Sep 16 2013

Science Proves I’m Right

From the 18th to the early 20th century there were scientists who studied the various human “races.” They had various theories about the meaning an origin of “race” which all concluded that their own race was superior.  Christoph Meiners had a particularly bigoted theory in which he concluded that the dark races were “ugly” due to their moral degeneration.

Along the way science was frequently used to justify what we can now easily recognize as blatant prejudice. Anatomical studies comparing facial features and cranial capacity demonstrated European superiority, while anthropological studies supported the conclusion of “primitiveness” in native peoples.

These now stand as classic examples of exploiting science to bolster a narrow cultural view – to give it the imprimatur of scientific legitimacy. Who, after all, can argue with science? To do so makes you vulnerable to accusations of being unscientific and irrational.

The irony is that science has been the primary intellectual tool by which humanity has shed its narrow cultural prejudices, parochial views, and self-serving assumptions. Science has enabled us to see ourselves as part of the natural world, to see the earth as just another planet, and our sun as one among countless septillion in a vast universe.

The lesson in all this is that good science derives in part from questioning assumptions, examining premises, and isolating variables. When we allow assumptions to color our research (rather than have research challenge our assumptions) the result is invariably pseudoscience.

We can look back now and see quite easily how the era of scientific racism went horribly wrong. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t those who have failed to learn the proper lessons from this history.

We are now in an era (although hopefully the tail end) of scientific homophobia – using science to demonstrate that homosexuality is not “natural.” Of course, the massive implicit assumption in such research is the definition of the word “natural” and its implications for human behavior and society.

Such research takes a few different approaches. The first is to characterize homosexuality as a mental illness. Up until 1973 the DSM listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. It was removed largely because research showed that homosexuals were no more likely to have any features of mental illness than heterosexuals. The behavior itself appears to occur along a spectrum (not a simple dichotomy), occurs in all times and cultures, and even among the animal kingdom.

While research into homosexuality as a mental illness has faded away, there continues to be research into the question of the biological roots of homosexuality. This type of research is not in itself bigoted or biased, it’s just tricky. All human behavior has biological influence (we are our brains, after all), and something as fundamental as sexuality is likely to be strongly biological. The fact that we have sexual desires at all is a product of brain function influenced by hormones and biochemisty.

Where this type of research becomes problematic is when it is overly simplistic. There is likely no “gay gene,” or any one physical measurement that predicts homosexuality. There does seem to be a host of genetic, developmental, and environmental influences relating to sexual behavior along a homo-hetero spectrum (not to mention that male-female, while bimodal, is not a strict dichotomy either).

As an interesting aside, some political subcultures deny biological research because their ideology dictates that sexual preference is completely a “choice” without biological influence.

The third type of research, and the one that motivated today’s post, looks into whether or not homosexuality is “natural.” Of course, all such research is doomed by implicit assumptions as to what constitutes “natural” and why it should matter for human behavior.

A recent article that has been spreading around the skeptiverse discusses “research” by a graduate of the University of Lagos in Nigeria, Chibuihem Amalaha. His research is, apparently, magnets:

“To start with, physics is one of the most fundamentals of all the sciences and  I used two bar magnets in my research. A bar magnet is a horizontal magnet that has the North Pole and the South Pole and when you bring two bar magnets and you bring the North Pole together you find that the two North Poles will not attract. They will repel, that is, they will push away themselves showing that a man should not attract a man. If you bring two South Poles together you find that the two South Poles will not attract indicating that same sex marriage should not hold.”

This Day Live characterizes this as a “breakthrough.” It doesn’t get more blatant that this – physics is fundamental, therefore human behavior should comport to absurd analogies to physical principles. This is beyond parody, it could easily be an Onion article without alteration.

Even more fundamental than physics is math – and he argues, rather bizarrely, that math proves gay marriage to be wrong.  This is a pure example of looking for reflection of ones beliefs and biases in the world, to the point of being almost delusional.

