Jones and Yarhouse: “The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Science in the Ecclesiastical Homosexuality Debates”
September 13th, 2007
So today is when Stanton L. Jones and Mark Yarhouse are set to release the results of their ex-gay study in Nashville at the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference. The study itself, Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation, will be published in book form by InterVarsity Press, but won’t be publicly available until October 10. This study will reportedly will show whether a significant percentage of gays can change their sexual orientation through religious-based counseling.
Since this study went to a commercial Christian publisher instead of a peer-reviewed journal, we have no a priori assurance that it has been vetted by qualified professionals. We can’t rely on IVP Press to to that vetting; they’ve also agreed to publish Richard Cohen’s forthcoming book despite his many embarrassments to the ex-gay movement. And we can’t rely on George Rekers, who praised the study in the IVP press release. He was similarly impressed with Paul Cameron’s Research.
So until we’re able to obtain a copy to evaluate for ourselves, it’ll be difficult to judge its methodology or conclusions. But a glimpse into Jones’ and Yarhouse’s previous collaborations might give us an idea of what to look for.
Jones and Yarhouse have collaborated at least three times before. They wrote “The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Science in the Ecclesiastical Homosexuality Debates,” which appeared in the 2000 anthology Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (edited by David L Balch and published by Eerdmans). That chapter was based largely on an earlier article they wrote for the Christian Scholar’s Review in 1997 titled “Science and the Ecclesiastical Homosexuality Debates.” They also contributed a chapter titled “The Homosexual Client” in the 1997 anthology Christian Counseling Ethics (edited by R.K. Sanders and published by InterVarsity).
In “The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Science,” Jones and Yarhouse avoid most of the pitfalls which characterize much of the anti-gay cannon. The tone is considerably more moderate than most of the literature. There’s virtually no demonizing or name-calling, they stick to the more reputable researchers and their findings (Paul Cameron need not apply), they portray pro-gay arguments with reasonable accuracy and avoid the typical strawman arguments that are all too common elsewhere.
But “The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Science” is not an unbiased chapter, and I don’t think Jones and Yarhouse would pretend otherwise. When Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture” was released in 2000, they commented:
We (Stan and Mark) have watched for years as the supposed “scientific evidence” has been used in the ethical/moral debates of the various Christian denominations over the divisive topic of homosexuality. The majority of the time, the “evidence” has been used against the traditional moral position that sees homosexual behavior as sin.
Their examples of “misuse and abuse” of science only extended to the pro-gay side of the debates. They were strangely silent on the many ways silence on the many countless ways in which science is widely abused by the anti-gay side — abuses so widespread that debunking them can take up several entire web sites. (Ahem!)
Prevalence of Homosexuality
In “The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Science,” Jones and Yarhouse undertook four specific areas for review. The first topic for review was of studies determining the the prevalence of homosexuality. This is an important point in anti-gay circles, with anti-gay advocates prefering much lower prevalence figures for many reasons. In simple terms, the lower the number, the less “normal” homosexuality becomes. They especially don’t like Kinsey’s famous ten-percent statistic — a statistic which most of the more prominent pro-gay advocates have abandoned quite some time ago.
Jones and Yarhouse perform a thorough debinking of Kinsey’s statistic, and in truth most of those criticisms are perfectly valid. For one, Kinsey didn’t use probability sampling techniques. He also was doing something that had never been done before: undertaking a wide-ranging survey of American attitudes about sexuality. Begun in the 1930’s, his research was groundbreaking. But as is the case with most pioneers with no prior precedence to guide them, “mistakes were made.” Kinsey was certainly no exception.
Jones and Yarhouse then reviewed a half dozen surveys which were published before 1995, all with low prevalence figures. But they didn’t discuss the many factors which contribute to low numbers. Homosexuality then, even moreso than now, was highly stigmatized (AIDS was in full rage, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” had been written into law by a Democratically-controlled Congress in 1993, DOMA passed both houses of Congress with wide bipartisan support in 1996.). Also, because of small sample sizes, margins of error were often wide, and refusal rates — the percentage of people who refused to participate for whatever reason — hovered in the 20-35% range. That’s why responsible researchers routinely caution that results reflect the low range for homosexuality.
But not Jones and Yarhouse. True to form, they chose a low-ball figure:
So when the genders are combined, homosexuality almost certainly characterizes less than 3 percent of the population, and the correct percentage combining men and women might be lower even than 2 percent.
