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Uncomfortable Positions

December 16th, 2005

Dr Petra

Recently a journalist who I like as a person, and respect as a writer gave me a call. I was pleased to talk to them since it had been a while since we talked and they’re always a pleasure to chat with.

Unfortunately on this occasion I was stuck in a position where I longed to help them but really couldn’t justify it.

Here’s why.

They’d been tasked to write a piece for a women’s glossy magazine based on a well-known best-selling self-help book. The piece was based around the book title and some of the book ideas. Clearly someone at the magazine had either read the book and liked it, or perhaps just spotted the title and thought ‘that’ll make a good piece’. And yes, by title alone it did sound intriguing.

But colleagues and myself had read the book. Starting with the title (that promised the impossible) it went downhill with a text that mixed up biological and evolutionary concepts (misunderstanding them and explaining them poorly). It made claims that endocrinologists, biologists and evolutionary psychologists couldn’t support (or perhaps went beyond their skills), yet the author had no qualifications in these areas. As with most self help books of this kind it was based not on any research or scientific evidence (despite extensively using ‘science’ to back itself up), but was based on an array of other equally poorly written self-help texts. Again, in contrast to existing psychological evidence the book insists males and females are from utterly different planets but if women only tried a little harder, hid their achievements and learned to keep their man happy, they could be blissful in any relationship of their choice.

Having carried out research on these books I know how they operate. They make ideas sound scientific by using biological or evolutionary terms (or sometimes just the word ‘science’, ‘hormones’ or ‘drive’). They explain behaviour through biology but advocate theories most therapists, practitioners or researchers would balk at. Deny your achievements, don’t tell others you’re using the book for advice, and pretend to be someone you’re not to catch a partner, if you’re abused or can’t get into a relationship it’s your fault for not following this book correctly. And those who author such texts make millions out of selling a fraudulent product. Were their books of a similar standard and on a topic like breast cancer, kidney or heart disease they’d be immediately exposed as charlatans. Because it’s on sex nobody bats an eye.

And that’s how such books end up in women’s magazines. They’re easy to read, written in snappy ways, and provide definitive advice that sounds easy to follow (but never is in practice). It’s a great way to grab a quick quote to capture the reader’s attention with minimum work from the busy journalist.

But that doesn’t stop them being a waste of money at best and dangerous at worst.

Which I explained to the journalist who called me. And they very respectfully listened (even though I knew they were on a deadline).

The problem was we were working from two very different perspectives. I needed to put on record the book this article was based on wasn’t endorsed by those respected in the field of sex and relationships, that it was misleading and written by someone unqualified for the job. I was happy to do this, but that wasn’t what was wanted for this article. What the journalist needed was for me to give a quote to give weight to it.

They asked me if I could provide some pointers to go in the article, putting various strategies to me to endorse. Some of their ideas I agreed with but it brought us back to the same problem that even if I were agreeing with their ideas or suggesting alternative dating/relationship theories I was still going to be quoted within an article that was in fact an advertorial for a book that was inaccurate and unethical.

It was awful because they were asking me for feedback and I was agreeing and yet I had to ask them not to quote me.

Because they’re a highly qualified and able journalist they respected my wishes. Which made it worse because I wanted to help and I couldn’t.

I felt mean because I wanted to be useful to someone under pressure, but also angry since I had the evidence that the book this feature was based on wasn’t helpful – and I had even more evidence of useful sex/relationship information to share. I was limited in my response as much as the journalist was. They weren’t getting the quotes they wanted and I couldn’t participate because of the topic of the feature.

And I also wondered how often experts are conflicted like this? For the professionals out there I’d imagine a lot. In fact it’s probably a defining part of what we do. Usually there’s a way round the problem, but not this time. Outside of this there’s another group of ‘experts’ who write books like the one the magazine was using to base their piece. And I bet they’re never in this position. For a start they don’t know the evidence to know their ideas are outdated, inadequate or incorrect, and the majority won’t give a stuff so long as you’re buying their book. Their only conflict is are they going to be quoted with a nice juicy book plug, not are they working effectively to share the best information for the public.

Sometimes I wish I could just give people what they want. The trouble around sharing knowledge is sometimes when the topic you’re asked to comment on is suspect; you have to say ‘no’.

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