Finally he argues that animals do not exhibit homosexual behavior. This is both irrelevant and wrong. The list of animals observed to engage in homosexual behavior is quite long.

As always, skeptics like to point to extreme examples of pseudoscience as a cautionary tale but also a lesson to help identify more subtle forms of that behavior. Implicit social biases coloring research is not limited to such childish arguments and blatant prejudice.

22 responses so far

22 thoughts on “Science Proves I’m Right”

  1. BillyJoe7 says:

    He can be beaten at his own game…
    Protons, which are all positively charged, are held together in the nucleus of every atom by the strongest force in the universe.

  2. “…If you bring two South Poles together you find that the two South Poles will not attract indicating that same sex marriage should not hold.”

    I think he is unintentionally advocating for bestiality here by implying human-human marriage should not hold.

  3. Bruce Woodward says:

    “Implicit social biases coloring research is not limited to such childish arguments and blatant prejudice.”

    Africa is still very much very homophobic (At least I know southern Africa is). This is mainly pushed by a very strong and real religious element (both Christian and Muslim). “Western” tolerance is just another example (in their eyes) of a degenerate society and its weak governance.

    This has very little to do with the difference between black and white people and everything to do with how insiduous the church has been and how ensconced they are in the basic education there.

  4. Kawarthajon says:

    What’s that term to use when you can’t tell if the story is a fake or real, because the reality is so nonsensical that it could be fiction?

  5. CW says:

    @ Kawarthajon

    Poe’s Law?

  6. Kawarthajon,

    That would be a Poe, as in Poe’s Law. In this case, I am being lazy and depending on Steven to have done due diligence to confirm the authenticity of the story.

  7. locutusbrg says:

    Illogical thinking fascinates me. So which end off the magnet is attracted to him, is he a south pole or a north pole? Is a true hermaphrodite a true Monopole? Finally proof of a monopole.

    Steve The fact that anyone pays any attention to this non-sense is in fact depressing and disturbing. Yes it is a teaching paradigm for skeptics. It is also a depressing reminder of how bad the state of science understanding is. A much more uplifting story is your 9/11 truth-er from the podcast this week.

  8. worlebird says:

    I followed the article through to the original, at “This Day Live”, and I found the beginning of the article quite interesting. The reporter (and the “scientist” himself) spend quite a few words before the article even gets going just talking about the guy’s qualifications and the many amazing accomplishments. The one I found most amusing was his claim to have proven that pi does not equal 22/7, even though “everyone” thinks it does. Of course, this is nonsense. 22/7 is a useful approximation of pi, but we have known that it is not equal to pi for well over 2000 years. If that’s what counts for cutting-edge research at the University of Lagos, then they’re really in trouble.

  9. ConspicuousCarl says:

    I thought magnets were miracles.

  10. Kawarthajon says:

    Yeah, Poe, thanks folks! I had it on the tip of my tongue, but couldn’t quite remember it.

  11. Davdoodles says:

    The term “race” reminds me of that creepy closeted Ray Comfort fellow’s obsessive use of the term “kind”.

    He dishonestly blithers the same childish factoid to parishioners, random passers-by, whoever: “Blah blah cat-kind dog-kind, horse-kind, worm-kind, human-kind, etc, blergh-fap”. In other words, he stacks the deck.

    Then, he “challenges” his set-upon, creeped-out, mark to explain exactly why snakes have never been observed in real-time to become racoons or bacteria or elephants. Or some-such meaningless bull-crap, ergo Deus est excogitatoris.

    Of course, as Creepy Ray and I and everyone knows there are no “kinds”, and there are no “races”. There’s just us, and our brothers and sisters, and our cousins (equally meaningless terms) the apes, monkeys, kangaroos, skinks, blob fish, trees, fungi, viruses and all the hard-working carbon atoms in the big ol’ universe.

    As an Antipodean myself, I apologize for my gibbering neighbor Raymond, and hope he quits embarrassing himself, and my hemisphere. The silly, sexually-frustrated, weirdo.

  12. Davdoodles says:

    “I thought magnets were miracles.”

