Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

soft sciences, softer scientists

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Oct 27, 2005

James C. Cavendish is associate professor of sociology at the University of South Florida. In the current NCR he has an essay titled "Muddled thinking behind targeting gays in seminaries." Let me single out one paragraph for comment:

Another troubling feature of the forthcoming document is the Vatican's apparent discrimination against gays by asking seminary officials to apply a three-year celibacy requirement to gay seminary candidates. Perhaps the Vatican doesn't intend the requirement to pertain only to gay candidates. However, by making this requirement explicit only with respect to gays, the Vatican is fostering a stereotype that gay men are somehow less able than straight men to live celibately. To date, I haven't come across any social science data to support this stereotype.

To date, Prof. Cavendish hasn't come across any social science data to support the stereotype that gay men are less able than straight men to live celibately. For the sake of argument, let's concede the claim. But were such data available, is it likely that a social scientist would jeopardize his career by publishing it? As is the case with any institution, the cultural and political biases of the academy make some "findings" welcome and some unwelcome. Can anyone deny that in today's academy findings unfavorable to gays belong emphatically to the "unwelcome" category?

That a claim is unwelcome -- I hope it goes without saying -- does not make it true. But a critical academic discipline ought to acknowledge that when there's a gross asymmetry in play, i.e., when there's a result that the guild intensely wants to find and a contrary result it intensely wants not to find, the lack of the "unwelcome" evidence is suspect. In a sense, a scholar approaches a problem in a way precisely opposite to that in which a lawyer approaches his brief. In the matter of equivocal data, a critical academic gives the benefit of the doubt to the interpretation contrary to his own, so that, should he triumph, not even his opponent could say the "fix was in" with the evidence. In fact, you can usually distinguish a true scholar from a shill precisely because the true scholar 1) admits his biases up front, and 2) is harder on his own hypotheses than his adversaries are: he is slower to admit data that supports his own case than he is to concede data that supports his opponents.

But we have to take it up a notch. When the interests at stake in a dispute are not merely academic, but asymmetrically tied to the political success and professional advancement of the disputants, the scholar who champions the popular position has extraordinary responsibilities to acquit himself of harlotry. An honest man may sincerely think that the position professionally advantageous to him is the true one, yet he should be at least slightly embarrassed by his belief -- by the coincidence that his self-interest is served by objective truth -- and should compensate by bending over backwards to put the unpopular case at its strongest.

Back to the University of South Florida. Regardless of whether Cavendish's claim is true or false, it's undeniable that his fellow profs overwhelmingly want his claim to be true, and it's undeniable that an academic who proposed the counter-claim (viz., that gays are less capable of celibacy) would bring down on his head all kinds of misery -- professional, personal, and political -- unconnected with the putative academic enterprise of objective and detached search for knowledge. Such a man would be accounted not merely wrong, but bad.

Now Cavendish presents himself as a sociologist. That means he can hardly be unaware of the sociology of the academy in its general outlines, or unaware that the behaviors of gays are currently among the most politically contentious of all academic topics. "I haven't come across any social science data to support this stereotype" -- that may be a true sentence; in context, can it be an honest one?

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