Friday, June 09, 2006

Science

Last night I attended a scientific presentation on GLBT psychology and biology. It was very interesting. I was quite nervous beforehand because I feel like there is such a huge fervor on anything gay related, I wondered if it would end up being a circus freak show of medicine. But it wasn't. It was real science, real medicine, presented by nice and caring people. And that made me glad.

However, ever the skeptic, I paid pretty close attention to what the experts were saying to see how much of it I believed. Turns out, even the experts have some real bias issues. I guess there's nothing surprising there. I just hope they realize it. I hope I'm not going to be the only one to challenge the information they've presented because it will appear to be a sensationalization of the topic--exactly what I feared would be imposed on me before attending!

For example, a brief history of early prejudicial paradigms on the subject showed that research results about gay populations were skewed because the only gays enrolled in the study were those in prison for violating anti-sodomy laws. Not exactly scientifically appropriate selection criteria for a study that seeks to say something externally valid (i.e., have generalizable results). Interesting stuff... scientifically appropriate... all good material presented so far.

And then they showed [fanfare music] the new improved methodology that compared non-clinical homosexuals and heterosexuals, controlled for confounding factors like age and religion and excluded individuals with a psychiatric history. The new results completely defied the old ones: rather than gays always having "global deficits" as was previously scientifically demonstrated, they were now shown to be potentially "as adjusted as heterosexuals". Yeah!

Except... doesn't excluding all the gays with psychiatric issues sort of beg the question? Psychiatric issues are much more prevalent among gays, and hand-picking the population of gays to demonstrate "adjustment" is just as inappropriate as using prison inmates! It's not generalizable. And yet, here was an expert in the field completely ignoring this fact.

Later in the presentation the question was posed: "What causes people to be gay?" The answers offered as representative views included:
  • parents
  • labeling
  • poor peer relations
  • biology
  • choice
  • lack of hetero experience
  • same sex seduction
Through the magic of statistics and research, most of these possible causes were disproved in the subsequent discussion. Well... sort of, anyway. A statistically significant correlation to a cold father was discussed, but the magnitude of the relative risk was minimized by the lecturer (unbelievable--if you have a statistically significant result, it is by definition SIGNIFICANT). He asserted, "There is no ONE family situation that produces a gay sexual orientation." Ultimately, the lecturer declared that through "path analysis," an esoteric branch of statistics, tautology had been demonstrated to be the cause of sexual orientation. Tautology meaning that the relation between childhood same-sex feelings and adulthood same-sex feelings are that they are one and the same. People are gay because they're gay.

Thank you, science. For nothing.

There was one other particularly interesting point in this lecture. When "gender nonconformity" was measured, it was significantly related to orientation. So, if you don't do masculine stuff, you are more likely to be gay. Hmmm... now whose theories does that remind me of? A woman stood up during the Q&A and asked why that was the case. Lecturer: we don't know. But after the subsequent presentation when the Q&A was reopened for either presenter, he back-pedaled. Someone in the audience had apparently glared disapprovingly at his academically honest indication that the reason wasn't known. So, he wanted to clarify that his conjecture was that gay boys feel different as children because of society's straight projections, and gender nonconformity follows from that. The fact that reparative theory explains the situation much more plausibly was never even entertained.

The only part of the second lecture that I want to comment on right now was a question from the audience. After a presentation of a wide range of scientific data, the executive head of a special interest in San Francisco wanted to know which of all the studies presented was the most concise and compelling in demonstrating that orientation is immutable. The lecturer offered his opinion that a study of pheromones did the trick. The study showed that male scents stimulate the "smell" part of the brain in straight men and gay women, but stimulate the sexual part of the brain in gay men and straight women. There were analogous results for female scents. He concluded from this that sexuality is biologically based and is therefore immutable. I have no idea why showing that sexuality is physiological rather than merely psychological proves anything about mutability, but that's what he said.

And I suddenly feel more at peace with the science. I can appreciate the good science without being taken for a ride by some of the silliness. I'm a huge advocate of science informing public policy. Huge. But although science is good, I will keep looking for understanding in other places too.

7 comments:

Samantha said...

Okay, I'm a total nerd, I admit it--but I love Einstein's words, so I'm sharing this: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

Great minds think alike?

Anonymous said...

Hey there-
I enjoy your blog posts, which I stumbled upon while surfing from one blog to another. Just a thought about the presentation. I wasn't there, and I don't know the details of what the presenter said, but sometimes it is true that a statistically significant finding is not a particularly meaningful finding. Perhaps the researcher determined that the result wasn't meaningful for important theoretical reasons, or maybe it was because of his own biases. But it might have been a legitimate, reasonable thing that led him to dismiss the 'cold father' correlation.

-L- said...

Anon, you are right of course. My comment about being significant by definition was (perhaps) rhetorically fun, but really kind of stupid. A significant finding in science means that it is very unlikely (each investigator must choose for themselves where to draw the line statistically) that the results can be explained as random. But just because it's not random doesn't mean it's a big deal.

However, in this case, the lecturer seemed to have no good reason to minimize its import except that it didn't fit with his own bias about homosexual causality. Had you been there, you may have come to a different conclusion, and I'm fine with that, but that was my impression.

Thanks for the compliment and comment. I kept waiting for someone to call me on this post. I shouldn't get away with posting such a quick and dirty post without someone calling me on it!

Chris (hurricane) said...

The fact that reparative theory explains the situation much more plausibly was never even entertained.

Why is reparative therapy's explanation more plausible?

-L- said...

If feeling abnormal were to result in odd behavior of some kind, you wouldn't expect it to be uniformly odd behavior, as is the case with gender nonconformity. They didn't just individually pick their own way to be a space case, but as a group showed behaviors that demonstrate a difference in self perception of masculinity--what reparative therapy is all about.

howller said...

It sounds like they discussed the research of Evelyn Hooker, whose work eventually led to the removal from the APA's DSM of Homosexuality as a pathology. Information about the study and about Evelyn Hooker is here.

Interesting stuff. It is important to note that Evelyn's work was corroborated and supported by many later studies.

-L- said...

Yes, Hooker's work was mentioned and is important. The science presented really was interesting. I only posted about the stuff that I had specific criticisms or comments about.