollar chihuahua collars?

    Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink | Reply

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