About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
First, the facts, such as they appear to be: the results of survey after survey are remarkably consistent in indicating that men have more sexual partners, on average, than women. According to a recent study conducted in Britain, the figures for the median are 12.7 and 6.5 respectively (interestingly, the corresponding numbers in the United States are 7 and 4, what's up with that?).
But, argues math professor at the University of California at Berkeley David Gale, this cannot logically be. He even provided the Times with a mathematical proof that should settle the matter definitively :
“By way of dramatization, we change the context slightly and will prove what will be called the High School Prom Theorem. We suppose that on the day after the prom, each girl is asked to give the number of boys she danced with. These numbers are then added up giving a number G. The same information is then obtained from the boys, giving a number B.
Proof: Both G and B are equal to C, the number of couples who danced together at the prom. Q.E.D.”
Well, not so fast. As a smart (female) friend of mine quickly pointed out, there is a huge hole in this proof: it assumes that people “dance” only with one person at a time, and that dancing is balanced throughout the evening, so that if a girl doesn't dance there will be a corresponding boy who doesn't either.
But one wonders in what kind of world professor Gale lives. Biologists have produced plenty of evidence that many animal species, including mammals and particularly primates, easily violate both assumptions. I remember an old Italian joke appropriate to the situation in question: “Every man has, on average, seven women in his life. If I catch that son of a bitch who's got fourteen...”
Of course, Gale has a legitimate point when he cautions social scientists against accepting self-reported figures at face value: critics of self-report surveys point out that the surveys themselves may reinforce the stereotype of promiscuous men and chaste women, which then influences the way respondents answer the question, which reinforces the stereotype, and so on in an increasingly vicious circle. Although difficult, however, it is possible to come up with independent means of checking the reliability of self-reports. One would have to conduct DNA tests in random samples of the population using hospital birth records, comparing genomic markers of newborns with those of the (alleged) fathers. The relatively hard science of molecular biology could then come to the aid of the relatively soft one of sociology. We might finally be able to see whether Woody Allen was right when he said “Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go its pretty damn good.”