What Causes Homosexual Orientation?
The second area Jones and Yarhouse reviewed was the several biological and environmental theories for the causes of homosexuality. Again, no surprises here. The biological theories were dissected in great detail and largely dismissed for their obvious weaknesses. And in truth, the state of research as of 2000 was indeed not terribly strong — especially if one were to assume that there will ever be a single cause for something as complex as human sexuality, an assumption that is essential in order for their grounds for dismissal to be taken seriously. (Ironically, it is also an assumption they disavow just a little later in the chapter.)
In contrast, Jones and Yarhouse were rather protective of psychological theories — distant father, absent parent, molestation, you get the idea. While they expended a great deal of effort to debunk each of the major biological theories, their review of environmental theories was cursory and circumspect at best. They acknowledged that there has been very little recent study on environmental causes, but chalked that up for “enthusiasm for biological explanations,” concluding:
Though the substantive body of psychological causation research is aging and not being regularly renewed, it has never been refuted and still holds promise for understanding part of the causal puzzle of homosexuality.
They do however note that there may be an interplay between biological and experiential factors, and that “the complex factors which results in the orientation toward homosexuality probably differs from person to person.” But even if biology plays a role, they conclude:
There appears to be a variety of factors which can provide a push in the direction of homosexuality for some persons, but there is no evidence that this “push” renders human choice utterly irrelevant. …
One study of the correlations between the television viewing of adopted children and their adoptive and biological parents produce evidence of “significant genetic influence on individual differences in children’s television viewing.” … All of us would reject the notion that our genes make us sit for a certain number of hours in front of a television screen, but we may have a predisposition (sedentary tendencies?) which would make the choice to view television appealing to varying degrees.
Is Homosexuality a Pathology?
From there, they moved on to the question, “Is homosexuality a pathology?” Here they focused on personal distress (“Contemporary research continues to suggest high levels of distress in the homosexual population even if that conclusion is usually not stated.”) and maladaptiveness (citing several non-representative studies for promiscuity statistics to suggest gay men and women cannot form monogamous relationships, “an essential adaptive capacity.”) They conclude:
The evidence cited above fails far short of a convincing case that homosexuality in itself constitutes a psychopathological condition. The evidence also suggests that one would be on shaky grounds in proclaiming that there is no evidence that homosexuality is anything other than an healthy, normal lifestyle variant.
Is Change Impossible?
And finally — and the point that is most relevant for their newest ex-gay study — they ask “is change to heterosexuality impossible for the homosexual?” Remember, this was before Robert Spitzer’s ex-gay study, “Can some gay men and lesbians change their sexual orientation?” appeared in the October 2003 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior. So at this point, they had little to go on. But I did notice a very interesting footnote:
111. For a reasonably complete review of existing “conversion therapy” studies, see J. Nicolosi, Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality (New York: Jason Aronson, 1991). Critics are right to note that many of these studies lack methodological rigor and are basically compilations of independent clinical interventions. Reported success rates have hovered in the 33 to 50 percent range. [Emphasis mine]
There it is. The 30-to-50 percent range we’ve been hearing about. Or, according to the much bigger picture, the 50-to-70 percent failure rate.
Jones and Yarhouse however did close their discussion of change by noting:
It is troubling that the many Christian ministries which attempt to provide opportunities for growth and healing for the homosexual person rarely if ever study and report their success rates.
Now with their newly announced ex-gay study, it looks like they are trying to address that deficiency. But as I said, until we get a copy of the study and can evaluate it ourselves, I think skepticism is in order based on Jones and Yarhouse’s previous collaborations. While “The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Science” certainly doesn’t fall into the usual traps of egregious exploitation of scientific research, neither does it rise to being a dispassionate review of the scientific literature.
“The Use, Misuse and Abuse of Science” has become an influential resource among anti-gay activists. Several speakers at Love Won Out and the Exodus Freedom Conference referred to this chapter specifically when they want to debunk studies on the prevalence of homosexuality or the possible biological contributions to homosexuality. The book was also sold at those conferences and was highly recommended by several speakers and participants.
The results from Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation will be released today during a press conference at the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Exodus will be holding their regional conference in Nashville that same weekend. That’s quite an audience clamoring for this book. But whenever a researcher bypasses the peer-review process and has a book to sell to an eagerly waiting customer base, skepticism is warranted.