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Progressive Science in a Regressive World

Editors note: This post was originally written for the site gapjunctionscience.org. Gap Junction Science is "a network for science faculty who are curious about the ways feminism and science connect. It’s also a home for anyone else interested in the meeting points between science and feminism including, but not limited to, non-academic scientists, trainees (grad students and post docs), and non-scientist scholars" (from their "about" page). You can see the original post here.

A few blog posts back, Sari van Anders pointed out that one connection between science and feminism is their seemingly equal ability to bring out nasty comments. In fact, Sari highlighted Lewis’ Law (and science loves laws) that states that the comments on any feminist post justify the existence of feminism. Not to go making laws in my own name or anything, but if I were to create Blair’s Law in a similar vein it would be that “the comments on anything to do with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identified, queer) research justify research on LGBTQ issues.” In fact, if you take a look, you’ll even find that Blair’s Law can be equally applied to articles written about both good and bad LGBTQ research. Good and Bad? By Good LGBTQ research I mean inclusive, prejudice reducing, diversity promoting, “queers are great” research and by Bad LGBTQ research I mean Regnerus – or research that manipulates and twists the facts in hopes of proving that sexual and gender diversity are examples of abnormality, sickness, perversion and will ultimately bring about the end of the world as we know it! 

What qualifies me to propose such a law? Well, beyond my own sick and twisted perversion of not only reading comment threads on posts/articles about LGBTQ research but actually cataloguing said comments, I’ve also recently found myself thrown into the deep end of the Internet cesspool of nasty comments on LGBTQ research, or more specifically, my LGBTQ research.

To back track a bit, what exactly is LGBTQ research? In an ideal world, I would be a relationships researcher, a health researcher, a sex researcher, and all of those titles would inherently imply that I was also an LGBTQ researcher because, of course, LGBTQ people have relationships, have health issues and also have sex – and sometimes they have health issues because their relationship is falling apart because they don’t like the sex that they’re having or not having! But unfortunately, at present, if someone is designated as a health, relationships or sex researcher it does not inherently mean that they also include LGBTQ individuals or issues in their research. Thus, LGBTQ research exists to fill in the gaps, and to apply XYZ from the field of ABC to the lives of LGBTQ individuals (If I liked Alphagettis I’d probably be craving some now). Whenever I wonder about how long LGBTQ research will remain its own separate field, all I need to do is pick up a non-LGBTQ journal, do a lit search, review an article, read the comments from a reviewer of one of my articles, or… when I really REALLY want to see the just how far we are from LGBTQ research being irrelevant, I read the online comment sections!

My newest study will be examining exactly what happens inside the minds and bodies of prejudiced individuals during the precise moment that they witness a same-sex public display of affection – for example, two men holding hands or kissing on a sidewalk. What makes people go from seeing gay to seeing red? To help fund the study’s costs I’ve turned to crowdfunding, which is really just a fancy word for online fundraising. (To read more about my views on crowdfunding for academic research, click here). Thus, in an attempt draw attention to the research, I’ve done a number of interviews, posted information about the study wherever I could think of and flooded my social media accounts with what I’m sure my Facebook “friends” and Twitter “followers” are beginning to view as harassment. The end result is that over $5000 of the needed $7500 has been pledged and over 300 comments have been posted on the various articles, blogs and advertisements for the study. Why do I know how many? Scroll back up and re-read about my “sick twisted perversion” of not only reading, but also cataloguing comments!

For some reason (please don’t question my intelligence as a result of what I’m about to tell you), but for some reason, even though I designed a study that hinges upon the existence of homophobia/homonegativity, I never in a million years expected viciousness, cruelty and ignorance that this study has spawned (and it hasn’t even started yet!!).  Nothing in my training prepared me to answer comments that said my research would be better directed at promoting AIDS as a solution to homosexuality, or responding to any of the comments below.

Here’s a brief, and sadly rather representative, selection of some of the comments posted on news articles of social media posts concerning my research:

Tell me how two people of the SAME sex equals diversity? Just say what you mean: You want my money to promote sodomy. Go somewhere else with your B.S.”

