Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rejoice, and Believe in the Gospel!

... The gospel (which means "good news") of True Science, that is. I just finished reading James Robert Brown's Who Rules in Science?: An Opinionated Guide to the Wars (Harvard, 2001). Brown, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and an admitted heterosexual, tries to provide a nice middle-of-the-road take on the science wars of the 1990s. He concedes that scientists aren't perfect, but insists that they are awfully good. He opposes scientific orthodoxy to "social constructivists," who are usually postmodernists, and we know about them, with their silly jargon and all.

I admit I'm out of my depth in some of Brown's discussion, because I have little formal training in science and haven't read nearly enough of the "constructivist" works he cites. (I need to read more Bruno Latour, for example.) But in those instances where I have read the writers he discusses, like Paul Feyerabend and Stephen Jay Gould, I found problems. To sum up while oversimplifying a bit, Brown seems to think that every critic of scientific orthodoxy is a "social constructivist," even Gould it appears, and he really should know better than that. This can be seen in his discussion, about halfway through the book, of science and homosexuality.

Research on homosexuality involves an inextricable mix of science and politics. “Pro-gay” and “anti-gay” represent the respective political stances of being in favor or out of favor with improving the social situation of gays and lesbians. Debate tends to flare between the “essentialists” and “constructivists.” (For better or worse, these are the standard terms.)
In fact, "constructivist" is not a standard term in this debate; "constructionist" is. I couldn't say for certain, but I have the impression that "constructivist" is used in this context only by critics of constructionism, and not even all of them. According to Wikipedia, "constructivist" and "constructionist" refer to different theories anyway, which means that Brown's consistent and insistent use of the former term undermines his entire book. (And to nit-pick, "out of favor with" is not the opposite of "in favor of".) It's also an enduring and much-noticed irony of the debate that almost no one actually claims to be an essentialist.

The former [the "essentialists"] claim that one’s sexual orientation is a condition that is either biologically determined or imprinted at an early age and remains more or less immutable through life. On this view, one is objectively gay or lesbian, whether one knows and accepts it or not. For a constructivist, on the other hand, one’s sexual orientation is fundamentally a choice, no doubt a choice conditioned by one’s history and upbringing, but a choice nonetheless.
This is wrong too. Brown describes the "essentialist" position somewhat more accurately, though as he must know, being a philosopher and all, the key is not biology or imprinting but essence, being, nature. As Foucault famously described the concept, "Nothing that went into [the homosexual's] total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitively active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature." This isn't an especially scientific notion, by the way; it's almost mystical. Many people, including scientists, simply beg the question by assuming that biology equals essence; and we know what happens when you assume.

It's in his account of the "constructivist" that Brown falls flat on his face. I can't claim that I've read the constructionist literature on homosexuality exhaustively, but I've read a representative sample, probably more than Brown has, and I can't recall ever seeing a social constructionist claim that sexual orientation is a choice. The first few times someone accused me of thinking that homosexuality is a "choice" because I reject biological theories of its cause, I was taken aback because the accusation seemed wilfully irrelevant. The first person who did this was a political operative for a state-level gay-rights organization, and it was less an accusation than a lackwitted stereotype; the second was a graduate student in psychology with a vested interest in biological determinist theories, who should have known better. Brown, as a philosopher, definitely should know better, but apparently his professional education didn't extend to basic issues in philosophy like the free will vs. determinism debate.

So, let me repeat what I've said before: the point (I could mischievously call it the essence, but Diana Fuss beat me to it) of social construction theory is that many traits or behaviors or customs that people consider "natural" -- built into our human nature / blood / genes / DNA by God, Nature, Evolution -- are in fact, products of culture, learned, acquired. Not "chosen", except perhaps in some obscure technical sense of the word, because, again, the interest of social constructionism is to highlight features of human life that we take for granted, things we didn't choose because they are Natural. "That's just the way things are, that's all," though some wicked and perverse souls might decide to rebel against Nature, God's Will, Common Decency, and the American Way.

The key point that gives away Brown's misunderstanding / ignorance is his remark that for "a constructivist, on the other hand, one’s sexual orientation is fundamentally a choice, no doubt a choice conditioned by one’s history and upbringing, but a choice nonetheless." The best I can say in mitigation is that, as far as I know, social constructionists have not been able to come up with scientific-sounding explanations of how social construction works; that is, how people come to be convinced that what they have learned is something they were born with. But then, essentialists have never managed to explain how, say, a smaller INAH3 manifests itself in a talent for interior design and an obsession with ABBA.

Essentialism is compatible with that view of science I have called scientific orthodoxy: sexual orientation is a biological or psychological fact whose nature and causes can be discovered by orthodox science. (This includes both the ontological and epistemological senses of objective, but the emphasis here is on the ontological side.) On a constructivist account, by contrast, such facts simply don’t exist, at least not objectively. Instead, one’s sexuality is constructed – self-constructed at that.
This is more of the same; one' s sexuality is not "self-constructed at that" -- it is socially constructed, shaped from outside as well as inside.

Notice too how casually Brown minimizes the yawning gap between "biological" and "psychological fact." Language, for example, is probably both a biological (in the sense of being rooted physically in our brains and other body parts) and psychological fact, but there is no biological difference between an English speaker and a Chinese speaker. I once angered a gay advocate of biological determinism by pointing out that there probably is a correlation between speaking Chinese and certain physical traits (black hair, dark eyes, etc.), so that by her logic Chinese, like homosexuality, must be inborn.

