Damaged Science

science Nov 19, 2019

When science becomes politicized, it becomes neither reliable nor trustworthy.

Good science depends on diverse ideological viewpoints. Bringing different worldviews to the table ensures that all sides and aspects of a question will be considered and examined. When science is dominated by one ideological viewpoint and alternate worldviews are actively excluded, it becomes impossible to conduct good science. This is especially true in the social sciences.

On October 1, 2019, the American Geophysical Union caved to activists who demanded that job postings for tenured faculty positions at Brigham Young University be pulled from their job board. While this may have been a new event within the hard sciences, it is merely another example of the discrimination and exclusion extant within the psychological sciences for decades.

A prime example of this is the APA's 2009 report on Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE). The task force consisted of seven members, all but one of whom identify as lesbian or gay and participate in same-sex relationships. The other member was a well-known activist for LGBT issues. Not one person on the task force had any experience with SOCE, though a number of well known and respected individuals applied to be included.

The science surrounding LGBT issues does not suffer merely from excluding individuals with certain ideologies - there has also been active suppression of studies, not for their lack of scientific rigor but rather for their conclusions.

A prime example of this suppression was the Spitzer study of 2003 which reported that some men have experienced change in their orientation as a result of therapy. For his study to even be printed, the journal required it to be published alongside a large amount of commentary. While much commentary made effective scientific arguments about ways the study could be improved and its limitations, some argued that, based on their worldview that there is nothing wrong with acting on homosexual impulses, research should not even be done on whether it can be changed.:

"The ultimate issues regarding [SOCE] are ethical-philosophical ones and not empirical. It is not whether sexual orientation can be changed, but whether it should be changed ...

"... it is not really client autonomy that is the basis of reparative therapy, but therapist autonomy to change clients, based chiefly on a therapist preference for heterosexuality. This is ultimately a value judgement and not something that can fruitfully addressed through further empirical research."

– Marcus C. Tye: Spitzer's Oversight: Ethical-Philosophical Underpinnings of "Reparative Therapy", as published in Ex-Gay Research: Analyzing the Spitzer Study and Its Relation to Science, Religion, Politics, and Culture

While Spitzer's study was, thankfully, printed anyway, it is telling that although a number of people called for more rigorous research into SOCE, to my knowlege there has been little research published on the subject among the prestigious journals. Instead, research has largely focused on determining a biological basis for same-sex sexual behavior.

Some of the reticence to research causes of same-sex sexual behavior beyond genetics is likely due to fear that results that show anything but purely biological causes for such behavior will be used to attack individuals who engage in said behavior. One case study of this is a large study recently published showing no genes with the power to predict same-sex sexual behavior, though it found five associated with it (though they explain less than 1% of all same-sex sexual behavior). In fear at how their study might be used against people engaging in same-sex sexual behavior, the researchers took the additional time to create a website explaining their findings. In fact, there was pressure to not even do the study:

"The paper sparked immediate debate when it was published — indeed, it was already controversial before it was released among scientists such as Reilly who were familiar with the work. It wasn’t the results, necessarily, that anyone had a problem with, it was that the science was being done in the first place, and that it was promoted in such a well known and highly regarded journal."

Thankfully, the scientists were brave enough to publish anyway and took the time to make sure their results would be understood properly.

The scientific method depends on being able to ask unique questions and see blindspots. In the social sciences, worldview plays an important role in the questions well-meaning scientists think to ask, so when people with a single worldview exclude people with differing worldviews, important questions do not get asked. With such a situation, the resulting body of knowledge tends to ignore important questions. Thus, the science becomes unreliable and untrustworthy.

The scientific outlook is not entirely bleak, however, on the subject of homosexuality. As I've written about before, the 4 Options Survey is a research project that is the result of the collaboration between scientists with differing worldviews, including Lee Beckstead who was one of the original collaborators on the APA 2009 report. The project's first resulting paper effectively challenged some popular views about individuals with same-sex attraction who are married to the opposite sex. It is an excellent example of honest science.

Honest science done by individuals with differeing worldviews can go a long way toward finding truth even about divisive, politically charged topics.

Scientists should not be afraid to ask questions - even questions that may result in uncomfortable answers.

For additional information on how the APA and science around homosexuality has become politicized.

Nicholas Cummings, PhD, former President of the APA on the politicization of the APA