July 12, 2005

Is science-hating a phenomenon of the left or the right?

Here's a letter to the editor responding to that piece about bisexuality in last week's NYT:
Some gay and bisexual advocates are condemning "Straight, Gay or Lying?" regarding a study suggesting that bisexuality may not exist among human males - something those of us familiar with the scientific literature have known since, basically, forever.

Compare this hysterical - and anti-science - reaction to the conservative Christians' anti-science reaction to studies showing that homosexuality is an inborn orientation like left-handedness. They're identical.

The right hates science because the data contradict (in the case of homosexuality) Leviticus; the left because the data contradict the liberal lie that we're environment-created, not hard-wired in any way.

These particular scientific facts are making these advocates scream like members of the extreme right, though it's they who always tells the right to let go of concepts that are contradicted by science.

Chandler Burr
New York

The writer is the author of "A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation."
Very apt. Well said! Thanks for writing that, Chandler Burr.

I would love to hear, in the comments, from readers who have found themselves in college courses where instructors taught about sexuality and pressured students to accept theories of culture and actively excluded biological science. (Please don't name individuals.)

(Here's my post from last week on the bisexuality article.)

48 comments:

Sloanasaurus said...

I am a little confused by Mr. Burrs statement that the left maintains the "liberal lie" that we are envornoment created. In fact, I think Mr. Burr sets up a straw man with his column. He sets it up by making a ridiculous statement that everyone knows is not a liberal position. He does this for the specific reason of trying to discredit the "conservative christian" point of view. Thus, Mr. Burr is using an old political trick to make his point of view seem more moderate.

How, I think Mr. Burr has it wrong regarding the "Conservative Christian" view. It seems to me that conservative christians do not reject the idea that people are hard wired, they reject the idea that people don't have choices. I.e. that God gave people the ability to choose right or wrong and that people make choices to be gay (which they believe is wrong).

I have always thought that the other point of view maintained that there is no choice, that people are born gay and are not choosing to become gay. Therefore, how could something be wrong if you cannot make a choice (you cannot be "wrong" by being born a man or woman).

Moreover, I would disagree entirely with Mr. Burr's statement that "both" sides get upset over scientific data. In fact, I would argue that liberals in general put much more stock into biology than conservatives for most issues.

A.J. Romens said...

I was taught that we don't know what science says about homo-, hetero- and bi-sexuality for sure, so it is best for us to default to cultural inclusiveness, instead of doing something stupid, like telling a self-identified bisexual person they're wrong. I think it is a pretty good and practical strategy.

Bruce Hayden said...

I have been over at volokh.com commenting on the Harvard Summers fiasco. As all can, I assume, remember, some female professors were mortally offended that Summers would even suggest that there might be biological or inate sexual differences between the sexes when it comes to the highest reaches of mathematics.

The problem for these women is that there are numerous studies out showing just that. Plus, you have to add in the differences in math SAT scores between the two sexes. The figure I saw recently is that at the 700 level, males outscored females 13 to 1. This seems a bit high to me, given all the superb female mathematians in my family. But in any case, it is hard to reconcile this sort of difference with the politically correct nurture justification.

Let me make clear, I am suggesting that the bell curves for mathematical ability for the two sexes have different medians, and, thus, the right hand tail at various places of the male bell curve is larger than the female one at the same location. This means that there are still plenty of superb female mathematicians - just not as many as there are male ones of the same caliber.

In any case, I am positing that the Harvard fiasco is an example of political correctness overriding science.

Bruce Hayden said...

A.I. Romens,

But the problem is that there is some science out there that says certain things about homosexuality, etc. I will also suggest that there would be quite a bit more if it weren't politically correct to not allow questions on such.

For example, I am reading "the Essential Difference" right now, and just covered the differences between male and female brains (as usual, bell curve means). Not surprisingly, homosexual male brains apparently have some of the characteristics of female brains.

Lars said...

I'm long out of college but it's my impression that, as far as homosexuality is concerned, Lefties argue for genetic determinism ("we were born that way, we can't help it") and Conservos argue for will power ("you people choose to be that way"). This is ironic to me since, a generation ago, Rightists favored a genetic basis for IQ, male-female differences and for certain behaviors whereas Leftists insisted everything was environmentally determined.

