Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cut Along the Bias

The latest issue of the Gay and Lesbian Review has a brief article by Vernon Rosario about the question of bias in research into the cause of difference in sexual orientation.  Unfortunately it's available online only to subscribers.  It's also unfortunately titled -- "Is Sexual Orientation Research Biased?" -- which I blame on the editor, not the author.  The article itself seems incomplete, never really making its point.

Rosario begins by commenting on a recent book on the subject, Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities Behind Sexual Orientation Research by Gayle Pitman, a Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at Sacramento City College.  Pitman's book isn't in the library, so I have to rely on Rosario and the description and user reviews at Amazon.  According to Rosario, Pitman explores how the work of researchers on sexual orientation has been influenced by their personal backgrounds; she interweaves this with a survey of the research.
[Pitman] definitely does not want to discredit these scientists as unobjective because of their own sexual orientation.  Yet she argues that all research exploits "the illusion of pure scientific objectivity."  Her conclusion veers off into a rumination on the role of fear in shaping this topic -- fear of homophobic religious groups and policy makers, fear of researchers who avoid sexual fluidity or non-biological paradigms so as not to undermine various GLBT political gains.  But she's really criticizing the fear of the GLBT community (without being specific) for condemning the research since, she finally concludes, gay scientists are really motivated by altruism and social justice, which are a legitimate subjectivity in science unlike the fear-based animus of the haters [24].
Again, without having read Pitman's book I can't accurately evaluate the notion of "the fear of the GLBT community."  Maybe she has some evidence to support that characterization, but from what I see most gay men and a good many lesbians don't "fear" scientific research into the causes of homosexuality.  I see almost no objections to that research, and virtually every gay person who mentions it does so positively, as proof that we can't help ourselves and we're entitled to our rights.  I suspect that she's attacking a straw man, partly because scientific apologists usually do.

According to Rosario, Pitman relied on secondary sources rather than actually talking to the researchers, although "all of the researchers Pitman discusses are alive and not reclusive."  As a corrective he reports a conversation with Francisco Sanchez, a gay Latino researcher at UCLA. Sanchez "believes that there's an 'interaction between our biological predisposition and the environment.  When we are born we are given whatever blueprint that predisposes us to certain interests, or personality, or complex behavior traits.  The environment interacts with the biology and genetics.'  But by environment he means primarily prenatal biological factors like gene interaction and hormonal effects.  Parenting and role models can influence behavior by suppressing or inhibiting sexual attraction, but innate feelings of attraction to males or females are fixed."  That's basically handwaving, but I guess it's useful as an account of the state of the research.
I continue to object that culture must have a larger role in sexuality.  He is willing to acknowledge that culture definitely complicates sexual self-identity because of sub-cultural stereotypes.  For example, a Latino man may not self-identify as gay because he doesn't relate to the Latino stereotypes of a gay man (the effeminate hairdresser), or he might experience conflict between identifying with the gay community versus the Latino community [25].
The "Latino man" here is evidently Sanchez himself, who grew up in Laredo, Texas, in "a traditional Mexican-American family" and he resisted coming out until he went to went to graduate school in Iowa because he "lacked gay role models" except for hairdressers.  I've come across this kind of story before, and it just makes me more curious.  Does it mean that inside Sanchez there's an effeminate hairdresser trapped in the body of a "muscular guy with an impish smile"?   (As a 70s clone told the sociologist Martin Levine, "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls.")  That would fit the "science," at least.  As I've argued before, there's a great deal of confusion in sexual orientation research as to what it means to be gay, and the variety of experiences among people who are drawn erotically to their own sex is usually simply ignored.
Cisco has to admit that the convenience samples of most study groups tend to be skewed toward out, white, middle-class subjects -- the kind of people you could recruit at a gay pride festival or a university campus.  Someone on the "down low" is probably not going to consent to a study on the origins of homosexuality.  Ethnic minorities tend to be minimally represented.  Cisco allows that "it's a very complex picture and we can explain only a certain proportion of the variance we are seeing in our samples" [25].
More hand-waving.  But in fairness to Sanchez, I would insist that even among the "kind of people you could recruit at a gay pride festival or a university campus" there will be a lot more variation than his model can handle.  The same will be true among ethnic minorities.  One of the most noticeable flaws in the reasoning of biological determinists generally is their assumption that there is no variation in the populations they study -- even though such variation is one of the pillars of Darwinism.

Rosario concludes:
I have to agree with Pitman's conclusion that scientific research in general is not "objective," if only in the sense that it's not conducted by mindless robots that lack emotions and personal histories.  In human sexuality, research scientists like Cisco bring their subjectivity into the lab and have to acknowledge that the politics of their work is every bit as complex as the sexuality they study [26].
This is good as far as it goes, which isn't very.  If there were robots capable of designing and carrying out research at such a level, they would have robot subjectivities, which would be interesting but not objective.  The failings of sexual orientation research aren't just "politics" -- they come from researchers' ignorance of complexities that belong to the science itself.

I think (it was a long time ago) it was Walter Kaufmann who said that everybody is biased, but the time to inquire about a given person's bias is after they have offered an invalid argument, especially when they still insist on its validity.  Then it's proper to speculate that they went wrong because of bias.  I think this is pertinent in sexual orientation research.  The question isn't whether a researcher is gay or straight, or even antigay or progay, though for a long time it was a dogma in the study of sexuality that gay people couldn't be "objective" about homosexuality, but heterosexuals could.  But the relevant bias here isn't the sexual orientation of the researchers, it's their determined adherence to a biological determinism that has been discredited many times, yet never seems to lack advocates.  It's not "fear" that motivates my criticism of sexual orientation research as we know it today, but disdain for its inadequacies as science.