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.

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