My money is on some of each.

Ann Althouse said...

Sloanasaurus: Burr is talking about comparable extremists on the left and right, not the whole left or the whole right. I don't know which college classes you took, but I know very well that there are lefty profs who will shut down any student who dares to speak of biology. I would like to hear from readers who have been subjected to that sort of abuse.

AJ: You describe what Burr and I are talking about. The view is: don't pursue scientific research because it might prove unhelpful to goals we have set. That is the counterpart to conservative religionists who oppose science because they are afraid it will undermine the good that comes from believing in religion.

Ann Althouse said...

Lars: There is a type of leftist academic who will not accept the "we were born that way, we can't help it" approach that is popular in the ordinary political sphere. They are very deeply committed to the belief that culture is everything.

Sloanasaurus said...

It seems to me that the reaction from the left to the study results from the logical conclusion that the study appears to bolster the "Conservative Christian" view that people have choices in sexual orientation. For example, if it is true that people are not born bi- sexual, then how is it that people choose to be bi-sexual? The "Conservative Christian" would argue that the study adds weight to the argument that people do make conscious choices to be gay or not.

Im not sure if this is the right conclusion, but it would certainly cause fear among those on the left that people would make such conclusions.

chuck b. said...
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chuck b. said...
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A.J. Romens said...

Ann: I never said "science doesn't know, and let's not scientifically pursue it." I merely said that science doesn't know for sure... yet. This is only one study.

I was taught that science will will eventually find the truth, and we should let it. But until we know something really conclusive, let’s continue to be inclusive.

grumpyTA said...

Last year, I taught a course on gender and sexuality at a large university in the midwest. Within the course, I told my students that, while there are several schools of thought that think they have the definitive "answer" when it comes to the origins of sexual orientation or gender differences, we really do not know -- and probably never will know -- the "true" nature of those origins. I put an emphasis on BOTH biology and culture and suggested that we need to first recognize the complexity of these issues (and the difficulties of doing this kind of research), before picking a side.

What I found was that many of my students failed to grasp the importance of ambiguities and complexities within these dabates; they were so eager to side with "nature" or "nurture"! Perhaps this is because I was teaching mostly freshman and sophomores, but I also think that contemporary American culture is very much caught up in either/or ways of thinking -- and that my students were influenced by this method of inquiry.

I also think a common misperception is that all "social constructionists" completely disregard science, and I would instead argue that (some) social constructionists believe that biology does play a role in shaping indivuduals and groups, but that the meaning ascribed to those biological traits is constructed through culture.

BTW, the documentary "Sex: Unknown" (about the Brenda/Bruce Reimer case, as well as genital surgeries on intersexed infants) grapples with these issues in a smart and informative way. I think you would like it -- my students certainly did.

Charles said...

Funny how if you are extreme enough left (or right) you end up agreeing with the extreme right (or left). I've always wondered about that. Excuse me, I hear some black helicopters of the New World Order flying by and want to go and wave at them.

knoxgirl said...

It's my experience that both sides embrace or disregard science at their political convenience. The raging Evolution/Intelligent Design debate, with neither side's willingness to budge even an inch, is enough to make your head hurt.

Jonathan said...

A lot of the problem seems to be not so much "science hating" as it does ignorance of or contempt for basic statistics. If you frame questions about sexual orientation in populations as either/or you get garbage answers. Better to look at the distribution of outcomes, which reveals a broad range of personal sexual orientations from complete homosexuality to complete heterosexuality. Is it unreasonable to expect that the causes of these various orientations are not also distributed -- i.e., from entirely genetically determined, through various combinations of genetic and environmental determination, to entirely environmentally determined? But neither journalists (who sometimes don't know better) nor ideologues (who probably do) always have an interest in portraying this issue as complex.

StrangerInTheseParts said...

I received a master's degree in social work (a lefty field) in New York (a lefty city) at a rather notoriously lefty insitution. And I was taught 50% of the time by homosexual professors. They all stressed repeatedly that sexuality is a dynamic and nuanced phenomenon that is determined by many factors both innate and environmental.

