Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Gay Science

There is a provocative NY Times article on the recent controversy over research concerning gay sheep. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded the work of Dr. Roselli, who was seeking biochemical causes of homosexuality in sheep. (Apparently, about 8% of rams seek sex exclusively with other rams.) Various gay rights and animal rights groups, however, raised a storm of protest, claiming that Dr. Roselli's work was designed to find a way to "cure" homosexuality by hormone treatments. This was, of course, a wild exaggeration--although arguably the immodest way in which Dr. Roselli advertised his work may have invited some of the distortion.

But it does raise the question: Is it appropriate for scientists to investigate why some people are homosexual and others heterosexual? Consider a matrix of possibilities: nature/nurture on one side, mutable/immutable on the other. What if we were to discover that the difference arises from genetics, or from developmental conditions, or from some combination of the two? What if we discover that a person's sexuality is fixed for life, or easily changed, or somewhere in between? Suppose there are many different types of homosexuality and heterosexuality--many sets of answers to these questions?

As a gay scientist, I sometimes find myself torn between the thirst for knowledge and the fear of knowing. On the one hand, I understand some people's fears. In a homophobic society, the matrix of possibilities looks bleak: immutable nature would make us seem like freaks; immutable nurture would mean homosexuality could be prevented by rearing children differently; mutable nature would mean a drug could be administered to change one's sexual orientation; and mutable nurture would invite re-education camps for adults. But on the other hand, I know that if society welcomed homosexuality, the matrix would look much brighter: immutable nature would make us seem gifted; immutable nurture would mean parents could choose their children's sexual orientation; mutable nature would mean people could easily choose to be homosexual; and mutable nurture would mean people could learn how to be homosexual.

I guess the real message in here is that, when it comes to the science of homosexuality, it is our attitude toward homosexuals that will drive how society uses the knowledge, not the other way around. We should not sacrifice science on the altar of hate. Let's find out as much as we can about human sexuality. Because in sexuality, as everywhere else, enlightenment leads to freedom and ignorance to oppression. In other words, the truth will make you free.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be so sure that scientists will find any "answers" for a good long time. Yesterday, margarine was good, and butter terrible. Now, the reverse is true. Once, alcohol was horrible in all forms, now we are supposed to drink wine every day. Science is a slow, imperfect process, and the tendency of the media to claim 'scientific truth' after just a study or two is depressing.

I think that spending money researching this sort of thing is a waste of money.  

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

I agree that it will take a long time for the study of sexuality to yield any good, solid results. But why does that mean it is a waste of money? All sciences take a long time to mature. If you think it is a waste of money because you can see no positive benefits, I feel obliged to point people have said the same thing about virtually all of the sciences. As Faraday is said to have remarked when asked what use this new "electricity" would be to anyone: "Of what use is a baby?" (OK, the story is almost surely apocryphal, but it's a good one anyhow...)

I agree that the tendency of the media to claim each new study as the definitive "Truth" with a capital "T" is depressing. You will find that scientists make this error far less than the general media. I attribute the media's tendency to make such claims to the usual sensationalism that drives the infotainment that passes as news programs. Also, it is a result of people's tendency to use magical thinking--and society's tolerance of such thinking.

Anonymous said...

The general media make the "Truth" error much more than scientists, because the general media is mostly composed of arts graduates, not scientists - they don't really understand science, but they do understand how to sell papers - sensationalism baby!

Anyhow, when computers were first starting out, no-one foresaw the massive world market they would eventually command; many medical doctors were seen as quacks and idiots for their newfangled (and now totally accepted as correct) ideas etc - we can't say that this sexuality study is a waste of money anymore than we can already supply the answers.

As far as the study goes, I find it rather intriguing, just as I find studies into biochemical causes of violence intriguing. I just hope that the result of it all isn't a 'cure', especially a non-voluntary one - society's views still need changing to fully respect and accept people of all sexualities. 

// posted by Pombat

Anonymous said...

Imagine we have a limited budget for scientific endeavors. This is not too much of a stretch. How would you allocate it? To my mind, the sexuality of sheep is way down the list. It would be more fruitful to study gay Scotsmen. 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that people in general have a desire to find THE truth, when maybe that is simply not possible. Isn't this all an argument more about free will: does someone choose to be gay or violent or is it formed? Is this even a sensible question?

Science can provide answers in where there are influences, and this is worth investigating in and of itself. It is up to society, though, to decide what questions are the ones we need to ask. 

// posted by Spotted Handfish

Anonymous said...

Then LTG you do not understand science.

It is easier to study a simpler system and then extrapolate. The majority of medical work is first done on mice whose immune system closely matches our own. This avoids the problems associated with performing experiments on people; let alone first finding enough gay Scotsmen to study. 

