2012 Election | Books | North Carolina | Republican Party | Science

Why Republicans Believe Anti-Gay Pseudoscience



On May 8, North Carolinians will vote on a constitutional amendment that defines a marriage between a man and a woman as the “only domestic legal union” the state will recognize -- thereby barring LGBT marriage equality. The amendment would also ban civil unions, and end domestic partner benefits, like prescription drug and health care coverage, for the partners and children of public employees. At its deepest level, this issue is about fairness for everyone under the law. But less mentioned is that it is also about science, and what’s factually true.

Mooney-bookMany voters who go to the polls to support Amendment One will do so believing outright falsehoods about same-sex marriages and civil unions. In particular, they hold the belief that such partnerships are damaging to the health and well-being of the children raised in them. That is, after all, one of the chief justifications for the amendment.

According to the pro-Amendment One Vote for Marriage NC, for instance, “the overwhelming body of social science evidence establishes that children do best when raised by their married mother and father.” If marriage is defined as anything other than the union between man and woman, the group adds, we will see “a higher incidence of all the documented social ills associated with children being raised in a home without their married biological parents.”

“Overwhelming body of social science evidence”? “Documented social ills”? Is this really true? Are same sex marriages and civil unions bad for kids?

Well, no. Indeed, as I report in my new book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality, the claim that the kids won’t be all right in same sex marriages or partnerships now rates up there with a number of other hoary old falsehoods about homosexuality: the assertion that people can “choose” whether to be gay; the notion that homosexuality is a type of disorder; and the wrong idea that it can be cured through “reparative” therapy. All of these claims are explicitly disavowed by the American Psychological Association (APA).

In a moment, I want to explore the underlying psychology behind how conservatives, especially religious ones, can believe such falsehoods. But first, let’s dismantle, on a substantive level, the idea that research shows that kids fare worse when raised by two parents who are of the same gender.

According to the APA, the relevant science shows nothing of the kind. “Beliefs that lesbian and gay adults are not fit parents…have no empirical foundation,” concludes a recent publication from the organization. To the contrary, the association states, the “development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents.”

So how can Christian conservatives possibly claim otherwise?


Well, one favored approach is literally citing the wrong studies. There is, after all, a vast amount of research on kids in heterosexual two parent families, and mostly these kids do quite well—certainly better than kids in single-parent families (for obvious reasons). Christian conservatives then cite these studies to argue that heterosexual families are best for kids, but there’s just one glaring problem. In the studies of heterosexual two-parent families where children fare well, the comparison group is families with one mother or one father—not two mothers or two fathers. So to leap from these studies to conclusions about same sex parenting, explains University of Virginia social scientist Charlotte Patterson, is “what we call in the trade bad sampling techniques.”

But wait: Don’t Christian conservatives want to be factually right, and to believe what’s true about the world? And shouldn’t a proper reading of this research actually come as a relief to them, and help to assuage their concerns about dangerous social consequences of same-sex marriage or civil unions? If only it were that simple. We all want to be right, and to believe that our views are based on the best available information. But in this case, Christian conservatives utterly fail to get past their emotions, which powerfully bias their reasoning. Indeed, science doesn’t just demonstrate that the kids are all right in same-sex unions. It also shows how and why some people reason poorly in highly politicized cases like this one -- and, in the case of the anti-gay views of Christian conservatives, rely on their gut emotions to come up with wrong beliefs. Here’s how it works.

There are a small number of Christian right researchers and intellectuals who have tried to make a scientific case against same-sex marriages and unions, by citing alleged harms to children. This stuff isn’t mainstream or scientifically accepted -- witness the APA’s statements on the matter. But from the perspective of the Christian right, that doesn’t really matter. When people are looking for evidence to support their deeply held views, the science suggests that people engage in “motivated reasoning.” Their deep emotional convictions guide the retrieval of self-supporting information that they then use to argue with, to prop themselves up. It isn’t about truth, it’s about feeling that you’re right -- righteous, even.