“You can do a study on me for free, I hate you fucking faggots and forcing this shit in our faces will never change that. Just shut the fuck up and live your sick lifestyle. Quit bugging everyone else to accept it. We never will.”

“This organization should take these donations and stop people from being gay in the first place. That is where the sickness lays, not normal people disgusted by your perverted lifestyle.”

“I don’t hate you gays, I love you as Jesus Christ loves you. I just hate what you do.”

Comments weren’t the only source of ignorance and homophobia. I also received emails and questions from reporters and colleagues that were “less than enlightened.” Some suggested that gay people bring on any violence they experience as a result of Pride Parades, others suggested that a study like this could not be done properly and that it was inherently biased because of the person doing the research (me), and some questioned the point in studying prejudice towards LGBTQ individuals given that we’ve already done quite a bit of research on other types of prejudice, such as racism, and prejudice is prejudice, isn’t it?

Many took issue with the concept of “hate crimes,” arguing that they do not exist and that it is Orwellian to prosecute hate crimes and, that by extension, my research was also Orwellian. Others suggested that a better topic of research would be one directed at finding a cure for homosexuality and more than one reporter asked me to explain why it is that same-sex couples tend to flaunt their sexuality and relationships more than heterosexual couples (sidebar: they don’t).

Even though a number of comments were quite vicious and upsetting, especially the one that said they wished the whole KLB Research team would contract a terminal illness and die; the questions about bias were perhaps the most unsettling. Perhaps this was because the questions of bias were less likely to come from random commenters and more likely to come from supposedly sympathetic reporters or other researchers. Bias in any study is an important issue and I don’t mean to downplay it at all, but we also have a million and one ways to control for bias and to build in “fail safes” to increase objectivity. For example, in this particular study the research assistant will never know in advance whether the participant is incredibly homophobic or the winner of the straight ally of the year award. We’re also going to use a bunch of physiological measures that aren’t easy for participants to fake and are difficult for researchers to interpret in a biased manner.

But really, the questions about bias seemed to be far less about my methods and how I might control for potential bias and seemed to be directed more specifically at the research topic itself and my associated sexuality. If I were straight, would this study somehow be more credible? Would it be seen as having more benevolent motivations as opposed to self-serving ones? Furthermore, is it fair to say my research is biased simply because of my sexual identity? I’m studying heterosexual men’s reactions to male same-sex public displays of affection. I’m not a gay man (surprise surprise). I’ve never been the victim of a hate crime (knock on wood). The ‘worst’ incidents of homophobia that I’ve ever experienced in my life (before this study) amount to dirty looks and muttered comments. I do not personally know any gay men who have been viciously attacked for holding hands with their partner. Yet because I am gay, because I am in a same-sex relationship, it seems to go without question that any LGBTQ research I conduct will be personally relevant, and therefore subject to bias. Yet when I study relationships in a manner that is not specific to same-sex sexuality, no one questions my motivations or the personal relevance of the research. Being in a relationship and studying relationships is not enough to cue the giant red Bias Flag, but being in a same-sex relationship and studying reactions to same-sex PDAs appears to be more than enough. 

I’m not saying it is wrong to question people’s motivations and biases when critiquing their research. For example, paying attention to the fact that the author of a recent article, claiming that children of lesbian parents are less likely to finish high school, is also a member of the board for the National Organization of Marriage, actively promotes anti-gay policies and has previously lied about research results, might give us some useful information in interpreting his most recent findings.

Consequently, bias is an important issue to tackle, and I’m not arguing that there are no elements of bias to my research ideas. What I question is how quickly we assume ‘dangerous bias’ for certain topics of research, but never question the possibility of such biases for others. When someone studies erectile dysfunction, do reporters ask the researcher about their own experiences with ‘getting it up’? When sex researchers study infidelity, do they get grilled on the level of faithfulness within their past and present relationships? Of course reporters will always try to find a personal angle, so we can’t really blame them for asking (Editor’s note: well, if the questions are offensive, we can), but reporters aren’t always the only ones asking the questions.

