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Dan Savage's Big Gay Problem
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.
Last week the inimitably irreverent and openly gay sex columnist, Dan Savage, published an article entitled “Marcus Bachmann’s Big Gay Problem” in which he straightly suggests that “gaydar is for real.” Amid his sauciness, Savage cites a 2008 Tufts University study in which psychologists Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady showed 90 faces to 90 participants in random order and then asked them to judge the subject’s “probable sexual orientation” (straight or gay only; bisexuals needn’t apply) by pressing a button. The researchers reported that participants achieved a 65% rate of accuracy in correctly identifying the “gay faces.” (I can only wonder if bisexuality would have been equally as detectable.) In the second version of the study the research team removed various facial clues from the pictures to see whether their absence made a difference. With the man's hair removed the participants were noticeably less accurate. I can only help but wonder to what extent outcome of the study would have shifted had eyebrows and other facial hair (heard, sideburns, etc) also been bowdlerized from the pictures.
Savage adduces the Tufts University study to support his claim (and exonerate his impudence) that Marcus Bachmann -- Michele Bachmann’s reparative therapy wielding husband who “straightens out” homosexual youth- ought to be classified as gay based on the “way he looks” and “the sound of his voice.”(Ironic…Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “the road to progress is rarely straight.”) What seems most troubling about the large-scale media investigation into Marcus Bachmann’s sexuality isn’t the liability it may or may not pose to the presidential aspirations of his wife, but rather the type of atavistic pseudoscientific assumptions lurking just behind the laughter and levity.
It is unsurprising, for example, but no less egregious that a puberty plagued eighth grade boy living in a homophobic world would classify a fellow male classmate as gay based on a lisp, feminine gait, or perceived flamboyance, but reading and watching an ostensibly progressive adult like Dan Savage do it in 2011 with such lavish contempt is nothing less than odious. Throughout his article Savage appeals to the same retrograde assumptions that once undergirded the pseudoscience of 18th and 19th century physiognomists. As Slate columnist, William Saletan, recently wrote, “the new queer-hunters are progressive. They detect homosexuality based on science, not stereotypes.” If this sort of reasoning constitutes science, then bring me copper and I’ll turn it to gold.
Physiognomy was the once scientifically validated practice of determining an individual's character, aptitudes, disposition, and sexual preferences through an examination of one’s face. Physiognomy became a popular “science” in the late 18th century on account of the published works of Swiss physiognomist Johann Lavater. Lavater was a scientist and minister who believed physical beauty was indicative of moral worth. He did not believe that physical features caused specific personality traits but rather that they had an accurate predictive value.
That 65% of participants in the first version of the Tufts University study were correctly able to identify “gayness” vis-à-vis facial characteristics in no way disqualifies it as a vestige of pseudoscience emblematic of an era ridden with forced sterilization and scientific racism (eugenics). Physiognomy is a pseudoscience quite simply because it mistakes causation for correlation, omits alternative explanations, and most importantly, because it fails the basic test of empirical falsifiability. Austrian philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper proposed that falsifiability must be the central criterion distinguishing science from nonscience. By falsifiability, Popper meant that scientific claims could be demonstrated to be incorrect if there were evidence contradicting them. Such statements as “God created the universe” may be true or false, but they are not falsifiable using scientific methods because they could never be sufficiently refuted with observable data. Similarly, the Tufts University study cannot be refuted with observable data as the experiment currently stands. Why? Faces are always already presented in social terms and it is precisely these social cues, contra anatomy, on which our evaluations are predicated. Modern markers of social difference lay predominantly in the consumptive or cultural choices that we as meaning-making beings actively choose to project or portray to the world, not the externalization of an occult interiority.
Ok, now back to plucking my eyebrows…