And where, in turn, do these emotions come from? Well, there’s the crux. A growing body of research shows that liberals and conservatives, on average, have different moral intuitions, impulses that bias us in different directions before we’re even consciously thinking about situations or issues. Indeed, this research suggests that liberals and conservatives even have different bodily responses to stimuli, of a sort that they cannot control. And one of the strongest areas of difference involves one’s sensitivity to the feeling of disgust.

A recent study, for instance, found that “individuals with marked involuntary physiological responses to disgusting images, such as of a man eating a large mouthful of writhing worms, are more likely to self-identify as conservative and, especially, to oppose gay marriage than are individuals with more muted physiological responses to the same images.” In other words, there’s now data to back up what we’ve always kind of known: The average conservative, much more than the average liberal, is having visceral feelings of disgust towards same-sex marriage. And then, when these conservatives try to consciously reason about the matter, they seize on any information to support or justify their deep-seated and uncontrolled response -- which pushes them in the direction of believing and embracing information that appears to justify and ratify the emotional impulse.

And voila. Suddenly same-sex marriages and civil unions are bad for kids. How’s that for the power of human reason?

All people engage in emotion-guided or motivated reasoning, to be sure. But mounting evidence suggests that left and right may do so differently. And they definitely do so for different reasons -- as the present case so strongly demonstrates.

Does this mean we should be more tolerant of the intolerant, or less disgusted by those who may consider us disgusting? Maybe. After all, people may not have much control over these impulses. They may not even be aware of them. At the very least, such knowledge should increase our level of understanding of those who disagree with us.

In the end, however, facts are facts -- and emotions and gut instincts are an utterly unreliable way of identifying them. We can try to be understanding of people different from us -- even when they’re manifestly failing at the same task. But the latest research makes it more untenable than ever to base public policy on gut-driven misinformation.

MooneyThe Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality is the latest release (Wiley, April 2012) from author Chris Mooney who penned the 2005 New York Times bestseller The Republican War on Science. He also hosts the "Point of Inquiry" podcast and writes the "Intersection" blog for Science Progress. In the past he has written for Mother Jones, American Prospect, Harper’s, Washington Post, USA Today, and Slate, among other publications.

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  1. I think it also has to do with the "blind faith" that these people take part in. They are more easily swayed to believe in the unseen, the unproved and the untrue. Critical thinking is actually considered a sin to these people.

    Posted by: victor | May 2, 2012 6:33:02 PM

  2. Short version of this article:

    Religious fundamentalist right-wingers should not have a vote; they should have heavy anti-psychotic medication and around-the-clock nurse supervision, preferably away from society and children.

    Sounds like paradise to me...!

    Posted by: One of the CA 36,000 | May 2, 2012 6:39:55 PM

  3. What do you expect? These idiots can't even recognize their own stupidity in the face of their blind faith and willingness to be manipulated by a bunch of shamanistic charlatans pushing mythology and fairy tales as objective truths. Of course they're too stupid to actually understand science or listen to reason.

    Willful stupidity is a disease and the only way to prevent it is to stop those who spread it.

    Posted by: atomic | May 2, 2012 6:45:56 PM

  4. A lot of those people believe that the earth is only 6000 years old. If they're ignorant enough to believe that, I hardly think they are capable of wrapping their brains around the subtleties of human sexuality.

    Posted by: Not that Rob | May 2, 2012 6:55:15 PM

  5. Get your rosaries off my ovaries.

    Posted by: MaryMotherOfChrist | May 2, 2012 7:10:10 PM

  6. As a Christian, some of these comments are insultive and ignorant and I agree with some. As one who works in the mental health field, studies actually show that children do best when raised by two loving parents that live together regardless of gender. That book is such a lie!!!

