In week three of our first liberal-conservative dialogue class, midway into our dialogue about abortion, a staunch catholic student pronounced during the abortion dialogue, “if the Pope, the vicar of Christ has said abortion is morally wrong – how could anyone think otherwise?”
The response: silence.
Midway through another discussion on evolution, a staunch atheist student announced, “if you all had read as much of the research as I have, you would know that there is not a shred of evidence to support creationism.”
Once again: silence.
In both cases, the response in the class was the same: silence. How else do you respond to something like that? Who dares speak up when the Truth has been spoken – whether by scientific or religious fundamentalist edict?
Anything shared in response, of course, is likely to receive some kind of new label – “irrational” or “anti-science” or “anti-God” or “demonic”…or any number of equally silencing pejoratives.
That seems to be a concern on the minds of more and more minority voices in the U.S. as dominant narratives of key issues become framed as unquestionable. Research studies are commonly cited as part of these claims in what Crichton once referred to as the “growing political polarization of science.”
The Power of Science. Ever since science began to tip the scales away from authoritarian (and arbitrary) rulers in the 17th and 18th centuries, the institution and empirical methods of science have taken on a unique kind of cultural cache. In our modern day, science is regularly referred to and portrayed with a kind of reverence and esteem that was once the exclusive province of holy scripture and clergy.
Just as people used to be eager to show their convictions as tied to the approval of scripture (and God), so also individuals and groups of all backgrounds now seek eagerly to confirm, illustrate and document the scientific “foundations” and “backing” for their arguments, beliefs and positions. This is especially true when the conversation is intense, contested and polarized – as in the cases of sexuality.
Similar to the scientific contests over abstinence education and abortion, proponents for gay rights and traditional family causes have (both) regularly claimed that, in essence, “science is on MY side.”
Science Proves WE are Right: Part One. It was the conservative side arguably that first made this argument in reference to the research on (traditional) marriage – as it was usually defined – insisting that the evidence showed that marriage between husband and wife inclined people towards greater happiness. While some would interpret this as confirming the benefits of stable pair-bonds, conservative advocates interpreted the evidence as confirming the unique value of man-woman pairs – over other kinds.
Science Proves WE are Right: Part Two. As the cultural tide has shifted, progressive activists have begun to make the same kind of arguments about their own positions. One early example of this was Douglas Haldeman’s 1994 claim that there was “no evidence” indicating that therapeutic change efforts for those experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction are “effective in their intended purpose.”
Others also argued that there was no difference in research outcomes between children of gay parents versus man-woman parents. One person, for instance, suggested research had settled the matter: “You are free to ‘believe’ what you want it does not change the known facts proven by the research that shows ‘two fathers or two mothers’ are just as effective at raising children” (23). Still others have made absolute claims about people’s experiences in so-called “mixed-orientation marriages.”
Why BOTH sides are on shaky ground. The problem with both sides’ efforts to settle the discussion is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science itself.
Thanks to the objective measures and controls, we like to think science is disclosing a neutral view of truth – acting as a kind of “revealer” of reality.
Humanity can be forgiven for such a perception, given the remarkable insights that have emerged from systematic observation and study – insights that often and regularly contradict what we assume to be the case about reality. Central to this perception of science was Descartes’ early bifurcation of reality itself into “subjective” and “objective” – with all the fuzzy, wishy-washy value and emotional stuff thrown into “subjective” and everything “external” and observable by scientists portrayed as “objective.”
The only problem is that, as it turns out, reality itself isn’t necessarily as divided as Descartes insisted it was. Over recent decades, philosophers of science have questioned, then rejected, then moved beyond the “subject”/”object” divide – with an acknowledgement that all reality is inherently, necessarily and inescapably interpretive.
And that is true for all of us – religious or non-religious, men and women, scientists or non-scientists. As self-interpreting creatures, we cannot help but interpret what we see.
Rather than a threat or a problem, this has become widely accepted among philosophers of science as fundamentally “the way things are.”
