Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Asexuals: going science-free?

As a member of the reality-based community, I put a high value on science. And so, when I was questioning my sexual identity, I was slightly bothered by the lack of scientific support for the conclusions I was making. This is especially true of something like asexuality. I feel like the existing research is sufficient to support the existence of asexuality, but it couldn't possibly say anything about all the details discussed in my presentation or in the asexual community at large.

But perhaps I was the only one bothered by this. After all, people form their political opinions without constantly referring to scientific evidence. How could we do otherwise? But I feel it is pretty lame to simply say, "science can't know everything." Even if it's obvious, I want a real reason, not just an empty cliche.

Luckily, it's quite easy to think up several real reasons.
  1. We are facing a lack of evidence, not contrary evidence. The reason there is so little science on asexuality is not because we've looked around and found nothing. It's because there are some serious methodological difficulties in studying human sexuality, especially that of such a small minority.

    Furthermore, there is not enough motivation to conduct these studies. It will remain that way unless the asexual movement pushes for it. The movement must precede the science; there is no other way.

  2. Most claims are about human experience. It's true that a skeptic like me tends to devalue personal experience as evidence. There are statistical biases which render anecdotes unreliable. There are biases which cause us to see patterns where there are none. Altered states of consciousness reflect the reality inside our brain, not the reality outside our brain.

    But sexual orientation is different. We are not using personal experience to make claims about outside reality. It is using personal experience to make claims about personal experience. When I observe that I don't find women attractive, I am offering this evidence to prove that I don't find women attractive. I would go on further to say that this experience will likely continue in my life. These claims are not so outrageous that I need to cite scientific sources to back me up.

  3. Some of the most important "claims" are not claims, but obvious value judgments. The issue of sexual orientation is not just about the qualities and characteristics of queer people. The more important message is "these people deserve respect." This is based on the broader premise that everyone deserves respect. However you arrive at this conclusion, I hope it does not hinge on just a few scientific studies.
And that's just off the top of my head. I'm sure there are more.

Of course, we still need some way to distinguish between true and false claims. We can't accept everything that's ever said in the asexual community. At least some of those claims will contradict each other. At least a few of them are nonsense, like the idea that asexuality is evolution's response to overpopulation. A little critical thinking and a healthy dose of agnosticism goes a long way.

For example, I take with a grain of salt anything that's said about the prevalence of asexuals or of any of their characteristics. There was a small AVEN survey in 2008 in which 71% of respondents were female and 54% were not religious, but I don't take this to be representative of asexuals in general. If I'm not going to trust a seriously conducted poll, I'm also not going to trust an anecdote as evidence of prevalence. I may make some tentative conclusions on the matter, but I treat them as questionable at best.

I'm also very skeptical of any claims about causes. Causal relationships are hard enough to prove even when the science is there to back you up.