Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


May 20, 2009

The Study of Dating and Mating

Anne Machalinski and Christie Nicholson tell Gelf about their web project, the Science of Sex.

David Goldenberg

The media's handling of sex is often so superficial and silly—"Men would rather play videogames than have sex"—that it's refreshing to get actual in-depth reporting about the subject. In their Webby-award-winning project The Science of Sex, journalists Anne Machalinski, Christie Nicholson, and Aili McConnon spent months delving into how science and technology are changing the way we understand sex and attraction in the modern era.

(from left) Anne Machalinski, Christie Nicholson, and Aili McConnon
"We could barely fly much less have sex in Second Life. It sounded like a lot of work."

(from left) Anne Machalinski, Christie Nicholson, and Aili McConnon

After embedding themselves in Second Life (where they examined the use of "pose balls" during avatar sex), reporting on the importance of anatomical symmetry in attractiveness and orgasms, and digging into the ethics of designer babies, they produced a multimedia website chock-full of insightful writing, slide shows, and videos. Since producing the site as part of their final project for Columbia's Journalism School, they've moved on from full-time sex reporting to other journalistic pursuits: McConnon is an editor at Business Week; Machalinski reports for Newsday; and Nicholson is a freelance science journalist who produces podcasts for Scientific American and Slate.

In the following email interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Gelf caught up with Machalinski and Nicholson (who answered as one) to talk about sex, Second Life, and the future of science journalism. (You can hear them speak, along with Thomas Maier, the author of Masters of Sex, a biography of sex researchers Masters and Johnson; and OKCupid co-founders Chris Coyne and Christian Rudder; at Gelf Magazine's Geeking Out reading series on May 21 at the Jan Larsen Art Studios in Brooklyn.)

Gelf Magazine: How did you guys divide up the work on this project?

Machalinski and Nicholson: The team worked exceptionally well together for a number of reasons. We all had a very clear sense of what we wanted to accomplish, and what we wanted to get out of the project. We were perfectly matched in terms of what we valued in editorial style and were always willing to be flexible. All the initial planning was done in genuine collaboration, during long group meetings. But for the actual development of content and build of the site we split it based on each person's interest and skill. Site graphics and build were done by Anne, video shooting and editing done by Christie, and all top text editing and fact-checking by Aili. For the articles we did a round-robin style of writing and editing. Each of us wrote one first draft, and edited a second and a third draft for each story.

Gelf Magazine: You both seem to do a ton of multimedia work, and Science of Sex is packed with videos and slideshows. How important is it for a journalist to do more than just write these days?

Machalinski and Nicholson: Extremely important. Digital is here to stay; there are few who would deny that anymore. While many traditional publications like newspapers and television networks have an online presence, it is usually one where they are simply moving the content online. Even though sites contain a ton of multimedia (interactive graphics, lots of links, video, audio, etc.) stories are still being told in a linear fashion.
We believe that the paradigm shift underway right now will end in a completely different and new way of story-telling. The digital medium provides unlimited possibilities and nearly all publications are still sticking with what has always been there. The bulk of online videos are still being presented as mini-broadcast pieces, with a talking head, b-roll, and 12-second quotes. It's time for people to start thinking way, way, way out of the box, and using the web to create novel story-telling.
As for what skills journalists need today: At the very least, all journalists should be able to not only navigate the web as an expert, but also truly understand what makes the web work. This is not about learning all the technical parts, like Flash animation or how to edit a video. It's simpler than that. It is just understanding the language, what the technical tools are capable of, and starting to think about your own work in that way. Consuming information regularly via the web is the only way a reporter can come up with new and innovative ideas for telling their stories.

Gelf Magazine: Are the jobs of science journalists safer or less safe than those of other journalists in the current economic environment?

Machalinski and Nicholson: We don't think they are any more or less safe than those of other journalists. Scientific American just slashed its staff, SEED magazine is threatening to cut back, Wired Magazine has apparently resorted to "praying" for ad revenue—it's the same story across all media no matter what beat. It may seem that science journalists provide a more necessary service, since they act as valued translators for the general public on important health and environment issues, but really this is about economics. And there just isn't the revenue to support the number of working journalists, or journalism in general—right now. This might change in about three years, once advertisers come up with a new ad model that works on new media. We don't think it's a lost cause.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think that new ad model might be?

Machalinski and Nicholson: One new ad model that is working now is serial ads that go viral—meaning narrative stories that one follows over a series of videos—and any videos that are so well-made and entertaining that they are literally what people want to watch, like SONY Bravia's bouncy ball ad. Another, of course, is product placement.'s short statement ads appear to be working, too.
These models are promising—but it's anyone's guess what will work in the future. I guess where there are eyes and attention, there will be some form of advertisement, but who knows what format that will take.