    Gay miracles, apparently.

  13. william64 says:

    My reply to the math: 1+1=2, and 1’s are shaped like a sideways penis, therefore gay marriage is ok haha.

  14. delphi_ote says:

    Every time anyone brings up magnets, I have to post what is, in my opinion, the greatest answer to a question ever given. Mr. Feynman, magnets how do they work?

  15. eiskrystal says:

    It would make attracting a mate much easier if this were true. Of course you’d then be stuck with the first one that came along. And I do mean stuck 😉

  16. MikeB says:

    Now, now.

    If God had meant for men to have sex with other men, He would’ve put a hole in their arse.

    Wait a minute…

  17. Bruce Woodward says:

    Mike, the anus is a satanic construct and everything we do with it is against god. True Christians never poop.

  18. eternallylearning says:

    Dude… “fucking magnets; how do they work?” is not asking a question about sexual magnets. Magnets have nothing to do with sex. “Fucking magnets” are just magnets, and the answer tho how they work is not “heterosexually.”

  19. houdin654jeff says:

    So, from what I’ve been able to glean from this alleged college graduate is that people are magnets and that’s why gayness is wrohbnjoe vg…

    The above statement was what I found on my screen after waking up from what I can only assume was an idiocy based black out. To resume in small bursts so I don’t shoot blood out of my nose… People are magnets. Magnets repel each other. Therefore, people who are the same should repel each other? Sure would make football a more interesting game if that were true.

    I’ve never been to college, but man, they must have some really good beer at the U of Lagos to kill THAT many brain cells.

  20. ebohlman says:

    Micellaneous observations:

    The big problem with debating whether a phenomenon is “natural” is that the word has multiple meanings, one of which is empirical (does the phenomen occur in nature) and another of which is normative (does the phenomenon agree with the “natural order”, the latter term usually being merely a sophistication for “God’s will”). In the “debate” over whether homosexuality is “natural”, the ones say “no” are inevitably using it normatively and the ones who say “yes” are inevitably using it empirically. I would be a very wealthy man if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen this goalpost shift:

    Anti: homosexuality is unnatural.
    Pro: homosexuality has been found in thousands of different species
    Anti: Animals kill their own young. Are you saying we should act like them?

    Amalaha’s argument is sympathetic magic, pure and simple. He’s noticed a superficial similarity (barely that) of form and inferred a deep similarity of substance. It’s a juvenile form of reasoning, best suited to a middle-school locker room.

    While the APA’s removal of homosexuality from the DSM was certainly evidence-based, the actual timing of it was dictated by more political considerations, both external (pressure from gay activists) and internal (professional disputes between behaviorists and psychoanalysts); if the decision had been made purely on the evidence, it would have happened several years earlier.

    Evelyn Hooker’s work, which started the line of research demonstrating that homosexuality wasn’t psychopathological, was quite interesting from a skeptic POV. She demonstrated that practitioners who were skilled in administering projective tests like the Rorschach were unable to distinguish the results of gay subjects from straight subjects if they were blind to the subject’s orientation, despite the fact that most practitioners at the time claimed that gay men and straight men (the profession didn’t pay much attention to lesbians at the time) had distinct and different response patterns on the tests. The real interesting thing is that the tests themselves are now regarded by most researchers and practitioners as woo; Hooker had shown that practitioners of pseudoscience were unable to get results consistent with their own pseudoscientific beliefs.

  21. Mlema says:

    “The irony is that science has been the primary intellectual tool by which humanity has shed its narrow cultural prejudices, parochial views, and self-serving assumptions.”

    I disagree. Science typically follows the prevailing cultural norms when it comes to racism. Cultural racism has historically been turned by people who have determined in their hearts that all men are equal. Some of these people may have been scientists, but you can’t determine with science that all men are equal. Because different doesn’t require equal. Science always happens within culture.

  22. Mlema says:

    homosexuality too. in fact, I would say that science was used to perpetuate the “illness” of homosexuality, but finally could no longer overcome societal pressure.

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