Politics Before Science

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]

7 thoughts on “Politics Before Science”

  1. chel,

    I think the question to ask about the WHI study in the context of this post is whether the same people would be criticizing the studies design and implementation if it had returned different answer.? In the case of low-fat diets there does seem to be a strong element of nutritional Puritanism involved in many peoples advocation of low-fat diets.

    One thing, that most stories critical of the WHI study leave out is that the enormous sample size and long duration of the study should have given it a high degree of sensitivity. For example, if you look at a large population, over a period of years that follows a lower-fat (not necessarily a low-fat) diet than the controls, then the effects of just having less fat should still be detectable ( unless there is some kind of sharp threshold effect which no one has to my knowledge ever reported) There are enough indications from other studies to call the low-fat dogma into question without the WHI study. In a way, it is just icing on the cake.

    Nutritional studies in general suck. Most are short duration (months if not weeks) and use small population. Most reply on self-reporting to determine what people actually eat. Most do not record or control for ethnicity. And so on. Cross-cultural comparisons are problematic for many reasons not the least being that people are probably better off eating what their ancestors ate. Extrapolating one genetic groups diet to other genetic groups may not be valid.

    Nutrition and diet is one of those areas where the science is much softer than it is portrayed as being by authorities.

  2. Ooo, I just saw that I wrote “thanks are complicated.” That was weird and nonsensical. I meant “Things are complicated.” I’m an idiot typer.

  3. Hi Shannon,

    I just thought this article did a nice job of explaining in lay terms why scientific results are complicated and nuanced. I think the WHI researchers do a good job of being ideologically agnostic. But still it’s not as simple as either “fat good” or “fat bad.”

    Also I’d like to point out that the large sample size and extended time period helps with precision but does not give you much protection if you have issues of systematic error, which the author of this article mentioned WHI has. Not that systematic error invalidates everything, but it must be taken into consideration.

    This stuff is complicated. They should teach statistics in high school rather than calc. It would be more useful for like 99.99% of students.

  4. chel,

    This stuff is complicated

    The problem is, however, that authorities in many fields don’t portray political significant scientific problems as complicated matters that are poorly understood. The public is told repeatedly that the matter is settled science and anyone who disagrees is a loon.

    Also I’d like to point out that the large sample size and extended time period helps with precision but does not give you much protection if you have issues of systematic error…

    True, but in the case of WHI study what could possibly be the systematic error that would completely hide the health benefits of a low-fat diet? Was hormone replacement therapy causing so much damage that it offset all the advantages of reducing fat intake? I haven’t seen anyone suggesting that. In fact, most suggest the opposite, that the study exaggerated the negative effects of HRT.

    They should teach statistics in high school rather than calc. It would be more useful for like 99.99% of students.

    I agree wholeheartedly. Further, I would like to see science education shifted more to the philosophy and methodology of science instead of trying to get people educated in the current results of science. People need to understand how science actually works in order to be able to evaluate scientific claims in the public sphere.

  5. “I would like to see science education shifted more to the philosophy and methodology of science instead of trying to get people educated in the current results of science.”

    AMEN! Word! Hell yeah! And any other phrase of affirmation I can think of!

    Science class shouldn’t be about indoctrinating kids into the religion of science. It shouldn’t be about telling them to hold the same views as scientists. It should be about teaching them what science fundamentally *IS*, perhaps through the lens of recent scientific conclusions and perhaps not. Once this has been done, you let them evaluate the evidence on their own, even if it means they’re going to disagree with consensus or pseudo-consensus views from time to time.

    I’m amazed at how many college graduates I know whose thought processes are impervious to evidence. They just don’t know how to gather evidence, test and refine ideas, and develop solid theories. Because they hold the “right” scientific views, people think they’re good at science, but in reality their understanding of science is less than adequate.

  6. This stuff is complicated. They should teach statistics in high school rather than calc. It would be more useful for like 99.99% of students.

    Even more important that statistics to my mind is informal logic. If you can spot fallacies, you can spot badly-designed studies all the more easily, and you can also spot bad journalistic write-ups of studies that may in fact be decent. Informal logic ought to be a part of middle school/junior high school education.

    If I may, I would like to commend Dorothy Sayer’s essay The Lost Tools of Learning to your attention. The period we think of as middle school or junior high corresponds to Sayer’s “Pert age”, when the young begin to think logically. These two passages are priceless, I think:

    The Pert age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent), is characterized by contradicting, answering back, liking to “catch people out” (especially one’s elders); and by the propounding of conundrums. Its nuisance-value is extremely high.

    It will, doubtless, be objected that to encourage young persons at the Pert age to browbeat, correct, and argue with their elders will render them perfectly intolerable. My answer is that children of that age are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalized to good purpose as allowed to run away into the sands.

    I agree with Lotharbot that understanding the extra-scientific underpinnings of science is important, but I don’t think it quite so fundamental as logic.

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