Where’s the Skepticism?


A few days ago, I posted an article about a “study” in which researchers have claimed to have found a causal link between in utero hormone levels and homosexuality. I originally posted about it on Queereka, but once I saw it circulating around the skeptical blogosphere some more, I cross-posted to Skepchick.

One of the places where I saw the article being touted was by Ed Brayton over on FTB. I was quite disappointed by his unskeptical summary of the study. As I will discuss, there was very little critical discussion in the comments of that post, and a comment I submitted has yet to be approved as of two days later. I bring this up because Brayton posted another post about the study, this time talking about some Focus on the Family assclowns rejecting the study on Biblical grounds. But in this new post, Brayton still does not acknowledge the flaws in the original study and continues to misrepresent the study.

In Brayton’s first post about the study, he stated:

a group of international researchers has concluded what I have long assumed to be true, that the primary cause of homosexuality is epigenetic and it is largely locked in during gestation.

Of course, he caveats this claim with the fact that he hasn’t even looked at the study nor is he the best person to evaluate the validity of its claims. After he’s already claimed it to be true based on his assumptions. Go skepticism!

A somewhat lackluster discussion ensued in the comments with very little critical reflection of the study. However, one commenter, John Horstman, did take the study to task. He pointed out some very important points of consideration, including the unexamined heteronormative assumptions underlying the research, the effects of sex/gender/sexuality concepts on the research, the problems of relying on self-reporting sexual desire while trying to measure it epigenetically, and the overly simplistic definition of homosexuality. It’s a wonderful and brief critique.

Another commenter, dingojack, dismissed Horstman’s critique. It is clear to me based on that comment that dingojack has little or no background in gender and sexuality studies, so I submitted a comment in response to dingojack.

Unfortunatley, Brayton has yet to approve that comment and it has been sitting in moderation for a couple of days (probably due to the links embedded within it). Below is the comment I submitted in response to dingojack (their original response that I am quoting is in bold italics):


Since the majority of humans worldwide seem to identify as heterosexual, and that such a sexual orientation has distinct individual advantage in ‘fitness’ from an evolutionary point of view, it would be a parsimonious assumption that heterosexuality is the default. Do you have evidence to suggest the contrary?

You are conflating identity with desire/behavior. You are incorrect that a majority of humans worldwide identify as heterosexual, because that is a culturally constructed category that describes a particular set of traits, namely an identity based around certain behaviors/desires.

Sexuality is not this black and white. I would deny that a certain sexual orientation has a distinct evolutionary advantage, because sexual orientation does not prohibit people from reproducing. Again, you’re making assumptions based on conflating identity with desire/behavior.

“Without a specific (clearly cultural, as there are differences across time and space) conception of sex/gender and sexuality, the conceptualization of homosexuality itself isn’t possible,”

You are confusing the name with the thing itself. If the word for ‘homosexual’ was expunged from every language on the planet do you seriously think the desire for one’s own sex would vanish too? Desire is a real thing, whether it is named or not.

You’re again conflating desire with identity. I doubt John Horstman would argue that same-sex desire disappears when there is not an identity category based around it. But what he’s arguing is that homosexuality as an identity category does not occur universally. This is borne out in the historic and ethnographic literature quite clearly, and I’d be happy to point you to some literature.

Also I have to question whether homosexuality is a cultural construct. There are thousands, possible tens of thousand of cultures across the Earth (in time and space), notwithstanding Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements, do you imagine there is a culture without homosexuality?

If by “homosexual” you mean an identity category, then yes, there are cultures without that. If by “homosexual” you mean people with same-sex desires or that engage in same-sex behaviors, then no, there are likely no societies in which people never experience same-sex desire or engage in same-sex behavior. But not clearly defining what you mean by “homosexual” and “heterosexual” allows you to equivocate and ask loaded questions.

