Recently, Tinder has a public reaction on Twitter to an article in Vanity Fair. The brief gist is that the Vanity Fair writer, Nancy Jo Sales, wrote about Tinder as contributing to a negative hookup culture. Tinder wrote a long series of tweets in response about all the good, positive interactions people have on their platform. Notice how I have left out all the judgment words (don’t worry, it won’t last). But I did so deliberately because regardless of what you think of Tinder, hookup cultures, or Nancy Jo Sales’ reporting, the real winner here should be science education.

Judgement time. The Vanity Fair piece was actually not very good (despite Wired referring to it as “excellent”). The Tinder response was also not very good. But they were both not very good for the same reason: selection bias. And focusing on how that bias plays out is actually where some use might come out of this public meltdown.

In the VF piece, the interviewees seem to almost all be young men and women who are actively using Tinder. The women seem to think it contributes to a hookup culture that devalues them; the men seem to agree. Yet therein lies the key problem: by talking only to people who are currently using the app, Sales is actually interviewing the “failures”, also known as a negative selection bias.

If the point of Tinder is for people to find long-term romantic relationships, than the majority of the people on the app will be people who are not yet successful at doing so. Thus, if you want to explore the potential effect of the app on finding a mate, you have to interview people who are no longer on the app and find out why they left. Is it because it was all hookups and they tired of it? Or is it because they no longer need the app because they found someone?

Tinder seems to be trying to point this out in their Twitter rant, but they go too far and end up falling victim to the other end of the spectrum, the positive selection bias (sometimes referred to as the survivorship bias). They mostly focus on people who should have theoretically left their platform: marriages. A “shit ton of marriages”, according to them.

If you throw enough people at a situation, usually some of them are going to come out with positive results. But if you only look at those with positive results, you ignore the disappeared failures who either left and didn’t have positive results or are still around and failing. Tinder specifically calls out how they are relying on the stories users tell them, which they call #SwipeRight stories.  Given the interaction pattern of the app, that presumably means just the positive ones.

The real pity is that avoiding the positive and negative selection bias should have been relatively easy. You could interview people in all four quadrants (current user/positive, current user/negative, ex user/positive, ex user/negative). Even this is a sort of selection bias, however: there are plenty of people who get married or have bad relationships entirely without the aid of technology. Tinder is taking credit for the marriages, Sales is blaming them for the hookups, but in reality both happen in populations that have never touched Tinder. So what you really want is to understand how the populations that use Tinder and those that don’t differ. And even then, you can’t blame that difference entirely on Tinder. After all, they might have been different to start with in a way that made them choose to be on the platform or not.

Now clearly, journalism isn’t science and Twitter certainly isn’t science. And we can debate whether either of those two mediums have a responsibility to uphold some sort of ethics. But science education means that we don’t have to rely on the ethics of others. All the spectators reading the article and Tweets, with a bit of STEM education, can actually recognize the biases for themselves and avoid perpetuating them. And I sincerely hope that someone uses this debacle as a reason to increase science education funding. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Side note: It is always amazing to me how quickly people treat changing sexual and relationship norms as if they are the end of the world. In the 90s, divorces became more common. And yet people still fall in love and we actually just worked really hard as a country to make sure that all people have the right to marry. It is far from the death of marriage. I don’t know if hookup culture is meant positively or negatively (probably depends on whether you are actually hooking up or not), but there is one thing I know: it is not the end of love.

One of the biggest fights my wife and I ever had was about engagement rings. Specifically, her engagement ring. My position was that engagement rings were gendered (notifying other men that women were sexually claimed), expensive (relative to other things we were saving for), and not consistent with our values as a couple. Her position was that I was an idiot and she wanted one.

Predictably, I bought my wife the ring she wanted. And in the process, I learned a few things about myself and, given the number of my friends who have had the same fight, probably other people as well.

Rings are a unique problem. My wife is a fairly reasonable person and doesn’t advocate the spending of large amounts of money on non-functional things. We’re not at the same place on the spectrum of frugal (I buy my clothes on eBay, which I recognize is pretty close to the endpoint), but we’re at least in vaguely the same quadrant. So for her to advocate spending a pretty large sum on a ring isn’t consistent with her other values. The ring was a special case for her.

It was also a special case for me. Generally speaking, when my wife wants to spend money on something, I’m willing to go along with it. The budgeter in me moans and groans about it, but ultimately, we usually do it without a full-on fight. Something about the ring was triggering for me in a way that other purchases weren’t and I was willing to fight to the death over it.

Part of getting past it was accepting that we were fighting over symbolic meaning and nothing else. My wife needed a symbol of the stage that is engagement, without going directly from couple to married. She recognized that the value of the ring was socially imposed but as a member of society, she also felt how she felt and no amount of reasoning was going to make her feel differently. By that same token, I needed to know that our marriage would start from a place of reason and logic, free of traditions and values that were imposed on us rather than chosen.

To that end, it helped when I stopped thinking about it as a ring and started thinking about it like a couch. That is, I needed to get past the symbol and start thinking about my wife. If the argument had been over whether we should buy a couch, I might hem and haw a bit about it, but we’d get the couch. Because logically speaking, I love my wife and if a couch is really important to her, then it is important to me too.

And just like the couch, the ring actually has utility. You can’t sit on it but it still made my wife feel a certain way, predictably and reliably. I could rage against why it made her feel that way and I do: I don’t think we should socialize young women to respond to shiny baubles and when I eventually have a daughter, I hope to teach her other values. But the issue isn’t whether it should make her feel a particular way. No matter what else was said, the fact is that it did make her feel that way.

Now you could argue that I had to compromise my values here and she didn’t; after all, she did get the ring in the end. She also could have stepped back and thought of the ring as a couch, decided to let it go, and I’m sure there will be times when she will. All arguments require someone to compromise to move past them: either you buy the ring or you don’t. But compromising doesn’t have to mean win-lose. Buying her a ring was consistent with my values because I value my wife. The ring is just a couch for me and a whole lot more for her. In the end, I’m glad I bought it. We both won.

Side note: One of the reasons people love personalization so much is that it substitutes meaning for expense. That is, you can take something not that expensive and make it meaningful by making it personal. For example, my wedding ring has a design element called a “river”. And since they are made one at a time to size, designer Todd Pownell made my river match a topographical map I sent him of the river I grew up with (the Clackamas River in Oregon). It should be easy to do this with almost anything; engraving should be one of the most standard free services around.