Science and Same-Sex Orientation and Behavior: Is the Evidence Really That Neat and Tidy?

As a professor of social psychology trained as a scientist and a Christian who seeks to stay involved and relevant both in my discipline and in the Bible and theology, I owe much to my colleagues and fellow professors. This includes David Myers (my conversation partner) whose 1st edition introductory psychology textbook I used when teaching my first course at Colorado State University in 1986. I have required the purchase of this textbook every year since, now in it’s 11th edition. I am convinced that there is not a more interesting and engaging textbook, and thus with a clear conscience, I require my students to buy this very expensive book, knowing it is worth every penny. I have almost 700 students in class a year, multiplied by almost 30 years of teaching. David may not know me, but he does owe me. A lot.

By way of introduction I came to Christ in college after hearing the gospel for the first time in my dorm room, and around that time I happened to change my major to psychology. I was thrilled to come across a book by Carter and Narramore called The Integration of Psychology and Theology. Here began my experience and connection with an integrative approach to Christianity and science that takes seriously psychological science and upholds the centrality of Scripture, along with the historic traditions of the Christian Church. While both psychology and Christianity address the human condition, I learned the importance of relying on Scripture to provide the greatest insight into our human condition, and to help build a proper understanding of the human mind and behavior—our emotions, motivations, disorders, memories and sexuality—the ways we strive by virtue of being tarnished by the fall, and the ways we thrive by virtue of the redemptive work of Christ. Later, other colleagues challenged me to ask what I can do and how I can live so as to anticipate, embody, and foreshadow a portion of the Kingdom as a psychologist—into my heart and life. I have been challenged to examine the aspects of psychology that can be reshaped so as to better reflect the Lordship of Jesus, and the aspects of my heart that need to be transformed into his image. Integration is more than a mere academic exercise. It is enthroning Christ as King in every aspect of creation and every sphere of human endeavor, finding expression in our hearts and our conduct.

Science done well—by scholars committed to objectivity and free from obvious bias and political agendas—produces the best findings, which are then published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

Here are some findings that I find noteworthy relative to this blog topic. Many of these findings are also accessible to the non-scientist in books like Myers’ Psychology, 11th Edition, Worth Publishers textbook and Mark Yarhouse’s Homosexuality and the Christian.

Same-Sex Orientation

There are a number of findings in the scientific literature related to brain, genetic and prenatal influences that have swayed many toward a biological explanation of sexual orientation (e.g., see David Myers, 2010.) Such convergence and consistency in findings “has swung the pendulum toward a biological explanation” for scholars like Myers, who also notes, “if environmental factors influence sexual orientation, we do not yet know what they are.” Other researchers and scholars do not dispute that biology plays a role, but question how big of a role it actually plays. (e.g., Mark Yarhouse’s Homosexuality and the Christian, and Stan Jones and Yarhouse’s Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate)

While there is evidence that sexual orientation for men may neither be chosen nor changed, for women it is not as clear. Lisa Diamond notes that for women the question of sexual orientation is more likely a matter of conscious choice and not an irresistible urge, related to affection and bonding (see here). Myers notes that sexual orientation appears to be part of a package of traits where gays (and lesbians) fall between those of straight men and straight women. These may point to biological influences, which also include such things as fingerprint ridge counts, birth size and weight, age of onset of puberty in males, handedness, and relative finger lengths. For other differences (e.g. occupational preferences, gender nonconformity, physical aggression and walking style), arguments for nurture influences do have merit, given what we know (or don’t know) about the origination of complex phenomenon like preferences, nonconformity and aggression.

There are other modest biological influences that may be linked to differences, such as the finding that hypothalamic cell clusters are smaller in women and gay men than in straight men, and gay men’s hypothalamus reactions are more similar to straight women. Critics rightly point out that it is unclear if this is a cause of homosexuality or a result of homosexuality (a point Myers makes as well, e.g., Psychology, 11th Edition).

