Quondam colleague John Timmer at Ars Technica writes up a recent study on how people cling to cherished beliefs in the face of countervailing scientific evidence. The conclusion—they fall back on the idea that the question is somehow outside the domain of science—seems plausible enough, and it’s certainly not hard to think of bogus moves along those lines made in various debates. But one specific question they chose seems like an awfully poor one, because the idea that there’s ultimately a non-scientific component to the answer is, in the instance, pretty reasonable:
To get at this issue, Munro polled a set of college students about their feelings about homosexuality, and then exposed them to a series of generic scientific abstracts that presented evidence that it was or wasn’t a mental illness (a control group read the same abstracts with nonsense terms in place of sexual identities). By chance, these either challenged or confirmed the students’ preconceptions. The subjects were then given the chance to state whether they accepted the information in the abstracts and, if not, why not.
Now, for one, this is a bad question because I’d expect many college students to come in knowing that the consensus since the early ’70s has been that it is, of course, not a mental illness. But there’s a deeper problem that emerges if you look at the history of how homosexuality was classified as a mental illness, and how that classification came to be overturned—which, if you’re not familiar with it, is the subject of a really wonderful This American Life episode. There are, of course, real empirical questions for science here. As the narrative explains, research on homosexual psychology had long been conducted on people who were already in therapy for one reason or another—and therefore missed the rather significant empirical fact that there were plenty of gay men who were perfectly happy with who they were and otherwise psychologically indistinguishable from straights. But the question of whether some particular psychological variation is in itself an “illness” or merely an atypical bit of weft in the human cloth does not, ultimately, strike me as a genuinely scientific question so much as a normative one. When do we call something a mental illness? One criterion is that it’s a subjective source of distress, but that’s of limited help, since we’re often inclined to say that it’s society’s failure to accommodate the variation that should be blamed for that distress. And, on the other hand, we’d probably continue speaking of even the happiest sociopaths in the clinical terms of disease because of the distress they tend to cause the rest of us. (Would it be different if we had a general mechanism for identifying sociopaths early and channeling them into socially sanctioned roles? Other than campaign consulting, I mean.)
Science can inform our thinking about these questions, but the core of the question is often beyond the strict scope of science. An “illness” is a kind of mismatch between an individual psychological disposition and a social norm where we are prepared to reflectively validate the norm. (It’s important to bear this in mind, because the norm itself can get an illegitimate, tautological boost from the sense that science has independently and authoritatively condemned some behavior or disposition as disordered and diseased.) A complete inventory of the scientific facts of the matter might yield agreement—as when, for instance, the mismatch is the result of other widely-held false factual beliefs. But it might not.
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. And that comes across clear as day in the This American Life account: 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. The test, if we’re trying to keep ourselves honest, is not whether we place some questions beyond the scope of science, but whether we do so in an opportunistic, ad hoc way, depending on whether the science seems to cut for or against our preferred beliefs.