I wonder if Ann isn't fishing for something that occurs in a field that is not suited to discuss such matters. It seems to me that the worst of the left-dogmatics occurs in literature departments and the like. But that when you go into fields where they have some obligation to honest inquiry and expertise on the subject at hand, the level of dogmatics on this subject decreases significantly.

downtownlad said...

Can you really blame a bisexual male for getting upset about a scientific study that basically says he's a liar? What would you expect their reaction to be? "Oops - you're right. I've been bullshitting the entire time."

I'm not denying the study. I have known lots of gay men who used to self-identify as bi. And they truly thought they were bi. But now they're all gay (well, most of them).

But I don't know any gay person who is actually upset by the fact that there was a study. I do know people, however, who are very vocal in that they think the study is wrong. Probably because they believe their bi friends are telling the truth (even though we now know they are actually bullshitting us).

It WAS a small sample. Further studies are required. Better bring out those electrodes again!

Edward Lee said...

How about leftists re: genetically modified crops?

Shannon Love said...

When I was college in the mid-80's I was denounced as a Fascist by Leftist for suggesting that homosexuality probably had a biological basis and was therefor innate. Leftist of that era believed that implying a biological basis would lead to homosexuality being defined as an illness needing curing.

Now of course, Leftist embrace the idea of innate biological homosexuality even though the basic science has changed little. They simply found it more politically expedient to switch scientific models. Now they can portray homosexuality as akin to race in political debates.

The pattern in rejecting scientific claims has nothing to do with Left vs Right but rather whether a particular scientific idea transgresses on ones political prejudices. Emotional commitment to political beliefs destroys peoples ability to dispassionately analyze evidence. What they want to be true subsumes what they can prove true. Individuals who are passionate about politics but who will nevertheless jettison treasured political ideals because sciences says its wrong are very rare.

Ann Althouse said...

Stranger: I'm not fishing. I have direct information about classes like this. I'm just trying to see how widespread it is.

Downtownlad: As my post on the original article shows, there are a lot of problems with the study, which can be attacked from a scientific perspective. What's objectionable is being outraged at results just because they challenge accepted beliefs. There ought to be more and better studies. People who go into a huff and act offended that they've been called "liars" are being unscientific. I think supporting science is a good idea for people all spots on the political spectrum, but I especially think it will be helpful toward gay rights.

Noumenon said...

The raging Evolution/Intelligent Design debate, with neither side's willingness to budge even an inch, is enough to make your head hurt.

Intelligent Design is creationists budging an inch. They're saying, "Well, we can't get you to teach our religious beliefs in the public schools, but could you at least include something showing that some people believe it's still an open question?"

downtownlad said...

"Bisexuals" might be considered unscientific if they get into a huff. But not all bisexuals are leftists.

At least amongst the gay community (again not all leftists), I don't know anyone who was offended by this study. Gay blogs mostly found it humrerous. Most of them had the attiude of "we've been saying that for years" and the bisexuals just consider the study silly, because they innately think it's wrong.

So who are these people who are in a huff?

I will add that many leftists are anti-science. They refuse to look at data on global warming that might refute their assumptions, etc. Genetically modified food has already been mentioned. They're opposed to nuclear power, etc. Very irrational if you ask me.

But as for studying sexuality. I don't think they mind, nor do they have any preconceived ideas about the results.

Yevgeny Vilensky said...

I think some people have touched on this. But, the arts, especially critical theory, are filled with people who claim that we can, at will, bend the boundaries between hetero- and homosexuality and masculinity and femininity.

I was not in this course, but I do know that a course at Yale started its course description in the course catalog: "This course starts with the assumption that gender is a social construct."

I understand this is not quite the same as the homosexuality question, but is highly related. I believe that much of sociology, which sort of a priori seems to assume nurture as the answer in the nurture/nature debates, seems to reject the biological bases for hetero- and homosexuality.

Stephanie said...

"People who go into a huff and act offended that they've been called "liars" are being unscientific."

