This post by Dr. Helen about the American Psychological Association’s proposal to define any attempts to alter a person’s sexual orientation as unethical reminded me of an important episode in my intellectual life.
In college during the mid-’80s I argued in my dorm-room bull sessions that discrimination against homosexuals was wrong or at least pointless because I thought considerable evidence existed that homosexuality, at least in males, had a physiological basis. I got the scoffing response from social conservatives that I expected but the response from leftist advocates of gay rights shocked me. They denounced me as a crypto-Nazi even though my ideas supported their agenda.
My experience was very common. At that time, leftists were still in their radical “blank slate” mode in which any suggestion that any behavior resulted from biological roots made the suggester a Nazi. They adopted that stance not because the science supported it but because they thought it the most politically expedient. They feared that if people thought of homosexuality as a biological problem society would treat it as a disease. They pushed the idea that homosexuality was just a freely chosen behavior and attacked anyone who said otherwise.
A decade later, the politics had changed. Leftists now saw that they could get more traction by making homosexuality a matter of biology like superficial race. So they reversed 180 degrees and begin to assault anyone who viewed homosexuality as a choice. Now they fear that anyone who views homosexuality to be the result of choice or environment will use that view to justify forcing homosexuals into therapy or to “protect” children from environmental factors that might encourage homosexuality.
Over the intervening years the fundamental science had changed very little. No one made any kind of fundamental breakthrough that demonstrated conclusively that homosexuality had biological origins or that no environmental factors existed. Only the politics had changed. If the politics change a few years down the road, the Left will whipsaw back around and denounce anyone holding their current viewpoint as a bigot.
This experience taught me a lot about the polarization of science. It became very clear to me that many people in many different situations think backwards about scientific issues that they believe have political import. They begin with the political result they want and then choose the scientific model of the problem that they think will support that political result.
I see a lot of this type of thinking in the threads on the postings I did on the free-rider problem in child rearing. Most of the negative comments began with the assertion that I was just trying to justify using the state to tax the childless for the benefit of parents, even though I never made any policy recommendations at all. Even if they eventually did try to make an argument based on actual economics, they couldn’t resist the urge to put an insinuation of political motives into the post somewhere.
People forget that the political policy that a scientific idea might be used to justify has no bearing on the actual validity of the idea itself. Virtually every major scientific idea in history has been harnessed for political power at some point, but there is no correlation between history’s judgment on the political policy and its judgement on the scientific idea’s validity. How could any such correlation exist if the politics is chosen first?
I think that the Left is worse about this than the Right, but only because they base few of their arguments on appeals to tradition and must rely more on supposedly scientific claims. As the family-free-rider post demonstrated, anyone can fall prey to such thinking. Personally, I often worry about how my concern over the probable political consequences of anthrogenic global warming affects my analysis. Do I really understand the science well enough or does my fear of a repeat of the “energy crisis” cloud my judgment?
In the end there is no defense save intellectual self-discipline. Analysis first, politics second.
[Update 2006-03-15 14:31:33 : Dr. Helen provides more background on the APA. I think my own experience mirrors in a small way the experience of Dr. Nicholas Cummings]