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Posts for March, 2011

“Exotic Become Erotic” Professor Thinks He Has Scientifically Proven… Well, You Already Know

Jim Burroway

March 2nd, 2011

Which means I don’t have to tell you:

According to “Feeling the Future,” a peer-reviewed paper the APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will publish this month, (Cornell Professor Daryl) Bem has found evidence supporting the existence of precognition. The experiment I’m trying, one of nine Bem cites in his study, asks me to guess which of two curtains hides a photograph. (Some of the images are erotic, some neutral, in an attempt to see if different kinds of photos have different effects.) If mere chance governed each guess, I’d be right 50 percent of the time. Naturally, I’d guess correctly more like 100 percent of the time if you showed me where the photo was before I chose.

But what about if you showed me the photo’s location immediately after I chose? Perhaps, if I had ESP, I could peek into the future and improve my guesswork, even just a little bit. Over seven years, Bem tested more than 1,000 subjects in this very room, and he believes he’s demonstrated that some mysterious force gives humans just the slightest leg up on chance.

Between 1996 and 2000, Professor Bem published a series of papers touting his “Exotic Becomes Erotic” theory of sexual development, in which he posits that:

…biological variables, such as genes, prenatal hormones, and brain neuroanatomy, do not code for sexual orientation per se but for childhood temperaments that influence a child’s preferences for sex-typical or sex-atypical activities and peers. These preferences lead children to feel different from opposite or same-sex peers–to perceive them as dissimilar, unfamiliar, and exotic. This, in turn, produces heightened nonspecific autonomic arousal that subsequently gets eroticized to that same class of dissimilar peers: Exotic becomes erotic.

In other words, Bem’s theory holds that we become attracted to those who are different from ourselves, a theory which leaves masculine gay men’s attractions to effeminate twinks but not to women (or twinks to each other or bears to each other or jocks to each other or lipstick lesbians to each other, etc.) unexplained. Nevertheless, this developmental theory which downplays the possibility of biological forces in favor of peer relationships as a cause for homosexuality — and for which there is precious little clinical evidence for support — found favor with NARTH’s own socially-constructive viewpoints.

On January 27, Bem appeared on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report to discuss his latest paper on ESP. While amusing on cable television, his paper has generated considerable consternation among psychologists:

Responses to Bem’s paper by the scientific community have ranged from arch disdain to frothing rejection. And in a rebuttal—which, uncommonly, is being published in the same issue of JPSP as Bem’s article—another scientist suggests that not only is this study seriously flawed, but it also foregrounds a crisis in psychology itself.

…To science-writing eminence Douglas Hofstadter, the publication of work like Bem’s has the potential to unleash, and legitimize, other “crackpot ideas.” In the New York Times, the University of Oregon’s Ray Hyman used the words “an embarrassment for the entire field.” Some critics protest that the article can’t explain what mechanism might be behind precognition. (“We almost always have the phenomenon before we have the explanation,” Bem says.) Others just scoff: Why limit yourself to one kind of pseudoscience? As York University’s James Alcock points out in Skeptical Inquirer, that 53 percent might as well be proof of the power of prayer.

“It shouldn’t be difficult to do one proper experiment and not nine crappy experiments,” the University of Amsterdam’s Eric-Jan Wagenmakers tells me. He’s the co-author of the rebuttal that accompanies Bem’s article in JPSP. Wagen­makers uses Bayesian analysis—a statistical method meant to enforce the notion that extraordinary claims require extra­ordinary evidence—to argue that Bem’s results are indistinguishable from chance. In essence, he explains, 53 percent of a bunch of Cornell sophomores, in unmonitored experiments conducted by a pro-PSI professor, shouldn’t really move the needle, considering how deeply unlikely the existence of precognition actually is. The paper, says Wagenmakers, never should have made it through peer review, and the fact that it did is representative of a larger crisis in the field: The methods and statistics used in psychology, he writes, are “too weak, too malleable, and offer far too many opportunities for researchers to befuddle themselves and their peers.”

But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?