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The Advocate Gets It Wrong

Jim Burroway

July 12th, 2006

The Advocate just posted this news item:

Approximately 10% of gay men in London have used the recreational drug methamphetamine, according to a study published in the online edition of the journal Addiction.

Well, er, no. It’s bad enough when anti-gay extremists get research wrong to portray gays as drug-fueled sex fiends. We don’t need our own media outlets feeding the myths.

It appears that neither The Advocate nor Sirius OutQ (which originated the story) read the abstract to that article very closely:

Participants HIV-positive gay men attending the HIV treatment clinic in 2002–03 (n = 388); HIV-negative gay men attending the HIV testing/sexual health clinics in 2002–03 (n = 266); gay men using the gyms between January and March 2003 (n = 445), 2004 (n = 653) and 2005 (n = 494).

Conclusion Among gay men in London surveyed in clinics, approximately one in 10 reported using crystal meth in the previous 12 months (HIV-positive men 12.6%; HIV-negative men 8.3%).

That’s right. The 10% statistic came from men surveyed at HIV/STD clinics. So what does that prove? Only that 10% of gay men surveyed in HIV/STD clinics used crystal meth. That’s it. Nothing else. It is not generalizable to gay men across London or anywhere else. It applies only to gay men at HIV/STD clinics. In London. Crystal meth usage may be different elsewhere.

This study is based on what’s called a convenience sample — an easy-to-access group of people recruited to test a particular hypothesis. This is a perfectly legitimate means of studying simple correlations. But it is by no means a general population survey, and the authors did not intend for it to be cited as such.

This is not to say that men who take the responsible step of getting tested should fall under the suspicion of being drug users. But the only thing this study can possibly demonstrate is that when targeting intervention programs for crystal meth users among the gay population in London, one place to look might be in HIV/STD clinics. But even there, only one in ten are likely to be users. (I’ll have to get the article’s full text from the library to know the nature of the “gyms.”)

Anti-gay extremists often misrepresent research to claim that a given survey represents everyone regardless of how the survey was put together. And when they turn to studies based on STD clinics, they obtain some pretty out-of-whack statistics (which is why STD population-based studies are especially popular with that crowd.) But when the media does it (and especially our own) it is downright irresponsible and outrageous.

Ten percent would be a large chuck of gay men using crystal meth. One in ten — look around and consider that possibility. This would be big news. But to use this study to say that 10% of all London gay men are meth users is simply wrong, not to mention slanderous to the men of London. Give us — and especially our gay friends in London — a break.

UPDATE: To learn about other research which proves this study cannot be extrapolated to the general male population in London, see our response to an even more eggregious misrepresentation of this study in Pink News Gets It Even More Wrong.

To learn more about convenience samples, see The Survey Says… What Everyone Should Know About Statistics. You can also see how the Washington Times started an urban myth in What the “Dutch Study” Really Says About Gay Couples.

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