How to Do Sensationalism

First off, let me just say that it’s very wrong that I found out about an article in PLos Medicine through Facebook instead of Bora. I mean, I know Bora can’t bring everything interesting to my attention, but…still. It is a cool article, reporting a negative correlation between paternal age and children’s scores on a number of cognitive tests.

Seriously, though, I’m glad I didn’t know what the study was about when I saw the link to New York Magazine, or I might not have followed it. It was worth following, if for no other reason than the titles:

Do Cougars Have the Smartest Kids?

This Old Sperm
Science comes down on the side of the cougar.

What’s not to love? Well, after an introduction like that, I was actually expecting to hate the article. I mean, we’ve all seen plenty of overly sensational science reporting. The opening paragraph carries none of the caveats of the article.

Earlier this month, the journal PLoS Medicine analyzed data from a study of over 50,000 pregnant women and came to a simple but stunning conclusion: Older fathers have dumber kids. The more geriatric the dad, the dimmer the progeny, on measures including “thinking and reasoning, concentration, memory, understanding, speaking, and reading.” (Luckily, geezer offspring had no problems with motor skills, making them ideal for wheeling around their elderly dads.)

And there was plenty of hyperbole.

At last, science has produced the case for cougars. As Madonna understands intuitively, nature clearly intends aging women—whether married, divorced, or single; on vacation in Cancún or just killing time on line at the DMV—to snatch up passing youths in our talons and gestate a race of supersmart children. Who themselves, I presume, will be smart enough to self-select their partners likewise, forming a superrace of egghead Demis and Ashtons, a Cleopatran paradise of trophy studs and December–May embryos. Denying this is denying biology itself, and far be it for me to deny biology!

However, once it has your attention and gets its main points across, it immediately launches into a discussion of potentially confounding social variables. This is then followed by a critique of the kind of science reporting that would explain away results like those found in the study (older mother = good; older father = bad) with social variables while accepting cultural-norm-affirming sociobiology theorizing uncritically, ending with:

So if there’s something sickly refreshing about the bad news for older dads, let’s just admit that this is more about social gamesmanship than hard facts. If Us Weekly begins to print pictures of Owen Wilson with worried captions about stale sperm, would that be so bad?

The best part of the whole thing isn’t how concise it is, or how snarky. The best thing is that this lovely bit of contextual science reporting comes from Emily Nussbaum, who usually covers television. Beautiful job, Emily.

Thanks to Josh for the link.

How to Do Sensationalism