There are studies showing that shared sexual orientation is higher among identical twins than among fraternal twins. However, as Myers makes clear, “because sexual orientations differ in many identical twin pairs, especially female twins, we know that other factors besides genes are also at work.” These could include the experiences not shared with the other twin, e.g., the unique or novel experiences of individuals. A rigorous study using the twin registry of Sweden (see here) found only 7 (out of 71) pairs matching for homosexual orientation (among males). From this study genetic influences are modest at best and perhaps secondary to environmental influences.

Concerning prenatal influences, altered hormone exposure may contribute to homosexuality, and men with several older biological brothers are more likely to be gay, possibly due to a hypothesis called the maternal immune-system reaction.  However, a 2002 study in American Journal of Sociology (see here) found no support for this hypothesis.

 In seeking causative links concerning the development of sexual orientations the American Psychological Association (APA) notes, “there is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons” that someone develops an LGTBQ orientation, and “no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude” that sexual orientation is determined by any one cause or factor(s). In other words, both nature and nurture are at work, and APA then notes, “most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”

A major issue with biological influences is they cannot actually posit causality— does homosexuality or the biology/biological influences come first? Overall I am of the opinion that it is still too early and premature to render a verdict. Should future findings converge (one way or the other) perhaps more definitive verdicts will arise.

Children with gay or lesbian parents

In 2005 APA declared (see here) that there was “not a single study” showing that children of gay or lesbian parents were disadvantaged compared to children from mother-father homes. They identified

77 scholarly studies that met our criteria for addressing the wellbeing of children with gay or lesbian parents. Of those studies, 73 concluded that children of gay or lesbian parents fare no worse than other children.

 The other four? They “have been criticized by many scholars as unreliable assessments of the wellbeing of LGB-headed households” since they “took their samples from children who endured family break-ups, a cohort known to face added risks.” More on this in a moment.

 APA sums it up this way:

This research forms an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on over three decades of peer-reviewed research, that having a gay or lesbian parent does not harm children.”

 Not a single study showing the opposite effect?

This type of consensus raises an antenna for me. It feels too neat, too tidy, and a little too fresh. Malcolm Gladwell (in the book Blink) tells the story of Evelyn Harrison—a foremost expert on Greek sculpture—seeing a newly discovered ancient kouros (marble statue) for the first time and having “an instinctive hunch” that something was amiss. Another expert also sensed something off when seeing it for the first time and the only word he could think of was “fresh,” not a word usually associated with ancient antiquities. Not surprisingly the kouros was later determined to be a fake.

When I read that 77 scholarly studies converge, and the only four that don’t are dismissed as full of errors, the word that comes to mind for me is “Really?” This seems unusually tidy for our social sciences.  Who would call into question so many studies finding the same thing, something so . . . fresh?

Is it really so neat and tidy?

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859/2002)

Are there perhaps other explanations for such an overwhelming scholarly consensus and convergence? I have some suggestions. What follows is not intended as an attack on social psychology or any other fields of study, and in no way do I call into question the credibility of my conversation partner. He is known as fair, thoughtful, balanced and careful, and has done much to improve our understanding of human behavior and the human condition. The following simply gives me pause as I process it, as I hope it does you as well.

What if there are some articles published in leading, peer-reviewed journals that challenge the APA claims above, finding that children do best in married mother-father homes? What if numerous well-respected scholars do not find the evidence as overwhelming and consensus-forming as APA would have us believe?

In 2001 two sociologists from USC (Judith Stacey, endowed chair in contemporary gender studies and Timothy Biblarz, past chair and currently Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies) examined more than 20 studies (see here) that compared gay with straight parents and called into question previous reports that downplayed differences. They write, “most research in psychology concludes, somewhat defensively, that there are no differences at all in developmental outcomes between children raised by lesbigay and heterosexual parents.” In contrast to the APA conclusion, they “explore findings from 21 studies and demonstrate that researchers frequently downplay findings of differences regarding, in particular, children’s gender and sexual preferences and behavior that could instead stimulate important theoretical questions.”  

“Somewhat defensively” they say. Now that is irony—sociologists calling a group of psychologists defensive.

Then in 2012 things really got interesting.