    Posted by: Snoopy | May 2, 2012 7:14:06 PM

  7. @Victor, that's my thinking, too. Indeed, I suspect that conservatives (especially the religious variety) have a cognitive disability that impairs their critical thinking. Since they can't weigh facts and evidence, I think they compensate by placing their faith in authority figures. Authority serves as a proxy for corroboration. In other words, critical thinkers decide what to believe by looking for independent facts that corroborate one idea or another. Conservative thinkers can't do this, so they decide what to believe by listening to figures who have won the most trust among their circle of peers. In the conservative mind, the web of trust that elevates people to positions of authority also "corroborates" their beliefs.

    Posted by: JJ | May 2, 2012 7:21:53 PM

  8. it's the argument i've been making for years about the religious conservatives.


    at least i can believe you when you say that. all that nonsense about "adam & eve", "the most important foundation of our society", "bad for children", etc.-it's all just a bunch of crap to mask their disgust about us.

    it doesn't make me particularly happy that our relationships are repellant to those people but at least if they'd just admit it, it sounds a lot more believable about where they're coming from.

    Posted by: alguien | May 2, 2012 7:23:51 PM

  9. @Snoopy, but as a Christian, do you believe those studies because you've found them to be logically sound, or because you trust their source?

    Posted by: JJ | May 2, 2012 7:30:01 PM

  10. @ JJ. I both trust the sources, but do not remember where I found them as it was for my own personal use and defense of my view point. They are also logically sound to me and what I have experienced as a social worker.

    Posted by: Snoopy | May 2, 2012 7:36:59 PM

  11. There is research where the results have found that there is a correlation between I.Q. and those who are dogmatic. Those who are dogmatic and think in terms of good/bad have a lower I.Q. Now, I don't want to read anything into this as there needs to be more research, but.... there is also a correlation between empathy and wealth. Those who are wealthier are less empathic.

    Posted by: Snoopy | May 2, 2012 8:19:40 PM

  12. Trust the research? It's research. All of which has been proven or disproven, found accurate, or debunked over time. We are talking about lives now. Why should gays assume that children must be a part of their union? Having children may satisfy what "You" and "Yours" wanted, just as you wanted to get "legally married." So - children. Other lives, impacted for good or bad. Who's to know, we see examples in hetero famalies. It's worth the risk, because it's what "You" want? Can you ask a baby what they would prefer? "My gay parents are divorced" -- sounds so 2021.

    Posted by: Edward | May 2, 2012 8:22:55 PM

  13. Someone please send a copy of this book to Ann Coulter.

    Posted by: David | May 2, 2012 8:38:58 PM

  14. @ Edward. No one is saying that it is assumed that gay couples must have children in their union. The study included children in all types of situations and those that did the best were those in a loving two parent homes regardless of gender and marriage status. And, no one says that a child gets to decide at birth what they prefer. By the way, I am a heterosexual Christian female.

    Posted by: Snoopy | May 2, 2012 8:40:48 PM

  15. @Edward: "Why should gays assume that children must be a part of their union?"

    Indeed. Why should anyone assume that? And as long as we're not assuming that children are part of the union, you should have no objection--for the children's sake--to gays marrying, right?

    Posted by: JJ | May 2, 2012 8:47:23 PM

  16. Jumpin Jaysus and Hairy Mary - Chris Mooney is a contributor to towleroad?

    Posted by: melvin | May 2, 2012 9:09:56 PM

  17. Should we tolerate the intolerant? Hardly. Just because conservatives seem to be more driven by disgust, doesn't mean that this is an immutable trait. Perhaps this suggests some aversion reduction therapy....disgust conservatives until they see us as less disgusting. Loving it....experimental support for a "freak out the straights" approach.

    Posted by: Dylan | May 2, 2012 9:45:59 PM

  18. All of this points to the need for education, first and foremost, because if Republican-born children are genetically more likely to viscerally feel disgust, then we need to spend more time in school or at home shifting the default cultural attachments of what's repulsive/untouchable away from homosexuality.

    Tall order, I know.

    But if we're going to fix the impaired reasoning issue in the long term, we have to stop it before it starts. That means we have to accept that humans have varying levels of disgust-belief attachments and that we can't reason these feelings away from people. We can only enculturate such that things like interracial marriage, homosexuality, and the like are never associated with disgust.