One might argue that dealing with questions about bias and personal motivations is just something that comes with the territory when any researcher conducts any kind of personally relevant research, but I would argue that the skepticism does not seem to be evenly spread. When issues of personal relevance motivate medical research, it is often framed heroically. “The scientist whose mother died of a rare form of XYZ devotes his life to finding the cure.” When the Bern family learned that their son had a rare disorder called progeria, which prematurely ages and weakens a persons body, making their son Sam appear as though he is 90 when he is really only 13, they started a research foundation to develop a treatment for progeria. Both of Sam’s parents are medical doctors and have since devoted their careers to finding a cure for progeria and hopefully saving their son’s life. One headline about the story reads: “When a mother’s research might be the key to her son’s survival." When a young couple, Sonia Vallabh and Eric Minikel, discovered that one of them was a carrier for a rare and fatal genetic disease, they both quit their jobs, became scientists and started in on a program of research aimed at delaying the onset of the disease and ultimately hoping to save one of their own lives. The study raised 215% of its original funding goal; in fact I was one of the 101 donors who contributed.

My point is not to say that the research conducted by the Berns family or by Sonia and Eric should be considered questionable or biased, but rather to highlight the difference in how we approach the topic of bias as a result of the type of bias and the topic of research. Yet I fail to see the difference. Eric wants to save his girlfriend’s life by delaying her imminent and genetically predetermined death. The Berns parents want to save their son Sam’s life, or at least extend it for as long as possible. I want to prevent people like Scott Jones from being randomly stabbed in the back and paralyzed just for being gay. I want to make it safer for same-sex couples to walk down the street holding hands. The comments on the stories about the Berns’ research for Sam and the articles about Sonia and Eric’s research are not dripping with hate, they aren’t questioned on the potential “damage” of their biases, and their stories are framed in terms of hope, devotion, sacrifice, and heroic determination. Yet when we conduct research attached to nearly any kind of –ism, our motives become weapons launched back at us in attacks on our credibility and ability to be ‘objective.’ Our topics of research open us up not just to constructive criticism and feedback, but also to hateful, ugly, ignorant and insulting attacks on our credibility and competence.

So where does all of this leave us? I suppose it leaves me in need of a support group that will enforce the rule of not reading (or cataloging) the comments! (But I really want to catalogue the comments because I think they’ll make for a great qualitative analysis article and the fact that people don’t know how to use their privacy settings on Facebook means that I have public access to all their demographic information as well as their hate-fuelled comment!!) It’s going to need to be a support group that comes with restraints.

The irony of it all is that feminist researchers are probably the most likely to actually inform their audience of their values, vested interests and motivations for the research. Barely any other research method requires an open and honest exploration and articulation of the motives and potential sources of bias within a research project. But if we were to publish a post beyond this blog about what other fields can learn from feminist approaches to science and research, we’d probably just run into a whole lot more evidence for Lewis’ Law.

If you’re feeling generous, or you have a large wad of cash sitting uncomfortably in your pocket that you’d really like to get rid of…. Consider making a donation to help support my study on the neural mechanisms of prejudice directed towards same-sex couples, with an end goal of reducing this prejudice – I promise to control all forms of bias :-)

This post was originally written for the site gapjunctionscience.org. You can see the original post here.

Dr. Karen Blair - Learn more about Karen's research | Science of Relationships articles

Dr. Blair's research focuses on the connections between romantic relationships and health, social approval for romantic relationships, and LGBTQ psychology. Her latest research is focusing on the potential health benefits (and costs) of public displays of affection (PDAs) in both mixed-sex and same-sex relationships. Do PDAs provide health boosting moments of support for all couples, or might stigmatized couples experience PDAs as a source of stress and discomfort? As part of this line of research, a study on the psychophysiology of prejudice is being crowdfunded on the science funding site, Microryza. Dr. Blair also offers consulting services for online research development and implementation. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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