July 12, 2010 — As advertisers have long known, if you mention sex, people pay attention. College students are no exception.
So when University of Virginia psychology professor James Freeman teaches a summer class on "Controversies in Human Sexuality," it never lacks attendance or engaging class discussion.
But the students, to their surprise, end up learning as much or more about the rigors of science than about sex.
"Sex is the theme of the class," Freeman said, "but it's really about science, about building the skills of scientific inquiry and critical evaluation."
The seminar class for rising fourth-year psychology majors in the College of Arts & Sciences has no textbook or assigned readings. Each day the class focuses on one topic of controversy. Is pedophilia harmful? Is incest harmful? Prostitution? Pornography? What is sexual addiction and how is it treated? Is sexuality genetic or learned?
For each topic, the 18 students write a brief paper based on readings they choose, which must include at least one article from the popular media and one article from a peer-reviewed academic journal.
Choosing what to read can be a challenge, noted student Andrew Harar. Not only is sex one of the most discussed topics in the popular press and on the Internet, but "when you search for a topic like 'masturbation' on the psychological journal databases, you literally get tens of thousands of results. So there are so many different perspectives we can all come up with."
That's exactly what Freeman counts on. "The greater the differences they find in their independent readings," he said, "the better the classroom discussion."
Papers are due at 6 a.m., ahead of each day's class, and Freeman rises at 4 a.m. to read them and plan a framework for the day's class discussion.
Many of the topics tap into things the students already know about sex – or think they know, Freeman said.
But his one cardinal rule for the class is that students make no unsupported claims, generalizations or conclusions. "How do you know that?" is his constant refrain, both in paper comments and during class discussion.
Students can't simply cite a study or a quote from a doctor, Freeman said. They must be able to outline how the doctor or the study supports a claim with legitimate sources of data, such as surveys, observations and experiments.
Facing Freeman's constant refrains, students often realize how little, if any, data is out there to support something they "knew" coming in to the class.
Sources like Cosmopolitan magazine, said student Suzanne Spatz at the end of a recent class, "largely draw on cultural imaginings of what sex is and could be, rather than objectively talking about it – if that's even possible." (Another student joked, "That would never sell.")
"Today's topic of incest was definitely an eye-opener," student Brittany Collins said. "We all have our biases, but then we get to the 'How do you know?' Research doesn't necessarily say it's such a bad thing or that it should never be done. There are places in the world where people only marry first cousins. It opens up your mind to other perspectives."
By challenging the students with his refrain of "How do you know that?," Freeman pushes them to be critical consumers of psychological news, with "opinions that are more data-based," he said.
In the process, these psychology majors come to better understand how difficult it is to answer psychological questions through scientific methods, Freeman said. The students have already taken core psychology classes that teach the methods and fundamentals of scientific inquiry. But thinking critically is difficult and takes years of practice, Freeman noted. "I probably really learned sometime during my graduate studies."
One of the most common mistakes is confusing correlation and causation, as students have been warned over and over in earlier core classes, Freeman said. "Let the data guide your opinion, not the other way around. People have a tendency to form an opinion and then extol evidence that supports it and denigrate whatever contradicts it, rather than weighing the evidence fairly."
That is such a common, perhaps even instinctive, habit of thought, he said, that it requires lots of training, practice and self-discipline to rid oneself of the habit.
Even after more than 30 years of work as a scientist, specializing in quantitative analysis, Freeman admits that, when he doesn't have his academic hat on, he sometimes lets his opinions trump evidence. "I don't like to read editorials from people with political opinions different than my own, when I should be challenged by them," he said.
Freeman hopes his class will be a valuable step in the long process of building the skills of science. He appears to be succeeding with at least some of his students.
"This class has helped me realize how much I take for granted," Katie Gurecki said. "When I read a magazine article or newspaper, in the past I have assumed it was true. After taking this class, I know you can't really do that. People confuse correlation and causation."
"I have a different perspective on research itself now," Ann O'Brien said. Before this class, she was "stuck behind books and assigned readings of studies. Now I'm looking for research, looking for replication that can really prove something. And often not finding it."
Even when a study answers one question, it often raises new questions, she said. There is always more to learn. "It's a constant journey of discovery, always yearning for proof, but never finding it," she said.
Before taking this class, Harar said he had gotten the feeling that most major topics in psychology had already been figured out. But in this class he's learned "there's a lot of stuff we don't know."