The Low Down: A New Review On Sexuality In The New Atlantis Has Conservatives Talking

Study Cover PhotoThis morning LCMS posted a link to an article with an article by Ryan T. Anderson with a flashy headline: “Almost everything the media tell you about sexual orientation and gender identity is wrong.” LCMS doesn’t seem ever to do any significant critical scientific evaluation of the sources it uses, and other conservative outlets (especially Roman Catholic ones) seem to be all over the article too, so I figured a quick review was in order. Here’s the low down.

All the fuss is about a new item called “Sexuality and Gender: findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences,” and was published in the journal The New Atlantis. It was authored by Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer (PhD) and Dr. Paul R. McHugh (MD). The item itself is meta-analysis. This is a sort of research where scientists don’t do any original research; they just review large amounts of studies on a particular topic and try to spot major trends and gaps in knowledge. A meta-analysis is basically just figuring out what we know and don’t know about an issue. Because this sort of thing looks at so many studies, a well-done meta-analysis can be one of the strongest levels of evidence for an idea that there can be in science. So this is potentially big news. Here’s a quick look at what’s going on.

The Journal

The journal itself, The New Atlantis, isn’t a peer reviewed publication from what I can tell. Peer review isn’t a perfect process; in fact, it can actually be kind of a low bar. If your work can’t pass  as competently put-together upon review by someone who is qualified to work on the topic your project is on, that’s likely because it’s trash. That does not mean that The New Atlantis is trash, nor does it mean this particular meta-analysis is trash. It just means the authors might not have wanted to engage the psychology community in a scholarly way.

The Authors

Now for the authors. McHugh is an MD who the editor of the piece calls “arguably the most important American psychiatrist of the last half-century.” I’m not a psychology buff, so I won’t comment on how important this fellow has actually been, but there it is. An author search in Scopus (kind of like Google for Academic publications) shows him to have 167 publications since 1962, so that’s a fair amount of scholarly work. None of those publications are on the topic of sexual orientation or gender identity, so he doesn’t seem to have much experience in this field. With 167 publications I expect him to be competent enough to take on a task like this, though.

Mayer is just introduced by the editor as “an epidemiologist trained in psychiatry,” so apparently he isn’t as dazzling as McHugh. That shows in his previous work: a search in Scopus returns just 64 publications since 1971. That’s still quite a bit of work, but like McHugh, none of Mayer’s previous scholarly work that was published in peer reviewed journals appears to be on the topic of sexual orientation or gender identity. He is a trained PhD researcher, though, so I expect him to be competent to take on the task of a meta-analysis.

However, since neither of these fellows have experience engaging with peer reviewed scholarly journals on this topic anytime before in their decades of experience, it is a bit weird that they didn’t opt for peer review for this this work. I mean, if you’re working with something you’re not experienced with, wouldn’t you want it to be reviewed by an experienced person? Kinda sketchy, but not proof of trashiness.

The Review

I have not read the entire review, but have skimmed it to see the major points and how well it treats some things I have a little familiarity with. It’s over 150 pages long, and this is supposed to be a short review.

APA Journal
A peer reviewed journal by the APA. If Mayer and McHugh’s meta-analysis is so important, why isn’t it in a journal like this?

My main impression from the review is that there isn’t anything really surprising about the findings. For example, on the topic of childhood cross-gender identification, they note that only a small number of such children carry that identification into adulthood. They also note that genetics seems to play a role in sexual orientation. Their most prominent point seems to be that there is still much to learn about just about every aspect of gender identity and sexual orientation. We don’t have a good understanding about what causes these things biologically. I have written briefly about some of these things before, and there is nothing particularly controversial about any of this. It seems well-understood by major scholarly psychology organizations like the APA previous to this meta-analysis being written. The claims mostly seem technically accurate.

There were some hints of bias. As I have pointed out before, the clear experience that transsexual and non-heterosexual people testify about is that they did not choose to be that way, and it feels as if they were born that way. McHugh and Mayer rightly point out in their analysis that we don’t understand these things well enough to prove that either sexual orientation or gender identity is innate (has a cause like genetics). However, I could find no mention of the qualitative evidence that the testimony of transsexual and non-heterosexual people provide. That’s the sort of thing that scholarly psychology organizations like the APA are also taking into consideration, but McHugh and Mayer don’t seem to.

Another very loud silence from McHugh and Mayer is complete silence on the topic of attempts by some groups to treat homosexual people to make them more heterosexual. Such treatments are well-understood to be unhelpful at best, and harmful at worst, so I would expect at least a mention in a large scale meta-analysis that seeks to “draw attention to — and offer some scientific insight about — the mental health issues faced by LGBT populations.”

So a few possible omissions, but overall the meta-analysis seems to do an okay job of saying a lot of stuff every scholarly psychology organization already has a good handle on. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t published in a scholarly psychology journal. I’m not a psychologist, so it’s possible that there are deeper issues or good things I can’t spot with only a brief look.

So Where Was The Media Wrong?

Honestly, I’m not sure. It seems like this is a case of conservative mouthpieces spinning relatively okay scholarship into something it isn’t. Take what Anderson says about mental illness for example:

“But they argue that the evidence suggests that [social stress] “does not seem to offer a complete explanation for the disparities in the outcomes.” It appears that social stigma and stress alone cannot account for the poor physical and mental health outcomes that LGBT-identified people face.”

From what I can tell, McHugh and Mayer are right in this case. Social stigma and stress only statistically account for most of the mental illness as far as we can measure so far. But is that really something the media got wrong? It seems like Anderson is being misleading when he claims that the media is wrong about just about everything they say about gender identity and sexual orientation. It makes a great headline, but isn’t great honesty.

Once again, it’s disappointing to see churches like LCMS support people’s ideas simply because they are the “right” conclusions rather than because their ideas pass rigorous scientific review. If churches seriously care about the truth, they should be careful about what comments they support on scientific topics. Spin, whether it be conservative or liberal, is dishonest and sinful. We can do better.

And that’s the low down on that.




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