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Monday Science: sex news lasts two years max. And?

February 11th, 2008

Dr Petra

Today I thought I’d fallen into a sex news time tunnel. The day started normally enough, a couple of emails from journalists asking about sex during long term relationships, then the phone calls started coming in. Several radio stations rang asking about the new research on how love only lasts two years. Which puzzled me since that did ring a few bells but it was a story I remembered was pretty old.

Two years old to be exact. It was reported on the BBC website back in February 2006. It was based on an Italian study that suggested that people only had a couple of years to feel the effects of love and after that time due to hormonal changes they wouldn’t feel the same way about a partner as they entered into a ‘long term phase’ of their relationship. I was interviewed about the study for the BBC at the time and explained I had concerns over the validity of the research – and the possible implications that if we take yet more hormones we can relight our fires.

It seems that one website has a rather strange idea about what the words ‘science’ and ‘news’ mean. ShinyShiny hosted a blog entry ‘Monday Science: Sex chemistry lasts two years max. And?’ where the two-year-old BBC coverage was presented as something new. Although they link to the BBC story, nowhere do they make clear they’re talking about something that is most definitely not cutting edge research.

As you might expect the coverage was accompanied by the kind of lazy blogging Cory Silverberg has so recently taken to task. The ‘duh I could have told you that’ sneering response – usually the marker of someone who hasn’t bothered to read the original research. Or in this case bother to read either the original research or properly explain to readers they’re badly rewriting second-hand coverage of an old study.

But of course there is a very good reason for this sloppy sex science coverage. It’s Valentine’s week and so bloggers and journalists are on the look for some ‘light’ sex/relationships stories.

Now what might have been some science news for a Monday morning would be to
a. follow up what was going on with the original study
b. talk to others working in this area about what has developed in the past two years in this area, and whether the original study has made any impact.

That would require a bit of work though, and nobody wants to bother with that when you’re covering a fluff piece with a vague romance angle.

Yes, I appreciate many bloggers on these larger sites are often inexperienced, poorly paid (or unpaid), or working to tight deadlines. But if your task is to find some sex news it really isn’t too difficult to find something that really is new, rather than two years past its sell by date. And if your job is to cover sex and science surely you should check out the science and critically appraise it before dismissing it? At least then if you’re going to take something apart you can do so in an informed way – not just a ‘yeah I already knew that’ kind of gloating.

Weirdly, when the original study was covered by the BBC a couple of years back nobody mentioned it very much. Certainly nobody called me about it.

But today I’ve had 6 messages from radio stations, 7 requests from websites, and 5 from magazines/newspapers all asking about this ‘exciting new research’. Many of them now believe I conducted the study into how long love lasts. This perhaps also explains the growing number of emails from academics that’re also under the impression this was based on my research. And who’ve been laying into me for being a shoddy scientist.

Perhaps it’s the effects of this sex story time tunnel that’s meant the media who’ve got in touch haven’t bothered to establish this is based on very old news, and the academics who’ve hurriedly emailed haven’t worked out this is someone else’s study.

Am I surprised? Not really. It’s just depressing that what passes for science news seems to be the laziest form of writing – at least when the topic is sex. But hey ho, it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. I’ll keep an eye on the most ridiculous Valentines sex/relationships stories doing the rounds and will blog the best of the worst of them at the end of this week. You’re welcome to email me any daft ones you spot, although please be patient if you want a reply. That’s because I’ll still be fending off journalists and angry academics about a two-year-old study I had nothing to do with.

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