Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

Silence of the Facts: Sexual Values Aren’t Beholden to Data

Value systems are not anchored in scientific facts, and vice versa.

Not a lifestyle choice [1]
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFruit_flies.jpg
A recent study has shown that children with same sex parents are actually slightly better adjusted than those raised in heterosexual homes.

Research has shown the manipulation of a single gene in fruit flies can turn their sexual orientation around.

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How do you feel about these headlines?

Odds are that your reaction is based in large part on your values relating to sexuality.

If you happen to oppose same sex marriage and think sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice then you’re likely to a) never encounter these results in the first place, or, if you do encounter them, decide not to read about them; b) dismiss the results as politically motivated by those notoriously lefty scientists and; c) feel that your worldview is under attack and along with it the appropriate social order.

Conversely, of course, if you happen to be open to same sex marriage and think that sexual orientation is largely biological, these results will probably arrive at your screen via several social media/newspapers you subscribe to and be seen as intuitive, valid, and rather belated realizations–by these notoriously too cautious and conservative scientists–of truths that are already obvious to you and should be to all others. You will feel validated.

In other words, instead of understanding scientific facts and findings as value-free information about the world, people tend to consume and believe only the science they like, and use it to validate and reinforce their pre-existing, values-based worldview.

This state of affairs is understandable and predictable, given our individual and social psychologies. As individuals, each of us is prone to seek and retain information that agrees with previously held beliefs (what’s known as confirmation bias). Moreover, we tend to hold our own positions in high regard (positive illusions) and resist evidence not in line with our experience and expectations (belief perseverance phenomenon).

Our systems are resistant to change, as change threatens our stability and integrity. That’s why our immune systems will try to violently reject a life-saving heart or kidney transplant. That’s why traditions, habits, and relations can stretch over lifetimes and centuries, even when they have outlived their useful functions long ago. That’s why the fundamental rule of human psychology is that the best predictor of the future behavior is past behavior.

Since we are herd animals, our individual psychology is embedded within a social consciousness. We all seek, and depend on, the protection, comfort, and mating opportunities offered by a group. Cohesive, well-coordinated groups work best, and so humans tend to cluster with those who look, behave, think, and believe like them.

In contemporary culture, various constituencies and enterprises compete to increase visibility, influence, market share and profit. To do so, they exploit and exaggerate our inherent tendencies to stick with whom and what we know. The media you consume advertise and promote people, products, and ideas with a familiar flavor.

Like begets like-mindedness [2]
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFacebook_like_thumb.png
Facebook and Google ads recommend only websites that promote things that are similar to the things you’ve purchased before, people like the people with whom you have associated before, and opinions like the ones you have posted or “liked” before. There’s money to be made in giving you more of what you like.

Thus, over time we become increasingly segmented physically and psychically, herded into insular, likeminded communities–almost hermetically sealed echo chambers where our own beliefs, hopes, and tastes reverberate as if they constituted the entire universe of human consciousness, experience, and possibility.

It’s a comfortable, seductively easy existence, but it is ill advised, and may be untenable in the long run, for two main reasons.

One reason is that when the boundaries of an organism, be it an animal or a society, harden beyond a certain point, they lose flexibility and permeability; the organism can no longer interact with the world and will deteriorate and eventually die. It’s good to have skin. But if your skin is so thick and hard it can no longer flex, sense touch, or breathe, you’ll wither. Groups that become too cohesive, too insular, and too dogmatic will not thrive for long. Ghettos are not good places for long-term growth and development.

Change resistance is not at heart an effort to prevent change, but rather to regulate it. Individual and social health calls for dialogue, for cross-fertilization, for challenge, stimulation, and adaptation. This requires us to learn to connect with, hear, understand, feel empathy for, and commerce with ‘the other.’

Understanding this, and acting consciously on that understanding, is the responsibility of life-loving individuals. You do well for yourself if you seek to learn new things, entertain competing ideas, hear diverse opinions, consider different perspectives.

