The blogosphere is rife with salacious news. Sex, danger, death and disaster headlines grab attention and pull readers in. The most recent explosion of salacious news comes from research that links men’s self-reported penis size (which we know is always accurate) with their willingness to use condoms. No shock, men who report large endowments in the penis department, don’t like condoms and may not use them as frequently as their average sized counterparts.
Is this News?
Probably not. And yet, I and thousands of others, sought fit to report on this research because the very mention of the male penis will drive readership. Maybe there is a bigger story here that merits telling.
PR about Research Versus Actual Research
A rapidly growing trend that feeds the near constant news cycle is medical or science PR. Entire websites are devoted to re-printing press-releases about the next new drug or medical discovery, often times without ever reading the actual study. (Most journal articles are prohibitively expensive for mere mortals living outside the walls of academia) . These press releases, if salacious or exciting enough, are picked up by every major online news organization and circulated widely. Few actually read the research from whence the PR came, but nevertheless present the content as fact and highly relevant to your health and well-being.
That was the case with the penis press. I doubt highly that anyone read the actual publications – yes, there were two. If they had, they would have seen the contradictions in reported data. One report found that perceptions of penis size correlated with attitudes about condom use- not actual usage. Men who perceived their penises as being larger had unfavorable views of condom use – average condoms were too tight or too uncomfortable – and might, therefore use them less frequently. While the other report, by the same authors, reported that penis size had no bearing on actual condom use.
‘But Chandler’ you might say ‘this is just a study about penis size, who cares if the reporting is inaccurate?’ And indeed, in the grand scheme of things, this particular news story really doesn’t matter. It does, however, speak to the larger problem: medical PR positioned as fact.
How Dangerous is Medical Marketing?
Consider that ask your doctor if miracle drug is right for you, is heard on every drug commercial currently on TV. Every major news agency reports the miracle findings for each and every miracle drug, and by all accounts each new, more expensive drug is better than the last (just like the next new, shiny iPhone or iPad). And then of course, there is the problem of fraudulent data and publication bias in medical research, covered extensively in Hormones Matter and elsewhere. When all of these factors combine, we get a veritable swampland of health and medical misinformation thrust upon us. Navigating this swampland, is difficult at best, deadly at worst (Vioxx, anyone?).
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make my personal healthcare decisions based upon actual research and not marketing. I want to see the data behind the research. In today’s medical marketplace, however, dissociating truth from PR is almost impossible. It’s time for a new model of science publishing.
The Upside of the Penis Size Press
If it wasn’t for some good PR and the blogosphere’s insatiable hunger for readership, we wouldn’t know that penis size may or may not correlate with condom use. I’m sure you’ll sleep more soundly now that this important question has not been answered. More importantly, it’s not every day I get to write a legitimate article with the words penis size in the search terms.