First, Sociologist Mark Regnerus conducted research on the impact of a child with same-sex parents, publishing this population-based study in Social Science Research (see here). He contacted over 15,000 young and early-middle-aged adults to ask about their childhood, including whether at least one of their parents had been involved in a same-sex relationship. He found significant differences in 25 of 40 outcomes between adult children of married opposite-sex parents and adult children of mothers who had a same-sex relationship.

To say it generated criticism and controversy is an understatement. His research was disavowed by his department chair at the University of Texas-Austin, and the American Sociological Association called his conclusions “fundamentally flawed” and “cited inappropriately” in efforts to diminish the civil rights and legitimacy of LBGTQ families. A gay rights activist filed a misconduct complaint against him (which after an investigation the University of Texas-Austin rejected). Numerous scientists raised concerns to the editor criticizing Social Science Research’s peer review process, and journalist John Becker sued the University of Central Florida, where James Wright, editor-in-chief of Social Science Research, worked.

At least 18 social scientists defended the study, and Christian Smith (Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame) has described the public and academic reaction as a “witch hunt” that clearly exposes an unfair double standard.

Is the vitriolic criticism warranted? 

Also in 2012 Loren Marks (Professor at Louisiana State University College of Human Sciences and Education) published in Social Science Research (see here) a thorough examination of the APA “not a single study” assertion, and 59 published studies cited by the APA to support it. Marks examined homogeneous sampling, the absence of comparison groups, comparison group characteristics, contradictory data, the limited scope of children’s outcomes studied, paucity of long-term outcome data, and lack of APA-urged statistical power. The conclusion? The APA assertions are not empirically warranted.

 A little too neat and tidy? A little too fresh?

Could bias be playing a role in dismissing alternative perspectives?

Respected social psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, NYU, Stockholm University, the College of N.J., and Arizona State (none who identify as conservative or Republican) have gathered strong research evidence suggesting that social psychology is not a welcoming environment for traditionalists or conservatives. They published their findings in Behavioral and Brain Science stating “the collective efforts of researchers in politically charged areas may fail to converge upon the truth [emphasis mine] when there are few or no non-liberal researchers to raise questions and frame hypotheses in alternative ways.” They focused on different ideological groups (conservative vs. liberal) because “the departure from the proportion of liberals and conservatives in the U.S. population is so dramatic.” They note that while this is not a threat to the validity of most studies, it “causes problems for the scientific process primarily in areas related to the political concerns of the left—areas such as race, gender, stereotyping, etc.” They ask: “Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?”

Just to be clear: I do not believe that most of the studies in the area of same-sex attraction, sexual orientation, and sexual behavior are flawed or erroneous.

However, any research, even scientific research, is subject to bias. Far too often researchers are able to find what they are looking for, thus reflecting their initial biases. This becomes even more problematic when popular culture is also strongly (if not vehemently) biased in a particular area. Charging bias, let alone proving it, is not for the faint of heart. I am not implying that there is intentionality or maliciousness in play, or that we should start an inquisition and burn (or even ignore) the data.  

But, that being said, what do many on the other side of the aisle, some leading non-traditionalists, think about this?

Many observers are not shocked when told that anthropology, sociology, and psychology are arguably among the most left leaning, liberal fields of study in academia. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, studies how morality and emotion vary across cultures. He worries that the field of social psychology is like “a tribal moral community” that suffers from a statistically impossible lack of diversity. His talk (see here) to a gathering of a thousand social psychologists involved a brief polling experiment to illustrate political leanings. There were 80% to 90% that described themselves as liberal, or left of center; 2% as centrist or moderate; 1.5% as libertarians; and three (!) conservative, or right of center. Not three percent—three actual people out of 1,000. This is 0.3%, or a ratio of liberals to conservatives of about 800 to 3, or 266 to 1. Follow-up studies (see here) confirmed these numbers, and found graduate student populations even less diverse.

How do some highly respected psychologists react to this? Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics and Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University called the writing on this topic a “Great piece, perfect for Edge — a real service.” Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, commented “nobody wants to be part of a community where their identity is the target of ridicule and malice.”

In a May 2015 Scientific American article, “Fixing the Problem of Liberal Bias in Social Psychology” (see here) the author noted

We should care about any evidence of bias influencing how we conduct or evaluate research. And if we deny even the possibility of such a bias, without reference to empirical investigation, then we will have failed as responsible scientists committed to the pursuit of truth. And ironically so, given that another of the most important lessons from social psychology teaches that we are in no position to evaluate the objectivity of our own decision-making.