I have to disagree, to some extent: some level of offense is expected, and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. Most, if not all, people get understandably upset should someone insinuate they are that blind to their own feelings. The problem with the offense comes when it leads one to conclude that no further research should be done and that the study is wrong (rather than genuine problems with the methodology causing one to think that it is wrong, or even -- given that this is just one, fairly small study -- one's own experiences giving cause to think it's wrong).

Ann Althouse said...

Stephanie: it's like getting upset at evidence that Darwin was right when you've been telling people all your life that you know the story in Genesis is the truth.

Ann Althouse said...

Downtownlad: My "in a huff" language was meant to refer to your sentence "Can you really blame a bisexual male for getting upset about a scientific study that basically says he's a liar?" So whoever that is getting upset is who I'm talking about. You tell me who they are!

Ann Althouse said...

Yevgeny: I know a certain Critical Legal Studies lawprof who got angry at me -- back in the 80s -- for mentioning a study that showed a difference in brain structure in homosexual men. Her view was that the whole study was the work of bigots. My statement that a finding of biological origin could help the cause of gay rights (if condition were shown not to be a "lifestyle" choice) caused her to lash out at me with great anger, as if I had said the most bigoted thing possible. That's how much of a hardcore article of faith "social construction" was.

Stephanie said...

"It's like getting upset at evidence that Darwin was right when you've been telling people all your life that you know the story in Genesis is the truth."

I have to disagree with this, in part. For those men that identify as bisexual (and, to a lesser extent, those that are friends with them or whatnot), it's not like that -- it'd be more like, say, being a mother and having a study coming out saying that mothers don't really love their children. It's a good deal more personal than something you read in a book, even if that book was the Bible.

This doesn't excuse stamping your feet and insisting that the study is wrong because you don't like the conclusion, or that no studies of that nature should be performed in the future because they might come to conclusions you don't like. But I think there's a substantial difference between ignoring or avoiding data and merely finding that data upsetting.

pn said...

The one constant is the seeming rhetorical imperative to proclaim as loudly as possible one's allegiance to science in general while ignoring or discounting as inconclusive whatever empirical findings seem inhospitable to one's worldview in specific. This tendency is not monopolized by any particular ideological congregation (though this latter claim is admittedly advanced more as an article of belief than on the basis of any systematic empirical analysis).

David said...

I have had collegues that used science in the classroom to prove their political theories. In one course on Albert Einstien the professor tried to show that quantum mechanics has to be wrong as it is anti-socialist. I spent a semester with students coming down to my room to ask my opinion of QM.

Not to just pick on the left, at AAPT meetings I get to here about some whacked out thoughts from right-side collegues in other disciplines.

Ann Althouse said...

Stephanie: I don't think you have enough of a sense of how (at least some) people feel their religious faith.

Stephanie said...

"I don't think you have enough of a sense of how (at least some) people feel their religious faith."

Could be; I've never been religious. However, I don't think that invalidates my primary point, which is that it's one thing to get upset by something, and another to discount it on that basis or call for no further research into the matter. Is someone whose religious faith has been shaken and who has been publicly shown to be a fool not entitled to be unhappy? I agree with you that certain leftists are very much anti-science, but I consider them that because of their intellectual reactions to studies like this ("I find it offensive so it must be wrong!"), not because of their purely personal and emotional ones.

Ann Althouse said...

Stephanie: It seems to me that opposition to science is anti-intellectual and emotional.

chuck b. said...

Opposition to science is certainly emotional; opposition to conclusions drawn from scientific studies may be emotional--or may not be.

Bruce Hayden said...

Jonathan

The problem with arguing that sexual identity is on a continium is that it is highly likely that a vast majority of people are fairly strongly heterosexual. I think in the long run, for men, the statistical curve is going to have a huge bump and one end, and a much smaller one at the other, with it being mostly flat between. Women may end up with a larger transition between hetero and homo-secuality.

Of course, I could be wrong, but it sure seems to me that a vast majority of at least the male population is significantly heterosexual.

chuck b. said...

Here's an interesting article to ponder considering the nature vs. nurture dispute just in general...

(I found it reading Too Beautiful.)

knoxgirl said...

"Intelligent Design is creationists budging an inch."

