Last month the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled against the right of a lesbian couple to adopt a child. The couple in question has been together for over 25 years and has a teenage daughter (biologically related to one of the mothers) who they have co-parented since birth. Judge Kolhoff, a practicing pastor and Supreme Court Judge in Puerto Rico, justified his ruling against the couple’s adoption by citing a scientific study that allegedly demonstrated that adoption by homosexual couples puts children at risk.
This is just one of many recent examples, both in P.R. and in the U.S. where judges justify, with seemingly scientific and logical arguments, discrimination against same sex couples. As scientists, we are appalled. When science is correctly analyzed and interpreted, it illuminates. But when there is a preconceived bias, and a study is chosen strategically to reinforce a position, it is called pseudo-science. In science, all evidence, in favor or against a given argument, should be carefully considered in an honest effort to dispel prejudice and ignorance. In pseudo-scientific arguments, evidence is conveniently selected to support a preconceived idea, while most of the facts and studies that refute the prejudice are dismissed or ignored.
The use of pseudo-scientific arguments to justify ideological, corporate, or political agendas is nothing new. In the sixties, studies sponsored by cigarette companies “showed” that cigarettes did not cause cancer. They achieved these misleading results by designing flawed samplings that increased the chances of reaching the desired conclusions. Cigarette companies themselves where often the funders of these flawed studies.
Flawed sampling is precisely one of the main criticisms received by the “New Family Structures Study,” cited by judge Kolhoff. This study compared the children of traditional marriages to children of couples in which one of the parents had a same-sex relationship at a given point. One parent having a same-sex relationship at a given point in their life is not the same as a stable homosexual couple. Over 150 scholars decried the study’s bad design and misleading conclusions. Incidentally, this study received financing by organizations with ties to anti-gay marriage groups. Kolhoff’s use of this study alone, ignoring other studies that arrive at opposite conclusions, lent false scientific rigor to his opinion and is an example of misusing science to support a bias.
Science has its place in the social dialogue, and when done correctly it can help us arrive at informed opinions and policies. But scientific terminology can also be misused, intentionally or unintentionally, in an attempt to provide a logical grounding to a prejudice. Both in the U.S. and in P.R., conservative groups condemn homosexual unions by the argument that they are “unnatural” (in Puerto Rico and many other countries, the term is contra-natura). This position assumes that there is a natural order to things and that homosexuality goes against that natural order. This assumption, and its link to science, resurfaced this last month in Puerto Rico when religious leaders posited that our nature is “to be heterosexual beings.” “If not,” bishop Daniel Fernández Torres went on to speculate, “why didn’t we evolve as asexual animals, such as starfish?”
The contra-natura argument is without scientific merit. Nature is an amoral entity. One can find maternal love in nature, but also infanticide. One can find monogamy in nature, but also polygamy. One can find organisms that reproduce asexually, as pointed out by the religious hierarchy in Puerto Rico; but one can also find organisms that have heterosexual and homosexual encounters without the intent of reproduction. In nature, one can even find hermaphroditic organisms that bypass the need for two sexes. Nature is not governed by moral or immoral laws.
From a scientific perspective, no behavior is fundamentally unnatural. Whether a behavior is considered as moral or not depends on our historical and social context, and not on its existence in the natural realm.
As the conversation about the rights of same sex couples to adopt, wed, or protect against domestic violence, among others continues to grow in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. it would be a mistake to base our opinions, much less our laws and policies, on pseudo-scientific arguments. Instead, we should base our considerations on what we would like our national values to be, both in Puerto Rico and in the US. Values such as tolerance, respect and consideration for others, regardless of their beliefs or lifestyles, should guide our moral foundations.
Dr. Daniel Colón-Ramos is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and the Program in Cellular Neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine and is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. He tweets @dacolon.
Dr. Giovanna Guerrero is a neuroscientist and Executive Director of CienciaPR.org, a Puerto Rico-based non-profit organization that promotes scientific research and education. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect an official position of their respective institutions. She tweets @sefini.