Home > Disunity, Policy, Public Voice of Science, Regulatory Science, STS > Science and trans-science

Science and trans-science

Julian Sanchez recently discussed why classifying homosexuality as a disorder hinges on both science and values:

I’m glad, of course, that we’ve dispensed with a lot of bogus science that served to rationalize homophobia—that’s a pure scientific victory.  And I’m glad that we no longer classify homosexuality as a disorder—but that’s a choice and, above all, a moral victory. It ultimately stems from the more general recognition that we shouldn’t stigmatize dispositions and behaviors that are neither intrinsically distressing to the subject nor harmful, in the Millian sense, to the rest of us…The change in the psychiatric establishment’s bible, the DSM, was partly a function of new scientific information, but it was equally a moral and a political choice. [Emphasis added--PK]

Sanchez’s great example highlights what I’ve argued previouslysome scientific judgments involve values while some do not.  We can safely say that measuring the acceleration due to gravity is a purely scientific judgment.  But we can also safely say that classifying homosexuality is not.  It remains a mystery to me why some resist this idea.

Consider William’s comment on Sanchez’s post:

Well how about the mental condition called depression? Are you saying that it is a moral rather than scientific question whether depression is an illness/disorder? I’m talking about can’t get out of bed, too weak to commit suicide depression here, not a bout of the blues. How about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? You’re saying that diagnosis is a moral rather than medical (scientific) question?

Well, no William.  Neither I nor (I suspect) Sanchez are saying any such thing.  We simply accept that mental health contains both value-free and normative science.  A belief in objectivity with respect to PTSD does not conflict with a belief in subjectivity with respect to homosexuality.  There is no universal standard or set of rules that we can blindly apply in all cases.  Believing otherwise is analogous to playing the game without watching game film.

A couple things come to mind.  First, as I’ve argued before, simply using the single word science undermines rational discourse on topics like these.  Ultimately, Sanchez is trying to argue that stigmatizing homosexuality involves a different kind of science than what we’re used to.  And this kind of science necessarily involve moral judgments.  But since all we have is “science” and its associated baggage of supreme and perpetual objectivity, this subtlety gets lost.

Second: why did Sanchez have to explain what should be common knowledge?  We figured out no later than 1972 when Alvin Weinberg wrote Science and Trans-Science that some areas of science cannot be separated from values.  We figured it out again in 1985 when The National Academies wrote a report on risk assessment, yet again when Funtowicz and Ravetz introduced post-normal science in 1991, and once more in Sheila Jasanoff’s book-length treatment on regulatory science.  Scholars from fields as diverse as nuclear physics, philosophy, history, and sociology have all independently determined that science is not a monolith and that, yes, sometimes values play a role. In the end, Sanchez’s thesis is impressively mundane and uncontroversial.  In an ideal world it wouldn’t merit a shout-out from arguably the most influential political blogger alive.

None of this undermines Sanchez’s eloquence and brilliance.  I am always impressed by his writing, and he does a particularly good job here explaining a complicated topic.  But if we had dispensed with the false notion of one science that follows “the” scientific method, maybe he wouldn’t have had to.

  1. June 10, 2010 at 8:28 am | #1

    Your points are all good – there is also an important distinction between historical and experimental sciences that often gets lost when it suits the people arguing about something. I think the problem is how people in the U.S. learn about science in school. Science is physics. There is ONE SINGLE scientific method. Most people have never heard of Popper. Fewer still have heard of Bayes. Like so much else, people’s ignorance can be used to argue that the complex should be simple and intuitive, and if it’s not, there’s something wrong. If science is established as this infallible authority, but then the definition of science is made incredibly restrictive, it makes it much easier to dismiss any science (and especially trans-science) that doesn’t fit your preconceived worldview or policy goals.

  2. William
    June 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm | #2

    Praj: My comment on Sanchez’ blog regarding depression and PTSD were not in response to anything either you or Sanchez was saying, but rather in response to another commenter. (See my later comment on the Sanchez blog).
    Now, as for the question of whether or not homosexuality is to be considered a mental illness. OK, I accept the premise that some questions cannot be answered by science (at least not with state-of-the-art of science as we know it TODAY). I guess the number of moons orbiting Saturn was a trans-scientific question in Galileo’s time, but science marches on. But I have difficulty seeing the homosexuality equals (or does not equal) mental illness issue as trans-science or a value laden question that is unanswerable by science. As you know, Weinberg talked about prediction of rare events being beyond science. Perhaps prediction of the local weather three months from today is such a question. There are too many variables, many of them unknown to give an accurate prediction. I don’t think homosexuality is either that complicated, rare, or having so many unknown values that we cannot make quite accurate predictions about whether or not it is an illness. Before the American Psychological Assn removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual of mental illness, they studied gay people who sought out therapy. They had no good way of finding a random (and healthy) sample of gay people back then. After Stonewall, a huge number of healthy gay people came out of the woodwork (or closets, if you prefer), and proved the APA’s earlier conclusion incorrect. Now, as for why we gay people might be touchy about whether we are EMPIRICALLY mentally well, OR whether maybe it is just by the grace of genteel, liberal, enlightened psychologists that we can be judged morally (but perhaps not scientifically) well – you’d be touchy too! Obviously, mental illness cannot be measured in centimeters, but I believe psychologists have some objective standards concerning what mental illness is and isn’t. If you disagree with that statement, your disagreement is with the APA, not with me, I’m not a psychologist. If you believe that there cannot be, by definition, an accurate description of mental illness, then I guess, by definition, (yours) you must be correct. And if we accept that premise, then I guess we can argue that left-handedness is a mental illness. Or that people who masturbate are mentally ill (or that those who DON’T are ill). Homosexual is a normal variant of human sexuality. It has always existed, and baring genetic engineering to eliminate it, it always will exist. The fact that homosexuality is not a mental illness is just that: a fact. It is not a moral judgment that allows us to politely TREAT gay people as normal when in fact, we believe that the question of their mental health is just unknowable. I’m sure that you have every good intention when it comes to the treatment of gay people. However, don’t be surprised that gays might take offense at the notion that our mental well-being is unknowable in an empirical sense.

    • Praj
      June 11, 2010 at 8:21 am | #3

      Hi William.

      Thanks for your great comment. Really appreciate it. I see what you’re saying, and I may have overstepped the bounds of trans-science here. But based on the continuing discussion over at Sanchez’s blog, it seems there’s still disagreement on the point.

      As I think about it some more, it seems that there are two issues that have gotten muddled here. First, to what extent is homosexuality as mental illness an objective scientific judgment? And second, to what extend did a greater empirical and scientific understanding provide the catalyst for greater tolerance? We could agree on the first point while still recognizing that moral values more than science advanced the cause of tolerance. If Sanchez’s description of the This American Life episode is correct, then it seems this is exactly what happened. I haven’t listened to the episode yet, so I can’t comment.

      I’ll try expand my thoughts in another post tomorrow. I welcome your input.

  1. June 14, 2010 at 3:41 pm | #1

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