I'm not so sure proponents of I.D. are the same people as "Creationists," in the strict sense of the word--taking the Bible literally, world created in 7 days, etc.

And I have found that most "Darwinists" tend to dismiss I.D. as nonsense with the same fervor as they do Creationism--they do not seem to take it as a reasonable compromise.

Bruce Hayden said...

A little different from the usual nurture v. nature debate, as that usually revolves around the effect of genetics, or possibly in the case of male homosexuality, lack of testosterone in utero. To some extent, this is closer to what Tom Cruise is pushing right now. While I dislike his religion intensely, after they significantly abused the legal system in some computer cases a decade ago, he does have some good points on esp. the use of drugs to drug boys to keep them quiet in school.

chuck b. said...

That post is related insofar as many people would consider a compulsive gambling problem to be a nurture issue, or perhaps more accurately a matter of personal choice. But here's some evidence to suggest that a chemical reaction in the brain could cause compulsive gambling (note that it's compulsive gambling, not compulsive hand-washing or other typical compulsive behaviors). So, what about compulsive gamblers who don't take Mirapex?

Clayton said...

"I'm not so sure proponents of I.D. are the same people as 'Creationists,' in the strict sense of the word--taking the Bible literally, world created in 7 days, etc.

"And I have found that most 'Darwinists' tend to dismiss I.D. as nonsense with the same fervor as they do Creationism--they do not seem to take it as a reasonable compromise."

I will tell you that while I never found Creationist claims convincing (or even particularly interesting, since so many of them are obviously ignorant of the science that they are attacking), I do find some of the questions that Intelligent Design advocates raise quite powerful criticisms of Darwinian evolution.

This doesn't make ID "science" since ID necessarily precludes any sort of predictive capability--and that's a fundamental part of science. It does make ID a legitimate tool for raising questions about Darwinian evolution (which still has lots of little holes in it). A little humility in the sciences, especially in an area that lacks the ability to verify theories by experiment, is a very wise thing.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Mom, I think you're glossing over a distinction that Stephanie is making. If someone does a study of a psychological phenomenon, it CAN be legitimate to refuse to believe the study on the ground that it contradicts what you have experienced in your own mind. The question of who is right and who is wrong will depend on (1) the methodology of the study compared with (2) how self-aware the critic of the study is. In contrast, it cannot possibly be legitimate to refuse to believe scientific evidence of evolution on the grounds that you feel strongly about evolution. The difference is that the former study is about the human mind: your own feelings are the subject of the study. Evolution itself has nothing to do with your feelings.

Yevgeny Vilensky said...

Johnathan:

In some sense, evolution does have to do with emotions about your experience as a "sentient" being. First, people say all the time (even distinguished philosophers) that we have the experience of free will. There is no way that evolution from single-celled organisms could in any way give us the type of free-will most people say they experience (a real experience of making and willing explicit choices). Second, people deny that emotions are entirely chemically based. One easy example is romantic love toward another person. These are experiential claims that would throw a huge wrench into the evolution debate. So, I do think that certain aspects of evolution can be denied by appeals to emotion.

Your interesting comment, however, does pose a good question for science in general. Ought we reject or at least be suspicious of scientific research that seems to posit a secret self (e.g. that bisexuals, in their secret selves are really mostly homosexuals). I am not sure what to think here. There seem to be good arguments in both directions. But what would you say to a study that measured arousal at images of women other than one's wife? If a man said, that no, he's only attracted to his wife and only finds her sexually appealling, would research showing that men are very frequently aroused by women other than their wives be suspect? Would it be silly or absolutely justified for this man to get upset and decry the scientists as anti-monogamous bigots?

My question, as is Prof. Althouse's in some sense, is what should be the first to go, the science or the feeling? I would say that given sufficient science, the feeling should go. But if people get all huffy and puffy whenever science comes out that contradicts their feelings, we're never going to get anywhere. You can criticize the science on scientific grounds and ask for more research. But being "insulted" by the research isn't going to get a person anywhere in discovering what the likely truth is about him or herself.

Ann Althouse said...

