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Pink News Gets It Even More Wrong

Jim Burroway

July 15th, 2006

An update to an earlier post The Advocate Gets It Wrong

A tip from a reader (Thanks Jeffery!) led me to this article from London-based Pink News, which breathlessly exclaims:

Up to 20 per cent of gay men have tried crystal meth

Research published today by City University, London has found that up to twenty ten [sic] per cent of gay men in London have tried the clubbing drug crystal methamphetamine (crystal meth). Of these men, most use it only infrequently.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! And what’s with the “twenty ten per cent”? Did the article originally read “ten per cent” and someone decide it needed punching up?

I expect this from Paul Cameron, Melissa Fryrear and others like them. (And I fully expect the anti-gay press to pick up on this very soon.) But when I set out to counter the misrepresentation of research by anti-gay activists, I certainly didn’t expect to see the same thing coming from the gay press. I am pulling out what little remains of my hair here.

So, where does the 20% figure come from? It comes from an even smaller sample from that same study’s convenience samples we talked about before — gay men who attend selected gyms in central London. I’m not familiar with the gym scene in central London, but these researchers appear to conclude that the gym scene is closely related to the club scene. I don’t know about the gym venues surveyed to know if this connection is real.

But for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that the connection is there. If so, it still doesn’t mean that this sub-sample of a sub-sample is representative of gay men in London overall. To say that one in five London Men have used meth, even infrequently, blasts right through credulity and proceeds straight to ludicrous.

And how do we know this? Other London-area researchers have looked into exactly this issue. They compared survey responses from a national probability sample (The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, or Natsal) and a “community sample” from London drawn from gay bars, clubs, saunas and STD clinics (The Gay Men’s Sexual Health Survey, or GMSHS). Here is what they found:

These results show that the Natsal London men recruited by a probability sample were less likely to report STIs [STI in UK=STD in North America – ed.], GUM clinic attendance [GUM=Genitourinary Medicine, the British term for STD clinics – ed], or HIV testing than GMSHS men recruited from gay venues…

It is important to consider the appropriate sampling frame for a particular set of research questions. … Our findings suggest that focusing on a community sample of MSM [Men who have sex with men – ed.] is likely to result in an overestimate in the prevalence of sexual risk behaviour and sexual health outcomes with respect to all MSMs in Britain.

– Ref: Dodds, Julie P.; Mercer, Catherine H.; Mercey, Danielle E.; Copas, Andrew J.; Johnson, Anne M. “Men who have sex with men: A comparison of a probability sample survey and a community based study.” Sexually Transmitted Infections 82, no. 1 (February 2006): 86-87. Abstract available here.

Crystal meth is serious business. Because meth users are at least twice as likely to engage in unsafe sex, studies like this one are exceptionally important to understand how we can better target educational and prevention programs. And we can better target these programs when we know where we can find these high-risk groups. Professor Jonathan Elford, one of the authors of the study, noted:

What is clear from the research in the gyms is that crystal meth is a part of the London gay club-drug scene. Health promotion and awareness campaigns around crystal meth must therefore focus on the gay club scene to have maximum impact.

And Will Nutland, Head of Health Promotion at Britain’s Terrence Higgins Trust, added:

This research adds to the growing understanding of crystal meth use among gay men in London and helps to ensure that our educational responses are properly grounded in evidence.

That’s why we do these studies — to provide intelligent responses to a serious problem, not to provide headline writers with sexy headlines.

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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