    Posted by: Naomi Most | May 2, 2012 9:56:25 PM

  19. When you believe the bible that tells you the world is about 6000 years old, you can't believe in real science.

    Posted by: jack | May 2, 2012 10:11:13 PM

  20. I can't put children's lives in the hands of a study. I'm thinking more about children growing into adults. The odds are not in their favor. You're ignoring societal pressures, bullies, self-image and possible resentment of you from childhood. Is marriage the green light to adoption? Many are doing backflips to satisfy their own desires. I think some are using equality to replicate the heterosexual world they were denied, and felt cheated out of -- kids be damned - or damaged? Did they sign up for a life defending and validating YOU?
    If only real life were "Glee" episode.

    Posted by: Edward | May 2, 2012 11:13:54 PM

  21. Edward, outside of your box society is slowly changing and becoming more accepting. There have already been studies done -- long term studies -- on children raised in same sex homes. Maybe you'd do well to google or youtube Zach Wahls.

    By your logic, interracial hetero couples shouldn't be able to procreate.

    I have a friend who is a seven-foot-tall black man, married to a 4.5 foot tall dwarf who is white. They have two children together, one has dwarfism, one does not. Should they not be happy? Should they not have had children because of what society would think, or how they might react?

    Having children, gay or straight, is one of the most selfish things a person can do on this planet. Beautiful and amazing, but selfish. Gay couples can choose to have children or not have children, however, just like hetero couples can.

    There's no agenda, there's no attempt to satisfy some "denied heterosexual world." Some people want kids, some don't. Sexuality isn't a factor to prospective parents, just the world around them. Whose attitude really needs to change here?

    Posted by: antisaint | May 2, 2012 11:57:56 PM

  22. Recent articles about Zach Walhs contain comments from his high school stating a lot of lies and misconceptions he has represented as facts. I would reprint them but are not my words. He's milking the two Mom experience, and thinking to become some kind of role model. Who cares? I have no problem with interracial couples. They are men and women. Gay couples can "choose" invetro or someone else's children. It's not the free easy breezy experience you make it seem. My attitude is the same. Someone posting a comment doesn't phase me. If you think the world is changing check out the gay Romney staffer who was driven out by Christianists. It's still 50/50 on the acceptance front. If you have no heterosexual aspirations, why do you want to mimic them in marriage? Oh, and my "box" society is called Los Angeles.

    Posted by: Edward | May 3, 2012 1:30:27 AM

  23. EDWARD - gay people make wonderful parents. They try harder. That's what studies show. Also, gay parents often become parents in "straight" relationships, so there's that. But studies, based on science, don't phase you. You have an opinion, and that's all that matters.

    So here's a story. I volunteered as a classroom aide when I was in college a few years back. In that third grade class was a terrific girl whose family's religion forbade the celebration of holidays. A pretty tough situation, when the others dress up for Halloween and participate in a school-wide costume parade. Yet the teacher was so cool. Every time a holiday came up, and that girl was excused from activities, she would, in the most off-hand manner, casually mention that X needed to leave, and it was no big deal, because people are different, and that's okay. And not one kid batted an eye.

    Different is okay. It's no big deal. it doesn't harm anything. Gay people, if they parent, can be just as good as any straight parent. Gay people don't have to be parents, any more than straight people have to be in order to marry. But if Gay people choose to parent through active intervention, or by honoring their responsibility to parent because they produced offspring during any relationship, they deserve the same respect and support afforded their straight counterparts.

    Posted by: TJ | May 3, 2012 2:19:05 AM

  24. I read Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science" and it was excellent. I'll certainly be picking this up!

    Posted by: Bill S. | May 3, 2012 3:21:49 AM

  25. Well, if you'll believe in God, you'll believe in anything really. Who needs evidence?

    Posted by: chad | May 3, 2012 9:05:59 AM

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