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.

4 Comments

  1. I wasn’t expecting this conclusion but I do agree. It’s frustrating to see some social science research published, quoted and having great impact while less popular results are dismissed or attacked. On the other hand selective use of research does happen in the hard sciences as well. There was a very interesting article a while back in the New England Journal of Medicine which showed that, in regard to studies on the efficacy of antidepressants, if the result was positive the study was 12 times more likely to be published than if the result was negative or questionable. To be fair these were all industry sponsored studies but maybe that is the problem.
    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa065779#t=articleDiscussion

  2. “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.”

    I agree with the above. But why is the prospect of “change” and note you don’t define what “change” means, why is that prospect threatening to mainstream sexual minorities? Because the concept of “Just change from gay to straight, anyone can do it if you try hard enough” has been used as a political weapon to deny sexual minorities Equal Civil Rights. In other words, Sexual Minorities do not deserve Equal Civil Rights because they don’t have to be gay, they could change if they wanted.

    Every anti gay rights group touts this, NOM has been pushing this lately BTW. It then leads to the next claim that people choose to be gay, the one always follows the other. It is because the Christian Right has used Change Is Possible as a political weapon which has driven away mainstream sexual minorities. So when this is used as a threat to deny Equal Civil Rights, rightfully so, the mainstream sexual minorities perceive it as *the threat that it is*.

    It is the Christian Right that has made “change is possible” into a political attack. If they stopped using that as a weapon perhaps you would see more sexual minorities pausing to listen to your evidence Mark. But as long is it is used as a threat, the gays are right to perceive it as a threat.

    I think it is precisely because of the practitioners of Reparative Therapy have made wildly *exaggerated claims* for so many years without doing the studies to prove it, that a lot of the public is skeptical. Then on the other side you have got thousands of stories all of the internet from people who have gone through Exodus or Reparitive Therapy and come out still gay, stating unequivocally that it doesn’t work. The internet is a game changer. No longer do people have to rely on what their one doctor tells them, this IS the information age, they now go on the internet and read competing opinions. It used to be that a handful of people in areas of specialty expertise had access to Medical Journals and studies that everyday citizens did not. So they were looked up to as experts and with no other real competing groups. The Internet has changed everything and it has done so in a profound way.

    For someone who is gay who is getting pressure from his, primarily religious, family and friends to try to change his or her sexual orientation before all they had available was the counsel of their pastor and their doctor. No more, now they can go on the internet and read lots of opinion on the other side that says you are fine the way you are no need to change, and if you try it you likely won’t be successful anyway and you will have wasted a lot of time and money trying. And again we are talking about the word “change” without defining it.

    There are very very few believable ex-gay testimonials on the internet. The majority of them when you read them appear to be fake propaganda *planted* stories. Whereas the “I tried it and I failed, I’m still gay and now I have come to accept myself and I’m happy” stories are much more plentiful and frankly much more believable.

    I don’t have a dog in this race, I am straight and the few gay people I know none of them have ever wanted to be anything other than gay. So all I have to go on is what I read on the Internet and that is like virtually everybody nowadays. The only reason I am even interested in Sexual Orientation Change Efforts is because it is being used politically. If it was not used politically I could care less. That is why I believe those liberal Psychologists because of the investigations I have done myself on this issue. I do think they are right. I don’t see anything wrong with your methods Mark, yours and Dr. Throckmortons. I think it is okay. Your method is different than Repairative Therapy, it is not similar at all. As long as you don’t give out a false promise and people are fully informed which according to your methods they are, I think your therapy is fine. Your therapy simply helps the person sort out their priorities in life, without you making any directional suggestions. The way I understand your therapy is that a person would sort out their priorities with you and a perfectly acceptable plan would be for them to embrace their homosexuality and change their Religion and church to a gay affirming religion. OR to prioritize their religion in their life and learn how to supress their natural sexual orientation and or live a celibate life.

    It is a free country and a Christian therapist needs to put the patient first and I think your therapy program does that. Your therapy program basically says all options are on the table. I will help you as YOU make your decisions on what are your priories in your life. That seems perfectly legit to me. Just no lies, and no holding out false hope of true sexual orientation change. My personal opinion is that for the majority of religious gay people, is that they embrace their homosexuality and find a nice gay affirming religion and church. That way they have it all.

  3. Pingback: A Journal, My Journal…………Not your Journal……………… | Vernon's Learning Journal

  4. I just discovered your blog and this post. I agree with your observations regarding those who lament that the behavioral and social sciences are not seen as equal to the hard sciences. Frankly, I don’t believe they are. It is possible that the continued application of empirical, scientific methods of study in these disciplines will narrow the gap between the hard and social sciences, but I think Thomas Kuhn’s comments on how they are largely “pseudo-science” is true.

    Sigmund Koch thought that psychology was misconceived as science or a coherent discipline devoted to the empirical study of humanity. He suggested that psychology departments become “divisions of psychological studies.” Within “Psychology in Human Context (313),” he said that the “hope of a psychological science became indistinguishable from the fact of psychological science. The entire subsequent history of psychology can be seen as the ritualistic endeavor to emulate the forms of science in order to sustain the delusion that it already is a science.”

    There is also the issue of psychiatric diagnosis, which presents itself in the garb of a medical diagnosis when the vast majority of its labels for mental health and behavioral health problems are far from having the legitimacy of a truly medical diagnosis. Mental and behavioral health problems are still diagnosed on symptoms without confirming empirical tests (i.e., blood work).

    I have taught a course on Biblical Counseling at Grove City College for several years and in one of my lectures look at how the individual’s view of science influences how they view psychology, counseling and the issue of integration of its findings with Christianity.

    I question whether we will ever be able to have scientific parity between the hard and social sciences because of the human variable within the social sciences. The reason it seems to me is twofold: 1) the incredible amount of complexity that human behavior brings to the study of the so-called social sciences because we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God; and 2) because of sinful, fallen human nature. We are created in the image of God, but fallen. I suspect that God has ordained this to be true for the general revelatory knowledge of psychology and the social sciences for the same reasons that He has seen fit to prohibit us from fashioning a single view or system out of His special revelation—humans have a tendency to want to be godlike.

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