What does this mean for scientific data? For one, data, from this perspective, does not – ever – speak for itself. Every data set requires a human interpreter and every study depends on a researcher’s judgment to make a final argument based on the data.
Rather than only in the interpretation of findings or data, there are many levels at which interpretation can influence research. For instance, how do you pick the best set of partners to do the study? Do you choose collaborators who agree with your hunches and leanings relevant to the research questions (leading to a unified research team) – or are you willing to allow people on the team who may have contrary views related to the evidence?
Similar judgment calls and interpretive moves play a role in the following research choices:
Each and every one of these choice-points could play a role in studies about sexuality (or any other study, for that matter).
So what does this mean for the conversation about sexuality (or anything else?)
Competing interpretations. It means that the same set of data on traditional marriage, mixed-orientation marriage (and everything else) can be taken in profoundly different ways.
It means that scientific data does not – and cannot – speak for itself.
It means that smart, thoughtful people can reach different conclusion about the data.
It means that scientific exploration (on most any important question) will likely remain contested, at least as long as human beings remain at odds.
Bottom line: Rather than characterizing public debates as over ‘what the data says,’ the debates happening now are arguably between competing interpretations of the data.
What if we actually acknowledged this? Could it actually help and deepen the conversation?
What usually happens. What too often happens, instead, is those who question a common interpretation are framed as reactionary, blind to reality, ‘biased’ or just plain ignorant. Critics are denounced as dangerous (see examples here).
While that can be a powerful way to silence opposition – and assert one’s preferred position (whether left or right-leaning), is that really the conversation we want? Do we want to ‘win’ by aggression – or can we create conditions where the Full Truth wins out – no matter what that is?
Towards that end, the invitation here is two:
The latter makes space for other interpreters…the former does not.
If we see open and frank discussion of the data and of the issues being suppressed, let’s all pay attention and stand up against that!
If we see leading scientific journals have taken strong editorial positions on [one side or another], let’s think about what that means.
If we see a strangling of the flow of research money to scientists who question their conclusions and prescriptions, let’s at least talk about whether that is right?
Let’s have the conversation!
What this doesn’t mean – getting ‘beyond’ the politics. Some might think this invitation is one to escape or get away from politics and any other extra-scientific context.
On that note, it’s common to now hear those talk about “politicized science” as a way to emphasize its misuse (e.g., “There is more than science going on here…”). Others criticize certain arguments they dislike as mere agendas “masquerading as science.”
On one hand, that makes sense – calling out attempts to use research methods to show what one party or another had very much hoped to show.
On the other hand, it seems to point in an impossible direction – towards a science somehow free of any moral or political context – as if we could just stop “intermixing of science and politics.”
Although there are ways to check and balance things, we join those who would argue that all science has an inescapable socio-political context.
From this vantage point, rather than escaping that context, what is needed is acknowledging and bringing more awareness to it. In this way, we can make our various socio-political stances an explicit part of the conversation (rather than an underlying and hidden influence).
Rather than trying to pretend like we can eliminate agenda’s and political context, then, let’s talk about it!
Among other things, this could lead to more efforts reflecting diverse collaborations and accountability. In addition to original research collaborations that reflect disagreements, teams could reach out for outside review from other perspectives. Others could invite re-analysis of data from other perspectives. And we could keep our eye on whether disagreeing perspectives are being allowed in publication outlets – or whether they have to tow a ‘party line.’
In all these ways, scientific evidence could powerfully help open the conversation – rather than close it down.
 This subject/object divide became a powerful part of checking the power of the state. As science has gained in power as an institution, arguably the need to rely on this kind of a (misleading) device is no longer necessary.
 William Happer writes about the “Harmful Politicization of Science” – sharing his own experiences losing his job when highlighting research that undermined a politician’s rhetoric. Others have raised similar concerns (see Michael Crichton. State of Fear. New York: HarperCollins, 2004, pp. 575-580. “Why Politicized Science is Dangerous”)