For that matter, out of the tens of thousands of cultures (across time and space) have you ever heard of a culture entirely without heterosexuality? I can only think of two (and even then I am not be too certain) . Why would this be, if sexual desire is shaped by culture? Wouldn’t one expect a binomial distribution of some form?

Do you see how you are conflating identity and desire? You ask the question about heterosexuality without clearly describing what you’re referring to, follow that up with question about desire, and then follow that up with a question about naming practices (i.e., culturally constructed identity categories).

Do you not think that culture shapes how same-sex desires/behaviors are expressed? Do you not think that this expression shapes how people form their identities?

It is measuring sexual desire, not sexual activity, the two are not the same.

No, it’s not. It’s not measuring <em>anything</em>. It’s a mathematical model used to form a hypothesis to discover how some fetuses develop with higher or lower levels of androgens. There is a big heterosexist problem with assuming that male fetuses with lower androgens and female fetuses with higher androgens will become homosexual. It plays into stereotypes of the effeminate gay man and the butch lesbian that don’t bear out in reality (in other words, not all gay men and lesbians fit into those stereotypes). These stereotypes date back to the late 1800s—see “gender inversion” in sexology.

And how else would you suggest measuring sexual desire? There are intrusive tests but they are not practical with a large enough sample size and may not be measuring sexual desire, merely autonomic responses.

The only way I know of to measure desire is to ask people. Because desire is a subjective experience. Desire and arousal are not the same thing, so you cannot measure desire by measuring physiological responses to stimuli.

But this research is not trying to study desire or behavior. It’s looking at epigenetic markers that show how much androgen fetuses are exposed to and extrapolating desire and identity from that.

You seem to be assuming that sexuality is defined into two groups, it isn’t, it’s considered as being a continuum from one extreme to the other.

Weird, that’s what it looks like you’re doing, actually. John Horstman criticized the ways that heteronormativity is being deployed by science. And you yourself responded by asking, “wouldn’t one expect a binomial distribution of some form?” This is a heteronormative assumption based on naturalizing your culture’s understandings of sex/gender/sexuality. (Sorry, links weren’t working right so I put them at the end. I’ve underlined words that should be links.) There are myriad societies that have </u>multiple genders</u> and others that sexuality is not built around gender but around action (e.g., in <u>ancient Greece</u>, sexuality was centered around an <u>active/passive framework</u>, not a male/female, man/woman framework).

multiple genders

ancient Greece

active/passive framework

As of December 18th around 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time, there have been no further comments to that thread since before I submitted my comment. I haven’t brought it up nor have I tried to comment again since submitting my original comment, thinking it was perhaps an oversight or something on Brayton’s part that my comment was not approved. He has continued to make other posts, and I was content to leave it be as the conversation had appeared to be over.

But then Brayton made another post about the study. I don’t disagree with his criticisms of the invalid reasons why the Focus on the Family people dismissed the study. What I take issue with is this claim made by Brayton:

the new study showing that epigenetic influences in the womb are a primary cause of homosexuality.

Clearly, Brayton still hasn’t read the study, nor has he read the critiques of the study made by his commenters, because that’s not what the study does contrary to the shitty reporting of the story (of which Brayton is now a part). Once again, the study used mathematical models to create hypotheses that have not been tested or empirically verified or falsified. So the study has not “shown’ that epigenetic influences are the cause of homosexuality. It has only proposed one (extremely flawed) explanation that needs to be tested.

One of the commenters, Amazing Sandwhich, put it best:

Please stop talking about this paper like it is definitive when it is anything of the sort. In fact, please stop taking any single study as the last word on something. It’s sloppy and misleading and I know you know better.

Finally, I must point out the irony in criticizing irrational reasons for dismissing studies while simultaneously engaging in irrational reasons (essentially, “it just makes sense!”) for accepting them. This uncritical acceptance of mathematical models as definitive truths because they fit already existing assumptions is the same sort of blind acceptance that Brayton criticizes in religious followers.

Featured image is Skeptical Baby!

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