Brown seems unaware that according to social constructionists, "race" is socially constructed. Even "orthodox" scientists have conceded that race is not, after all, a natural category in human beings, but here, as with "sexual orientation", the debate is as much about the status of the scientific evidence, and many white scientists at least find it difficult to rid themselves of the traditional racial categories. I was startled, a couple of years ago, to find some white liberal bloggers blithely declaring that "race is as real as nappy hair." The motif circulated for a month or two, then faded. It's worth remembering that social construction works with human bodies; the existence of a biological trait like skin color or hair texture does not prove the validity of essentialism. No social constructionist doubts that skin color, for example, is biologically determined; the question is whether skin color constitutes a "racial" trait, how it relates to culture, and so on.

Social constructionism is also compatible with what Brown calls scientific orthodoxy. Before we can really discuss the status of essentialism with regard to sexual orientation, we must first have some solid scientific results to work with, and so far there are none. The scientists involved, especially but not only Simon LeVay, have been explicit all along that they had decided in advance what they were looking for. LeVay told reporters that if he hadn't found evidence to support his beliefs, he'd have given up science. (I doubt the truth of that boast, by the way. True believers can always bend reality to fit their preconceptions, and one could ask whether by demanding that reality conform to his beliefs, LeVay hadn't abandoned science at the outset.)

To be fair, Brown concedes some of these points on page 111:

Now to the interesting philosophical point. The crucial thing about these [scientific] criticisms of essentialism that come from constructivists is that they are wholly within the framework that I have called scientific orthodoxy. Every objection would be recognized – at least in principle – as perfectly legitimate from the point of view of standard scientific method: Don’t use crude tests when better ones are available, don’t beg the question when setting up a classification, don’t take people’s judgments of others at face value, don’t ignore obvious alternative possible explanations, don’t confuse correlation with causation. The list could go on. These are principles that any champion of orthodoxy happily embraces.
Perhaps so, but they don't apply those principles. Brown himself frames the whole discussion in terms of "constructivism" vs. essentialism, but the scientific discussion, such as it is, has little to with this philosophical debate. The question is the validity, within the terms of scientific orthodoxy, of the research on sexual orientation. It's even debatable whether such critics of biological determinism as Anne Fausto-Sterling, Stephen Jay Gould, Hilary and Stephen Rose, or Richard Lewontin are social constructionists, given that their criticisms are primarily of the quality of the research on its own terms, not whether it conforms to constructionist theory. Brown simply takes for granted than anyone who doubts that every psychological fact is biologically determined must be a social "constructivist," and that doesn't follow.

The essentialist/constructivist debate cuts right across the pro-gay/anti-gay debate. The pro-gay essentialist claims that sexual orientation has a biological character and is perfectly natural, and so completely unobjectionable. It is an immutable characteristic, so it should enjoy the protection of anti-discrimination laws, just as race and gender typically do. The anti-gay essentialist is likely to see it as a nasty disease that ought to be appropriately treated. By contrast, the pro-gay constructivist sees sexual orientation as a choice, one that should certainly be tolerated, if not celebrated. The anti-gay constructivist agrees it is a choice – a wicked one that must be morally condemned.
The trouble here is that the people Brown calls anti-gay constructivists are really essentialists: they believe that human nature is heterosexual, and that sodomites are merely rebels against Nature/God. (This passage makes me suspect that Brown's only source for his discussion is Andrew Sullivan's 1993 tract Virtually Normal; the above paragraph is virtually a paraphrase of Sullivan's, um, argument.) The same claim was made for years by gay Christian essentialists arguing about the interpretation of Romans 1:26-28, who declared that their nature was homosexual, and so for them to try to be heterosexual would be "unnatural," "going against their nature."

Further, Brown oversimplifies (to put it kindly) with his assumption that "an immutable characteristic [as he assumes sexual orientation to be] ... should enjoy the protection of anti-discrimination laws, just as race and gender typically do." It isn't only immutable characteristics that are protected by antidiscrimination laws: religious affiliation, which is neither inborn nor immutable, is also protected under US and Canadian law. This is a common mistake, also made routinely by gay-rights advocates, including scientists trying to justify their sloppy research by touting its supposed political usefulness:
A typical essentialist is Simon LeVay, who claimed as a result of post-mortem studies that a cluster of brain cells in the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus is larger in heterosexuals than in homosexuals. This, he said, shows that “sexual orientation has a biological substrate” ... Another famous work is that of Baily [sic] and Pillard on twins. They found that identical twins were more likely to be consonant for homosexuality than were fraternal twins. Given that identicals are closer genetically than fraternals, Baily [sic] and Pillard drew the conclusion that “genetic factors are important individual differences in sexual orientation” ... In a more public piece they stated that “science is rapidly converging on the conclusion that sexual orientation is innate,” and they concluded that this is “good news for homosexuals” [“Are Some People Born Gay?” NYT, Dec. 17, A21].
Added to his general intellectual slovenliness, this shows that James Robert Brown is not competent to discuss these issues. Can these people really have forgotten that biologically-rooted difference has generally been used to justify discrimination, based on race and sex? No one doubts that women and blacks are "born that way"; that "biological fact" is used to argue that they are incapable of full citizenship. Whether homosexuality is "innate" is not an important question, and mainstream gay-rights advocates have wasted a lot of time and energy letting bigots set the terms of the debate by claiming that it is. At the same time, I've winced when some half-informed gay people have lobbed the term "socially constructed" at essentialist opponents, whether pro-gay or anti-gay. It just isn't pertinent to the controversy until you've cleared away a lot of deadwood first -- and by the time you've done that, you don't really need the label.