John: The reason I'm equating the two things is that both upset persons have a subjective mental experience that they feel expresses the whole matter under consideration: belief in God and belief in one's own bisexuality. Both try to define the subject so that the external information that challenges their subjective information doesn't count. Admittedly, they anti-evolutionists have more evidence to explain away, but that doesn't mean they don't try. It's not hard to say that this particular study of bisexuality is so deficient that the subjective feeling wins easily, but why get mad at the scientists for studying it? The scientists didn't claim they've definitively found the answer, only that it could be studied on the level they explored.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Mom: I understand that you are "equating" both instances of people who value their "subjective information" over scientific studies. That's what I was criticizing in my above post. You're still glossing over the distinction that I pointed out.

Yevgeny: You can't dismiss the extremely complex and puzzling debate over the existence of free will by simply asserting that "there's no way" free will could exist. The free will issue is like the bisexuality issue in that subjective mental states themselves are the subjects being studied; therefore, placing importance on your own feelings can be rational with those issues in a way that it wouldn't be rational to say, "Evolution theory is false because I feel strongly about it," or "The earth is flat, because I feel strongly about it." Our deep sense that we freely decide to act can be a sound basis for questioning a deterministic view of the world.

cathyf said...

I think you are setting up the religious ethicists' arguments as a strawman.

In traditional Judeo-Christian moral theology, that people are hard-wired by biology or something similar is pretty much a base assumption. Everyone is attracted or repelled by various things. Some of those things are virtuous, some are evil, most are neutral. Being attracted to evil or repelled by good is defined as "temptation."

Underlying this view of temptation responded to with free will resulting in either sin or virtue is the assumption that merely having a desire is no sin -- only one's actions can be sins.

When gay-rights activists make the argument that homosexuality is morally neutral like left-handedness because it is biologically determined like left-handedness, they make an argument which is persuasive to people who aren't thinking very hard. But they are playing an extraordinarily dangerous game. So one week we find the brain structure that determines left-handedness. The next week we see the brain structure for liking chocolate. The next week the brain structure for homosexuality. The next week the brain structure for child molestation. The next week the brain structure for those who get sexual pleasure from torture murder followed by canibalism...

Saying that some people desire some things and that they did not choose to have these desires is trivial, and totally useless for deciding whether any individual one of those things is good, evil, or neutral.

Yeah, I get a little impatient with the histrionics of those who think that research results on biological bases for homosexuality somehow overturns all of the structure of moral theology. They don't know squat about moral theology, and their hysterical triumphalist idiocy is quite frankly embarrassing.

cathy :-)

Joseph Angier said...

I actually don't think the issue of believing in the pre-eminence of hard-wiring over environment has anything to do with left versus right wing politics. The same with nature versus nurture. Robert Wright - the man who wrote one of the leading tomes defending "hard-wired" male/female differences ("The Moral Animal") - was also was one of Slate's most left-wing columnists.

I'd even like to leave religion out of this equation. It became a cliche last year to contrast Fahrenheit 911 with The Passion of the Christ. The idea being that if you were sincerely moved by the latter film (or even directed it, as Ann Althouse pointed out), that meant you were also for lower taxes and the military invasion of Iraq. If you liked Fahrenheit, you had no interest in the crucifixion.

chuck b. said...

cathyf said, "So one week we find the brain structure that determines left-handedness. The next week we see the brain structure for liking chocolate. The next week the brain structure for homosexuality. The next week the brain structure for child molestation."

I wonder: when science finds 'brain structures' for all of mankind's micro-hostilities, sensitivities to imaginary harms, cluelessness and smug self-assuredness, whose brain structures will press the strongest claims on moral theology?

cathyf said...

To be a bit more precise, all of my examples were of "brain structures" and that is misleading. Moral theology is quite agnostic about the mechanism of desires. It would not be surprised if desires turned out to be governed by brain structures, but then again it would not be surprised if it turned out that this temptation or that originates in the liver. Of course the brain is the prosaic choice -- the traditional poetic location has always been the heart, after all.

But these details have never been central to the principle, which is that only the action of free will can have moral dimension, and desires themselves are not the product of free will. So when science proves that this desire or that has some source that is not free will, the moral theologians response is, "well, duh!"

cathy :-)