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 previously: some 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.