Gelf Magazine: What was it like to embed yourselves as reporters in Second Life? Is the process of reporting any different inside the game than outside?

Machalinski and Nicholson: It was a total pain in the ass because it kept crashing our machines. Remember this was 2006, and at that time the population of Second Life was only 100,000. It was really new. The reporting was pretty much the same, except we were communicating via instant messaging, of course. But our sources and characters, especially at that time, were serious techies— so we had to really work hard to get them to leave the tech speak at the door. They had their own language and culture—and we had to translate these very edgy and niche lives to the "outside world" while still ensuring that they wouldn't come across as freaks.

Gelf Magazine: Did either of you try sex via pose balls in Second Life? If so, what was it like?

Machalinski and Nicholson: We could barely fly much less have sex. We flirted but there's no way we'd have cybersex with anyone. It was remarkable how real it felt. You really do feel all the same real-life emotions. As far as the sex, we had our sources describe in intimate detail what it was like and what exactly they had to do to make the sex happen. It sounded like a lot of work.

Gelf Magazine: In your section about the science of attraction, you delve a little bit into evolutionary psychology, which has a reputation for being interesting but ultimately untestable scientifically. Do you think it's useful?

Machalinski and Nicholson: Evolutionary psychology is the academic discipline that explains modern human behavior and cognition using theories about how humans adapted over thousands of years. For the last few years, evolutionary psychology has been greatly overused in the popular press coverage of scientific studies.
Among the more "hard" science journalists, many evolutionary-psychology hypotheses are dismissed as "just so" explanations. And indeed there is no real way to test the theories. Evolutionary biology, on the other hand, is considered to be a stronger academic discipline that claims such well-known and respected scientists as Charles Darwin, Ernst Mayr, and Richard Dawkins as part of its club. Evolutionary biology is responsible for our knowledge of species and species change, and, ultimately, our understanding of who we are. Both are valuable, of course, because it is by supposition and hypothesis that science progresses. Firm evidence is not necessary to extend the initial boundaries so that new tangents are accepted that then lead to a great discovery that is supported by evidence.

Gelf Magazine: If attractiveness is genetically-based, why do our standards of beauty seem to change from culture to culture and from decade to decade?

Machalinski and Nicholson: Well, like everything, it's not so one-sided, meaning all or nothing. There's the balance of nature versus nurture that exists in every living thing. So while some facial characteristics are uniformly and globally considered to be attractive, there are subtle differences in what is considered attractive based on culture and economics. For instance, a thin, tanned body is considered beautiful in America, where it is possibly connected to status (rich people can afford trainers and exotic vacations) and a larger and paler body is considered hot in some African countries (where it is the rich who can work indoors and have access to plenty of food and nourishment).

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that there is really a way to scientifically measure love?

Machalinski and Nicholson: Well, if we think of love as akin to a type of consciousness, how can we measure an abstract and highly subjective feeling? What we can do is measure physiological traits like heart rate or flushed skin, or we can even look at how testosterone fuels lust, or how commitment is controlled by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. Some researchers have studied infatuation and conclude that it taps into the dopamine system and this may be why it often feels like untamed addiction.

Gelf Magazine: What are your personal thoughts about the ethics of designer babies? How far would you let couples go in selecting the traits of their progeny? What's wrong with eugenics on a case-by-case basis?

Machalinski and Nicholson: While we don't feel comfortable putting our personal beliefs about the ethics of "designer babies" on record, the debate about the ethics of reproductive technologies, including re-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), are very interesting.
As we presented in our site, parents who have successfully used PGD to conceive and/or select the gender of their offspring are happy with the results. Additionally there have been stories of parents who have used PGD to create a "donor child" for another terminally ill offspring and others who have screened for genetic abnormalities and decided not to implant those embryos.
While PGD is a powerful weapon in helping couples battle infertility and ensure that healthy embryos are implanted, some bioethicists and critics fear that this type of genetic manipulation will eventually be used to create children with higher IQs or increased athletic ability. They say the danger is that it might lead to a so-called "slippery slope" where such enhancement leads to ever-more improvement.
Others claim that to not use any available technologies might put un-engineered children at a disadvantage. In our project, we quote Lee Silver, a genetics professor at Princeton University, who noted that only genetic engineering —the manipulation of actual DNA —will bring true human enhancement. He also spoke of a possible future: "It is human instinct to want to give every advantage to your child," he said. "In the future it may become unethical not to engineer your children's genes." But to complicate matters, economics cannot be ignored. Use of such technologies may lead to a two-tiered society: those who can afford such improvement and thus be at an advantage, and those who cannot afford it and, in effect, be left behind.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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