// posted by Spotted Handfish

Anonymous said...

LTG is correct that, in practice, organizations that provide funding for scientific research must prioritize. Spot-H is also correct that research on animals, while easy to mock, merits a higher priority than one might expect because it is almost always a necessary precursor to research on humans.

It was, in fact, the possibility that Dr. Roselli might extend his work to gay humans that raised the uproar in the first place.

I don't mind the study of sexuality taking a relatively low priority--a high number at the scientific deli line, as it were. My concern is that conservatives may deliberately depress research into sexuality because they prefer ignorance when it comes to such matters--the religious right may feel it already has all the answers it needs, and they don't want to fund the sexual equivalent of another Darwin. At the same time, out of the best intentions, liberals may deliberately avoid or dismiss research into sexuality for fear of finding out the answers, for the kinds of reasons I described in my post. As a result, scientific research into human (or animal) sexuality ends up with a much lower priority at many funding institutions (each makes decisions separately, but many take cues from each other) than it would otherwise receive, due to political influences.

As sex is a major bodily function--one of major importance in world cultures and certainly one that is darned important to the survival of species--I would think scientific research into human sexuality would receive modest but certainly not rock-bottom priority. The trouble is that the right wing will fund only certain types of study into sexuality, and those of us on the left should not allow ourselves to fall into the same trap. As much as possible, institutions that provide funding should try not to let political fears or goals influence their priorities (and I am pleased that the NIH funded the study in question).

I know everyone is partisan--let's not start up that argument again!--but we can at least do our best to have these political biases out in the open. We are all aware of the conscious conservative bias (esp. evangelical bias) toward what aspects of human sexuality (if any) should be studied. My point in this post is that there also is an unconscious liberal bias against certain studies too... and this bias is also based on fear, not hope. As liberals, we should re-think our priorities and learn to let this particular fear go.

Anonymous said...

I'll suggest a political solution to the political bias problem Dr. S. mentions. The real politcal problem is not in researching the nature, causes, influences on sexuality etc. The problem occurs only when the state starts to force a "cure" on people. Unfortunately, I suspect that would be a likely next step.  

// posted by RBR

Anonymous said...

RbR: Could you explain more why the only, "real political problem" is when the state forces a "cure" on people?

Many liberals fear this would be the "next step," so they oppose such research in the first place. This seems to me to be a political problem also... I guess what I'm arguing is that such opposition is well-intentioned but misguided. Opposition to scientific research usually is.

Liberal opposition to certain scientific research on homosexuality arises, in part, from a desire to protect gays and lesbians from the nightmare "cure" scenario you mention. But I am not sure gays and lesbians feel quite the same way. I have only anecdotal evidence, but a fair number of gays and lesbians I have known are curious. And I, for one, would like to know why I am gay.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Jeez, try to make a joke...

"I would like to know why I am gay." Really? My answer: same reason I am straight. God made you that way. God created us all, male and female, gay and straight, black, brown, white, red, and yellow, in his own image. I don't expect a greater explanation except to be reminded that human diversity is but a poor mirror for the infinite diversity of God.

But then you didn't really mean "why," in tha sense, did you...

As for scientific explanations of how sexuality develops, knock yourself out. I just prefer to spend my tax dollars on curing diseases, researching mental illness, exploring space, or understanding the nature of the universe. Sexuality research just feels like craniometry to me.

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG wrote: "Jeez, try to make a joke..." What joke are you referring to?

Regarding "why" people are homosexual, you are correct that I was not asking a metaphysical question. I am looking for understanding, not an answer.

LTG also wrote: "Sexuality research just feels like craniometry to me." That's an interesting analogy. From what I understand, craniometry is the study of skull shapes and sizes, usually associated with the discredited hypothesis of a link between such features and intelligence. It sounds like you are suggesting that scientific research into sexuality is basically pseudo-scientific. Is that right?

The Law Talking Guy said...

The joke: Gay scotsmen and sheep.

USWest said...

I'm late to this game, but I am reminded of the day I read that UC Davis had received some rather small sum of money to study the methane in cow farts.

I laughed for a week about how stupid it was. But the Central Valley of California with all of its dairies has a huge air pollution problem in part because of all the cows and manure piles that are used for fertilizers. They are now encouraging farmers now to place "caps" on their manure piles to try and capture the methane and convert it to fuel for powering their farms. This will result in improved air quality.

I am not suggesting that studying sexuality is on the same plane and studying cow farts. We should be careful about claiming spending on certain things is stupid or useless. We often learn more on the making the journey than in achieving goal. Nor should we view scientific research as trying to fix a “problem” but rather, as Dr. S points out, on gaining a different understanding of things.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Nice example with the cow farts (excuse me, "bovine flatulence").