But social organizations could also do their part to help us break out of our echo chambers and reach across the gap. For example, someone should invent a social media feature that lets you choose to see ideas, people, and opinions that differ systematically from those around you. An algorithm that discerns one’s favored point of view and then displays the best expressions and arguments from the opposite side is likely to both do well and do some good in this regard.

The second reason that consuming and believing only data that supports your ideology is dangerous has to do with the fact that such a habit assumes a relationship between science and ideology that does not actually exist.

An example of this confusion is the notion that if a particular scientific study shows something to be a "fact," or, even more so, to be "natural," then that either settles a larger ideological battle (if the results are in our ideological favor) or invalidates that specific study or the whole enterprise of science (if the results go against us). In fact, scientific findings, whatever they may be, do not necessarily and sufficiently denote either of the above.

Science can discover what was and what is, and can sometimes predict what will be; it is rather agnostic on the question of what should be.

Proponent of the separation of values and facts [3]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeshayahu_Leibowitz#mediaviewer/File:Yeshayahu_Leibowitz.jpg
Equating factual and natural with right or good is a mistake on the conceptual level. Nature and its facts are, above all, indifferent. In nature, you just get what you get, not what you deserve, or want, or need, or desire, or dream about. Nature doesn’t think or feel or take a moral view. But we do. As the late, great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz said, “The brain doesn’t think. The person thinks. Sometimes.”

Finding that a certain behavioral pattern, orientation, tendency, or outcome is natural or, for that matter, genetic, biological or objective fact in itself does not tell us at anything about how we should treat or regard it in our individual and social lives. That "should" problem is a question of values. Values are subjective and irrational and don’t require external justification or validation. They are untethered to facts.

Thus, finding that sexual orientation is strongly biological (as the fruit flies work and other research seem to suggest), cannot decide the cultural debate on how we should regard people with different sexual orientations (see Janet Haley’s elaboration of this notion).

On the other hand, the fact that some behavior is a lifestyle choice does not make it immoral or dismissible. It’s against our biological imperative to remain child-free; yet it’s a lifestyle choice for many; should we shun the childless, stigmatize them, force them to have children?

Natural refreshment, unnatural death [4]
https://www.flickr.com/photos/fugue/3886492323/ by Anton Raath. Popular Science, February 1973
In the same vein, the fact that same sex families may be as good, or better, for children compared to heterosexual families (as current research suggests) cannot in itself decide the social debate over same sex parenting. The fact you are good at something doesn’t mean society must let you do it. Cigarette companies are very good at creating and keeping loyal consumers. Yet society, under a certain set of values, may decide it does not wish to let them do this.

Conversely, if same-sex parents are shown by future research to be lousy at the job, that does not, in itself, negate their claim to be allowed to parent. If only people shown by science to be good or optimal parents could be parents, then many heterosexual couples would face the restriction, particularly if they were poor, lacking in education, authoritarian in their parenting style, or planned to have large families (all research-based predictors of sub-optimal outcomes for children).

Science, like a gun, is a potent instrument. When we incorporate science ownership into our worldview, we assume an obligation to learn to use it responsibly. The fundamental rule of science ownership is: Whether the findings align with your value system says nothing about the merits of the findings or of your value system.

With science, it's useful to know the full picture, rather than just the parts we like; it's prudent to apply the same healthy skepticism toward all results, whether they support or fail to support our existing biases. At the same time, we're well advised to remember that in the realms of human consciousness and society, subject rules over object. Contests between subjective values are not decided by facts. If science is a gun, then it’s appropriate to say that guns can kill, but only people can take aim.

 

Photo credits:

Front photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMale_Couple_With_Child-01.jpg. By Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team from Germany (ws'08 (5)) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[1] By TheAlphaWolf (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[2] "Yeshayahu Leibowitz" by Bracha L. Ettinger - Bracha L. Ettinger. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yeshayahu_Leibowitz.jpg#m....

[3] By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[4] https://www.flickr.com/photos/fugue/3886492323/ by Anton Raath. Popular Science, February 1973

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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