And here is another troubling possibility: Scholarly research papers may be reviewed differently depending on whether they are considered to support liberal vs. conservative positions. Lee Jussim, professor of psychology and chair at Rutgers University, studies topics like bias, social perception and social reality. He submitted a paper (see here) that was originally written

as if it tested the ‘conservatism as motivated social cognition’ theory implying that conservatives are much more biased than liberals… We found the opposite: That liberals were much more biased than were conservatives. We could not get this published. So we reframed the paper to test a ‘dual process’ theory of political ideology, removed all mention of liberals being more biased than conservatives (although the data is right there for anyone to see), and the paper is now in press.

Fresh and tidy it may be for some, but for others it is much too murky. At such a time, and perhaps there has been no greater time than now, we must demonstrate a proper tentativeness. Just this week new questions are being raised about replication problems in psychology (see Science, August 2015). The scientific account is still in its early stages. Though there is a dramatic and unprecedented shift of popular opinion on topics related to same-sex attraction, orientation, parenting, behavior, etc., scientists must continue carefully and thoughtfully to pursue good, unbiased scholarship, if only because respected researchers still disagree.

The High Calling of Science, and the Higher Calling of God

I concur with professional mental health organizations like APA that call on their members to be respectful of clients and sensitive to their “race, culture, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion” and to eliminate biases based on these factors.

We as Christians also have another, higher calling. We are told to speak the truth in love. Love does not mean that all things are acceptable. Love does not preclude upholding a standard. The New Testament does not define love as acceptance of a behavior that transgresses God’s moral law. True biblical love means to support, exhort, and admonish each other with genuine care and concern in the corporate pursuit of Christlikeness. Secular state definitions and laws will always change, but the truth of Scripture does not.

In conclusion, I love being a scientist, and I am proud to be a Christian trained as a social psychologist. But I know that while science may describe what occurs in nature, it says very little about how we ought to live in light of this.

This I do know: All persons—whether straight or LGBTQ— are created in the image of God and deserve dignity and respect. Regardless of our disagreements, each of us should seek to love our neighbor with kindness and respect. We must commit to the timeless and unchanging teachings of Scripture in a way that brings healing to the hurting or broken, and draws those with whom we journey closer to the good news of Jesus Christ.

1 reply
  1. says:

    It sounds like you are saying Christians must make a non-scientific commitment to reject homosexual sex as sin regardless of what the science says. Doesn't that mean in there is no point in heeding or doing the science at all?

    At the same time you also seem to be leaving the door open for the science being wrong due to confirmation bias, yet the only area where you say this might be true pertains to the outcome assessment of same-sex versus male-female parents.

    Suppose same-sex parents often have children who are unhappier, less well socially adjusted, and less "successful" in life as a group. This might be caused by any number of things, including many for which the parents cannot be blamed. To make "child performance outcomes" a basis for public policy that singles out this one category of relationship as so deleterious to society that it must be discouraged (if not criminalized) the evidence for extremely adverse outcomes with gay parents would have to be overwhelming and unique among all other social groups. That seems extremely unlikely as an outcome for both the science and public policy. It would not touch on transgender parents unless they too showed highly adverse outcomes, but there is no reason to expect they would if their identity was not obvious and not known to their children until adolescence or adulthood. A policy of discrimination against groups with bad outcomes in their children would also set a precedent for restricting marriages among potentially any group above a certain threshold of dysfunction. Both of these outcomes would likely displease and concern religious conservatives. My guess is that many secluded, separatist religious groups might show very bad outcomes indeed especially if functioning in mainstream society is considered a good outcome.

    In sum, the confirmation bias angle seems unproductive even if true. It is something that can be (and long has been) alleged in every field. Perhaps conservatives should get into academe, or perhaps those that do cease being so conservative, or else it is impossible to serve the two masters of pre-ordained biblical truths and openness to the book of nature which may impel, as it so often has, a revisionary reading of the way conservatives read the Bible.


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