On Warranting Equal Scientific Standing

A recent commentary in USA Today discusses the frustration felt by some folks in the social and behavioral sciences that their disciplines are not treated as though they were as scientifically rigorous as the hard sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry). The author points out two issues that drive the debate: money and politics. First, the money given to one study is funding taken away from another study. So there is a vested interest in limiting who is a viable candidate for limited funds.

Second, research can be political, and academics in the softer sciences are decidedly left of center:

A recent survey by economics professor Daniel Klein revealed that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a whopping 30-to-1 ratio in anthropology; 28-to-1 in sociology; nearly 10-to-1 in history; and nearly 7-to-1 in political science. In economics, which is widely considered “conservative” by other social fields, Republicans are merely outnumbered 3-to-1.

These ratios should get your attention.

A similar discussion takes place in several chapters in the book, Psychology’s War on Religion, edited by three folks, one of whom is Nicholas Cummings, past president of the American Psychological Association. I contributed the chapter on the battle over sexuality, which is on the front lines of the question of bias. I’ll come back to this in a moment. But first let’s discuss philosophy of science.

Several scholars have pointed out that research is value-laden – this is fairly well-established in the philosophy of science literature for the past fifty years or so. From the selection of the topic to the choice and operationalization of variables to the interpretation of data – make no mistake, science is value-laden. It is just clearer to see in the behavioral and social sciences. But that science if value-laden is true across the sciences. Perhaps the potential misuse of science is of greater concern in the behavioral and social sciences in light of the tendency to skew left of center which could keep researchers from holding one another accountable.  “Group think” about entire lines of research (let alone specific findings) can become a problem that translates into policy recommendations under the weight and auspices of “What science says…”

My experience has been that when other perspectives are brought up that go against the prevailing view (what is quickly defended as the “scientific consensus”), that other perspective (the counter-narrative, if you will) is ridiculed outright or simply left die a slow death by exclusion (from the broader “scientific” discourse).

There are plenty of examples to illustrate this point, and I offer several of them in the chapter I referenced above (in the book, Psychology’s War on Religion). One such area is the question: Can sexual orientation change? The answer “Yes” has become acceptable if it means through natural fluidity (among females) as reported by Lisa Diamond in her longitudinal work. If similar data (with more rigorous methodology) suggests “Yes” through involvement in Christian ministries, that line of research is dismissed outright as an outrageous consideration that does not even warrant discussion. It was interesting at the time of the original publication that the initial criticisms centered on who authored it, our institutional affiliations, and that it was published in book form (never mind that several studies have been published in book form and none of the early criticisms were scientific criticisms as such). Now that the study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal (in 2011, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy), it is now facing that counter-narrative of exclusion (i.e., let’s ignore it) I mentioned earlier.

Of course, one study does not prove that change occurs, and we have offered several possible explanations for the findings in an attempt to be fair that multiple interpretations of the data are viable. But the findings themselves open a line of research that could warrant further investigation. I recognize that the question of change is not of interest to the mainstream GLB community, and that it is actually a threatening consideration, but the mainstream GLB community are not the only stakeholders in these discussions, and others are (and have been) asking what the can expect from involvement in Christian ministries. Rather than rely upon competing anecdotal accounts, empirical study can shed light on a question of personal relevance to conventionally religious people. (Now such purported “scientific consensus” is being used to advance legislation about clinical practice. The behavioral and social science community that recognizes that such a bill overreaches beyond the science stands silent or “neutral” on the matter.)

So, to return to the question of whether the behavioral and social sciences warrant equal scientific standing: I am unlikely to shed a tear for my colleagues who lament that the behavioral and social sciences are not seen as equal to the hard sciences. As a psychologist, part of me would like to see behavioral science findings valued, and in many (if not most) cases, this would not be an issue. But I see first-hand how the field functions within political space that warrants the criticisms we have received.

When we get our house in order, we will be able to have a legitimate complaint. Until then, the devaluing of the behavioral and social sciences can function as a corrective if we are open to constructive criticism.

It’s Not the Lane; It’s the Logic: A Few Thoughts about Joel Osteen’s Recent Interview

There are certain questions that are just going to be asked of Joel Osteen. He has to know these questions are inevitable. It’s kind of like the presidential race: if you are running for president, you know that certain questions are going to be asked, particularly if people have not appreciated past attempts (by you) to answer those questions. It is up to your staff to help prepare you for those questions.

Let me start by saying that I sympathize with Osteen. I know first-hand that the topic of homosexuality is a difficult one to navigate, and all the more for someone in his position. One point I would raise is that he is in the spotlight, and he and his staff know that there are some predictable questions that he will be asked time and time again. He seems to need some help with language.

Now there is a lot here to discuss, and I am not going to dissect his entire response. I don’t enjoy it when it happens to me. But let me highlight the latter half of the interview in which the subject of etiology comes up. Etiology has been used by folks on both “sides” of the cultural debates – as if the the research there would settle the moral debate. In the so-called “Nature versus Nurture” debates, my experience has been that more liberal voices emphasize Nature so they can discuss behavior as a foregone conclusion. In response to that, traditionalists have a knee-jerk reaction against any evidence from biology and claim instead that Nurture is the key to etiology, as though it were the only logical argument for teaching a traditional sexual ethic. Neither argument is based on an accurate reading/interpretation of the existing data, but I’ll save that for another post. I’ll just say this for now: It is likely that both Nature and Nurture contribute to sexual orientation, but we really do not know all of what factors into etiology.

