Research Paper: Sex and Stats

One of the courses I am attending this year is a research seminar on Cold War science. I am not sure how to phrase this—”despite” or “even though”—, but as a student in Germany, I had no idea what impact the Cold War had on natural and social sciences, and how deeply intertwined modern genetics and the atomic bomb are, for example. These Tuesday classes are definitely my least enjoyable regarding subject matter, because I simply cannot deal unemotionally with human experiments, hydrogen bombs, and non-heterosexuals driven into suicide. Yet, it is one of my (three) favorite classes; since not only what I learn concerning methodology and content, but also my excitement for my own research project within the course exceed my expectations.

After realizing that John W. Tukey did not only work on missiles, the Census, and ozone depletion, but was also member of the methodological review committee of Alfred C. Kinsey’s report on male sexuality, I went to the American Philosophical Society Archives to have a look at some of the Tukey papers. The collection is huge, but I found some interesting issues around which I framed the research proposal to my professor:

I want to explore the Cold War connection of Alfred C. Kinsey et al.’s sex research shortly after World War II, or rather the effort that was put into assessing and improving the validity of its data analysis and conclusions (1950–1952).—Kinsey and his co-workers published a report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, having been financially supported by the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee for Research in Problems of Sex (CRPS), which continued funding Kinsey’s further studies on female sexuality through the 1950s. After publishing the Kinsey Report, however, the research group was widely criticized for its data acquisition and interpretation methods. Thus, the NRC requested the American Statistical Association (ASA) to appoint a committee for estimating the validity of the Kinsey Report. Three statisticians were designated members of the committee, one of them John W. Tukey. In cooperation with Kinsey’s research group at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, the committee reviewed the statistical methods of the Kinsey Report, and claimed to focus entirely on the validity of data interpretation, i.e., to exclude the matter of male sexuality and orgasm from their inquiry—a fact which may reflect the reviewers’ lacking experience in the human sciences. Being notably rushed by the CRPS due to newspaper speculations on the reasons for a methodological Kinsey Report review, the report was completed in 1952, and published in the ASA journal in the following year.1

Besides Tukey’s papers, which include subject files on the Kinsey Report evaluation and correspondence with the ASA, the American Philosophical Society (APS) holds papers on Frederick Mosteller’s work on the Kinsey Report—Mosteller was another review committee member (circa two linear feet). Not only correspondence amongst the committee members, between the committee and Kinsey, as well as between the committee and the ASA, but also annotated drafts of the review report, and a collection of published criticisms on the Kinsey Report can be found in the collections. If time allows, I could also visit the National Academy of Science’s archives, where the records of the CRPS are held (1920–1965). Among other papers, the collection comprises ten feet of records about persons and institutions the CRPS worked with, and about sexuality research support in specific, including grant applications.

In exploiting these sources, I hope to be able to profile the work of the review committee on the Kinsey Report, and to gain understanding in statistical work during an early stage of the Cold War. I want to learn more about the review committee’s appointment: Who decided to request such a committee and for which purpose? Who chose its members? What kind of negotiations between the CRPS, the ASA, the review committee, and the research group around Kinsey took place before and after the committee had commenced its work? What outcome of the review was anticipated by the respective agents? If possible, I want to extend my investigation on the NRC CRPS in order to learn more about if and by what means this NRC Committee influenced sexuality research and its perception through financial support; but also in what way evaluation of funded research influenced its direction. Moreover, it seems worth an attempt to find out which scientific, political and social developments led to the CRPS’s discharge in 1963.

Not much neuroscience there, but a lot of brain … The revised and extended five-page version of the proposal is due tomorrow, so I better get started right away. And I have not forgotten that I wanted to share some more thoughts on stats, besides these Tukey-connected ones. Mary Morgan and her pretty white-dotted red cardigan are still on my mind.

1 William G. Cochran / Frederick Mosteller / John W. Tukey (1952): “Statistical Problems of the Kinsey Report.” In Journal of the American Statistical Association 48, pp. 673–716.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *