Sunday, January 25, 2009

The problem with plethysmographs

You know this recently-reported research claiming that, when measured by plethysmograph, women seem to become aroused by watching monkeys having sex?

Maybe the plethysmograph is not measuring what the researchers think it's measuring. That is to say, the reaction that researchers are classifying as "arousal" may actually be embarrassment, or perhaps "awww, what a cute monkey."

This goes back to my skepticism toward Northwestern University psychologist Michael Bailey, who reported somewhat similar results in his notorious federally funded "porn arousal" research. The plethysmographic measurement of female arousal may simply be miscalibrated or misunderstood.

Female sexuality may be sufficiently subtle and complex that what are actually emotional (as opposed to sexual) reactions to visual stimuli are producing somatic changes that are picked up by the plethysmograph and then misinterpreted by researchers. So the real problem is in the interpretation of the data, and the "scientific" misconception of what is actually being measured. Just because a reaction can be detected by changes in the woman's genitalia does not mean the reaction is sexual, per se.

A scientific mystery solved! Can I get my federal research grant now?

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