So how could Osteen handle this predictable question about etiology? I was intrigued by the appeal to his “lane”; he is staying in his lane when he does not delve into the research on etiology and change. I probably do something similar when I mark the boundaries of my knowledge of other issues related to homosexuality. I get that. However, instead of emphasizing his “lane” in this instance, he could acknowledge that he and others do not choose to experience the attractions that they have. He (and others) find themselves attracted to people of the same- or opposite-sex (and some people will discuss attractions to both sexes). So I have something like this in mind:

No, I did not choose to experience my attraction to the opposite-sex, and I don’t think most people choose to experience attraction to the same-sex. We feel the attractions that we feel. For some people who experience same-sex attractions those attractions are so strong and persistent that they would describe them as their orientation. They feel oriented (sexually, physically, emotionally) toward the same sex. Most people today tend to then identify themselves as gay – as a way of referencing this attraction or orientation toward the same sex. It is their identity. But others choose not to identify themselves by their attractions, nor do they choose to act on the feelings they have. In other words, this is the volitional part of our discussion. This is where there are choices to be made: What a person does with the attractions he or she has, and how that person forms his or her identity. So the question is not, “Is my orientation a choice?” but, rather, “What choices do I have when it comes to my sexuality, my identity, and my behavior?”

Again, I sympathize with any Christian leader who is trying to handle these types of questions in the national spotlight. I just don’t know how much patience people will have with staying in a “lane” given the nature of the debates today, as well as the relative influence someone like Osteen has given the size of his audience.

But there are ways for a Christian to respond to these kinds of questions – and at the same time to highlight that the question itself (in this case) is based upon several leaps in logic that warrant discussion.

MtF Transgender Persons in Corrections

Here is part 1/7 of a documentary titled “Cruel and Unusual” on male to female transgender (MtF) persons in corrections:

The rest of the documentary is available via YouTube.

It is an interesting documentary that opens with the argument that the mistreatment of transgender individuals amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” – hence the title of the documentary.

I am reviewing it as part of a consultation I’ve been doing for a couple of months now dealing with sexual minorities in corrections. You can see from watching the documentary that significant challenges arise in the juvenile justice system (which are not covered here) and in prisons in terms of responding to those who experience gender dysphoria.

The responses to these challenges can become polarizing, with one side charging the other with making demands for accommodations that smack of “political correctness” to them; the other side can run the risk of marginalizing the very staff that they are meant to train and educate.

In my work so far, I have found it helpful to note that those who are incarcerated are serving their sentence by virtue of being in corrections. They are not to be further punished through violence, sexual assault, or other forms of mistreatment. These forms of mistreatment – particularly sexual assault – are of significant concern especially to sexual minorities (those who experience their sexual identity or gender identity in ways that are different from those in the majority).

This has been an thought-provoking topic for me as a Christian who studies sexual identity and gender identity issues. If you are particularly interested in this topic, you might read this post in which I discuss T.J. Parsell’s experience as he shared in his book Fish.

Mixed Orientation Marriages

Here is an interview with Amity Pierce Buxton, founder of Straight Spouse Network, a non-profit that provides support and resources to heterosexual spouses who are or have been in a mixed orientation marriage.

It is an interesting interview on several levels. First, Buxton is clearly in favor of same-sex marriage and makes several points in support from a heterosexual spouse perspective, which is interesting to hear.

Second, and perhaps more what I have focused on in clinical practice, it is important to hear and understand the experiences of heterosexual spouses who find themselves in a mixed orientation marriage. Sometimes they learn of their spouse’s sexual orientation through disclosure on the part of their spouse; other times through discovery. Based on several studies we have conducted at ISSI, disclosure is preferred. But in either case there is often an interpersonal trauma associated with disclosure/discovery, a point that Buxton makes at one point in the interview. She notes that the trauma can be experienced around lies and secrecy, and it can also have to do with affairs. In some ways the research/writing on affairs in general discusses an affair as “interpersonal trauma”; it is a way of framing the experience of the spouse who did not have the affair. As we have seen in a more recent study, forgiveness (often in relation to an affair) is an important consideration for the non-offending spouse in terms of their own movement through stages of change.

A third observation I would make has to do with the love and regard Buxton displays toward her husband. We have also often seen this in our work. There are many ways spouses respond to disclosure/discovery of their spouse’s sexual orientation or gay identity. Sometimes it is relief (in the sense that circumstances now make sense – puzzle pieces from the past now fit in place); other times it is anger, confusion, and so on. These reactions can also occur in stages, if you will. But we have also seen this element of love and regard for one’s spouse.

Let me add another perspective: Although Buxton does not say much about spouses who stay together, we have also studied those marriages (what we refer to as “resilient” marriages). Although most mixed-orientation marriages do end in divorce, other marriages stay together for a number of reasons (e.g., love of spouse, commitment to marriage, children, financial issues, etc.). Forgiveness can be important here (again, in terms of addressing “interpersonal trauma” and moving through various stages), as can finding ways to meet sexual intimacy needs, which in our study was shown to be important for marital satisfaction and relationship outcomes.

In any case, it is an interesting interview. Amity Buxton is a leading figure in this area, and the experiences of people in mixed orientation marriages have not been adequately researched. So there is more work to be done.

It is noteworthy, too, that the organization that did the interview presumably bases its name on the 10% prevalence estimate from the Kinsey studies of the 1950s. Kinsey actually did not say that 10% of the population is gay, and we see much lower prevalence estimates from well-designed studies today. But that is a topic for another post.