Yawning Bread. August 2007

Death by numbers, part 2


    

 

 

"I would question who the group was that undertook the survey and what their political agenda is," wrote Meredyth Tamsyn to the Straits Times. She was reacting to Alan Chin's letter, Beware the high-risk 'gay lifestyle' published in the newspaper on 8 August. [1]

A more pertinent question might be which group Chin himself belonged to and what their agenda was, because as it turned out, the figures he had cited for the numbers of sexual partners that gay men supposedly had were highly questionable. They appear to have come from a 1948 study by Alfred Kinsey. Not only is that study from a very long time ago but its method has also been much criticised in the years since.

There are more recent studies which somehow Chin did not refer to. 

I myself had written about how his other figures -- the percentages of men having sex with men -- were also suspicious. See the article Death by numbers.

Tiong Yuen Wai, in his letter (Straits Times online forum, 10 August 2007 [2]) quizzed Chin's silence on another matter -- "the other 70 per cent". Chin had pointed out that 30 percent of reported HIV diagnoses came from men who had had homosexual relations. (The exact figure from the 2006 Ministry of Health data was 28.5% of the 330 who had been infected through sex, and 26.3% of the total 357 persons diagnosed.)

Tiong wrote that Chin "downplayed" that remaining 70 percent, in his attempt to the draw attention to the "gay lifestyle".

* * * * *

 
This morning, I received a rather disturbing email. It shows how not only are certain letter-writers from the anti-gay lobby playing fast and loose with data, the Straits Times' editors aren't terribly professional about citations -- and thus, accuracy -- either.

Li Bihui had her "letter" published in the newspaper today, also pointing out problems with Alan Chin's earlier letter, but she told me in her email that she had been cornered into amending the letter to the Straits Times' taste.

Her email:

This is related to your article, "Death by Numbers", on Alan Chin's ST forum letter. I did not believe the figures for the number of partners gay men had, so I spent an entire morning checking them. Turns out that they are from the Kinsey study I referenced in the letter I wrote to the ST in response (attached below). 

Yesterday the ST rang me up and said that they could not publish my letter in its original form because Alan Chin had referenced a different book (Alan P. Bell et al, Homosexuality: A Study Of Diversity Among Men & Women (1978)), uncited in his letter because the print edition doesn't contain citations as a policy (!). They were unable to contact him in person yesterday to check if those figures were really originally from that book or whether the book he referenced had merely cited the Kinsey study. 

Therefore the ST insisted that they could only publish my letter if I agreed to let them say that I had found on that the figures were actually from the Bell book. I was reluctant to do this for two reasons: 

1. I had no idea if the Bell book really contained those figures, and didn't want to be on record as saying that I'd actually discovered that they were from that book. 

2. Editing my letter to leave the Kinsey figures out meant that I could not point readers to the study (one of many) that had criticised Kinsey's methods of gathering and analysing data.

However, since the ST insisted my letter had to be partially disembowelled and an untruth had to be told (namely, the untruth that I had found out that the figures were from Bell's book) in order for the letter to be published, I was put in a tricky position. On the one hand, I could publish the letter online if the ST didn't want to publish it. But publishing online in any Singaporean blog is pretty much preaching to the choir --- the vast majority of people who are likely to have found Chin's letter convincing are not the kind who read blogs. 

So I decided it was a worthwhile tradeoff to at least get the conflicting figures I'd sourced out into a more widely read forum which would reach more of my intended audience, rather than publishing my full letter somewhere where only people who didn't need to be convinced would read it. Thus my partially disembowelled letter was published today.

I am quite annoyed by the lack of professionalism in the ST Forum's editorial process. I do not think it is good practice to request a contributor to edit a letter to cite an unverified source that the contributor herself has no faith in. But such is the state of journalism in Singapore, it seems.

Regards,
Bihui

Below is Bihui's original letter to the Straits Times. In the box on the right is the published version. 

 

Unpublished, original version

Dear Editor:

In his letter "Beware the high-risk 'gay lifestyle'" (ST Forum, Aug 82007), Dr Alan Chin mentions that a US study showed that "75 per cent of homosexual men have more than 100 sexual partners and 28 per cent of them have more than 1,000 partners". 

Since no citation was given for these figures, it took some sleuthing before I discovered that they are from the book by Alfred Kinsey, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male", published in 1948. However, Kinsey's methodology in acquiring his data and computing his results was later shown to involve statistical inaccuracies and sampling errors, as explained in Cochran et al (1953). 

No one has thus far been able to reproduce Kinsey's figures in or outside the US, and more recent studies on the number of partners of gays have contradicted it. 

Gebhard and Johnson (1979) found that 8.4% of gay males had over 500 partners in their lifetimes. Jay and Young (1979) reported that 12.5% had over 500 partners. Outside the US, McManus and McEvoy (1987) found that 14.5% of gay respondents outside London and 22.5% in London had over 500 partners. All of these figures are significantly smaller than the 28% reported for the percentage of gays with more than 1000 partners --- even 22.5% is only for those with over 500 partners. 

I urge that readers who write into the ST Forum be more careful with regards to their selection of studies to back up their arguments.

References:

Cochran W. G., Mosteller F., Tukey J. W. (1953) Statistical Problems of the Kinsey Report. Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 48, No. 264., pp. 673-716.

Gebhard, P. H. and Johnson, A. B. (1979) The Kinsey Data: Marginal tabulations of the 1938-1963 interviews conducted by the Institute for Sex Research. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Jay, K. and Young, A. (1979) The Gay Report. New York: Summit.

Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B. and Martin, C. E. (1948) Sexual behaviour in the human male. Philadelphia: Saunders.

McManus, T. J. and McEvoy, M. (1987) Some aspects of male homosexual behaviour in the United Kingdom. Br. J. Sexual Medicine, 11C120.

Li Bihui

 
If you ever need a case study of why Singapore's media deserves its abysmally low ranking compared to other countries, this is one.

Yawning Bread 


 

10 August 2007
Straits Times Print Forum

Figure on multiple gay sex partners too high 

In his letter, 'Beware the high-risk 'gay lifestyle' (ST, Aug 8), Dr Alan Chin mentions that a US study showed that '75 per cent of homosexual men have more than 100 sexual partners and 28 per cent of them have more than 1,000 partners'. 

As no citation was given for these figures, it took some sleuthing before I discovered that they are from the book by Alan P. Bell et al, Homosexuality: A Study Of Diversity Among Men & Women (1978). 

Other studies on the number of partners of gays have contradicted the figures. Gebhard and Johnson (1979) found that 8.4 per cent of gay males had over 500 partners in their lifetimes. 

Jay and Young (1979) reported that 12.5 per cent had over 500 partners. 

Outside the United States, McManus and McEvoy (1987) found that 14.5 per cent of gay respondents outside London and 22.5 per cent in London had over 500 partners.

All of these figures are significantly smaller than the 28 per cent reported for the percentage of gays with more than 1,000 partners - even 22.5 per cent is only for those with over 500 partners. 

I urge that readers who write to the ST Forum be more careful with regard to their selection of studies to back up their arguments. 

Li Bihui (Ms)

 

Footnotes

  1. Meredyth Tamsyn's letter can be found at Letters to the press, 8 - 10 August 2007. Scroll to the bottom.
    Return to where you left off

  2. Ibid.
    Return to where you left off

Addenda

None