Paul Cameron and the Authority of Science
March 21, 2006
There was a time when religion was the sole source for western society’s understanding of sexuality. Sexual norms were literally taken as a matter of faith, whether that faith was in God, natural law or both. This monopoly remained unchalleneged until the end of the nineteenth century, when the newly-emerging social sciences began to get into the act.
Since then, science has worked very hard to present itself as a values-neutral discipline, offering explanations based purely on empirical evidence rather than having to believe in an unseen God. With science, it was no longer necessary to belive in that which cannot be seen. Science carried with it a new weight of authority, an authority of measurements and observation. This authority of science implies a promise of perfect impartiality, untainted by the prejudices of theology, race, gender, politics, or any other “non-scientific” way of thinking. In other words, scientific facts presumably speak for themselves, free from all biases or malice.
Too often however, some have take science’s promise of impartiality to believe that science can determine right from wrong. Unfortunately, it has never been able to do that. These questions will forever remain in the realms of law, philosophy and religion. But that doesn’t keep moral leaders from turning to science to try to validate their positions. And as long as they can use scientific data to support their opinions of controversial topics (like sexuality), then their arguments take on a new source of authority — the authority of impartial science.
The Authority of Science
Paul Cameron, chair of the Family Research Institute has been a pioneer in turning to science to support conservative religious arguments against homosexuaity. Using his skills as a research psychologist, he has written dozens of articles for professional journals, as well as several books and brochures in which he offers the “scientific” case against gay rights. His work has been very popular among anti-gay activists, who are eager to paint their arguments in scientific rather than religious terms.
Paul Cameron’s Professional Reputation
While Paul Cameron is popular among many anti-gay activists for his scientific credentials, his social science peers aren’t so entheusiastic. You can learn more about his professional difficulties in Paul Cameron vs. Professional Ethics.”
Despite having written more than three dozen articles in professional journals about homosexuality, Dr. Cameron’s target audience isn’t social scientists. (In fact, he’s been expelled or censured by several professional organizations, and his articles have mostly appeared in low-ranked journals with little impact among other professional researchers and clinicians.1) His real audience consists mainly of other anti-gay extremists who rely on his findings, “facts” which are bolstered by his bragging rights of being a published academic. These bragging rights can be very pursuasive, not only among other anti-gay activists but with the general public at large.2
Dr. Thomas Landess, a former English professor and Dean of the School of Education at the Jesuit-affiliated University of Dallas, perfectly illustrates the importance that the “authority of science” plays in Paul Cameron’s anti-gay writings:
He has published more genuine scholarship in refereed professional journals than anyone on the planet earth. In fact, he stands alone among conservatives in this respect. Most of the material produced by other pro-family groups and individuals — however well-intentioned — is ill-researched and poorly presented… As a consequence no one has ever disproved what he has written…
Paul Cameron and FRI have fought this fight well, not only in the research they’ve conducted, but in personal appearances before school boards. In Fairfax County, Virginia, when concerned parents were being battered by school board members and the gay sex educator they had hired, Paul came before the board with the only kind of authority that will ever intimidate these people — the authority of science.3
Of course, Dr. Landess is mistaken on at least two points. First, almost none of the of Dr. Cameron’s articles have appeared in “rigorously refereed” journals. And to say that “no one has ever disproved what he has written” is to ignore the chorus of criticisms from other professionals. But that doesn’t much matter to his supporters. What does matter is that when they use his data, they can say that it came from a scientist and that it was published in a journal.
Dr. Cameron’s greatest influence in anti-gay politics doesn’t come from his journal articles; they only serve to burnish his credentails. His greater influence comes from personal appearances before school boards, legislatures and council meetings. It also come from a series of brochures published in various forms over the past twenty-five years. One brochure in particular, Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do, is his most influential work to date — and it is probably the single most influential pamphlet in the entire anti-gay arsenal. It was first debuted sometime in the early 1980’s, and has been little-changed since then.
A Critical Examination of Medical Consequences
Few have the time and energy to examine each of the “facts” contained in Paul Cameron’s famous brochure. But we did exactly that, and you can see the results in “Point By Point: A Look At Paul Cameron’s Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do.”
While Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do was written for a general audience, it gains its “authority of science” from the more than 130 statistics accompanied by thirty-three footnotes, many of which cite well-known and highly respected medical journals. With this impressive firepower, Medical Consequences has served as a sort of “document zero” for many of the most common statistical allegations levied against gays and lesbians. Unfortunately, few are able to take the time and effort to go through all of those footnotes. If they did, they would learn that virtually all of the “facts” in Medical Consequences are actually worthless. But that doesn’t prevent it from being accepted as legitimate “science” among anti-gay activists.
A Case Study
Stephen Bansford, media advisor for Colorado for Family Values (CFV), provides a clear illustration of how effective Dr. Cameron’s “authority of science” can be. CFV spearheaded the 1992 campaign for Colorado’s Amendment 2 to prohibit anti-discrimination laws on the basis of sexual orientation. Mr. Bransford describes the importance of Medical Consequences this way:
“The simple facts of the Medical Consequences research were overwhelming, covering the incredible numbers of partners both male and female homosexuals average per year. Though the numbers had diminished under the threat of AIDS they remained shockingly high, far above any comparable heterosexual average…
“Facts like these don’t hate, they just are,” Tony [Marco] had said… And so the media committee of Colorado for Family Values met to consider Dr. Cameron’s brochure, Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do. They thought they could light a fire under their own network of supporters by distributing 100,000 of these informative publications through the mail, and through petition volunteers.4
Medical Consequencesmay have helped to light just such a fire. Amendment 2 passed, although it has since been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tony Marco’s observation that “facts don’t hate” offers a very keen insight. Religious figures have often been accused of hatred (sometimes unfairly) in their pronouncements against homosexuality. But if facts can’t hate, then why not just present these “facts” and leave religion completely out of the discussion? Some activists have chosen to do exactly that.
In 1996, the Dorchester County (S.C.) council met to consider a resolution denouncing homosexuality as incompatible with community standards. Susan Payne of Summerville, S.C. was selected to speak before the council in favor of the resolution. Before the meeting, she passed out copies of Medical Consequences in the lobby along with white ribbons that she said symbolized virtue and purity. The monthly newsmagazine The Point reported that she had been coached, saying, “They told me to talk about disease, and not to say too much about the Bible and religion.” She would not say who “they” were.5
While Medical Consequences has been tremendously influential, some of the most ardent opponents of gay rights are starting to question Dr. Cameron’s tactics, if not his credibility. Bishop Joseph Adamec of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese in western Pennsylvania ordered the Rev. John Nesbella of the Prince of Peace parish in North Cambria to stop distributing Medical Consequences in December of 2003.6
This is significant — the Roman Catholic Church is hardly a friendly force for gay-rights. In fact, Sister Mary Parks, the spokesperson for the bishop reiterated that the diocese is in “complete agreement about the sanctity of marriage” with Father Nesbella. But because the pamphlet “borders on the pornographic” she said that the bishop could not support Father Nesbella’s methods, saying, “The bishop was concerned that the explicit nature of the material might lead us to become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”
Science or Propaganda?
The authority of science can be severely abused, as Dr. Cameron has so thoroughly proven. But the real secret behind all of this is that his work has nothing to do with science. All you have to do is to read one of his pamphlets — his descriptions certainly don’t sound very scientific. In fact, as the Bishop Adamec pointed out, Dr. Cameron’s work has the feel of emotionally-charged propaganda, not a dispassionate review of scientific facts.
While Bishop Adamec disapproved of Dr. Cameron’s tactics, another anti-gay activist, Dr. Brian J. Kopp (Ph.D., Pastoral Ministry), was dismayed with the Bishop’s order. In an online column, he gave a ringing endorsement of the imagery which Bishop Adamec found so offensive, comparing it to the graphic images used by the anti-abortion movement:
Ultrasound views of the fetus juxtaposed with images of mutilated and discarded aborted babies are involuntarily burned into subconscious memory, changing hearts and minds… Both sides know that when the average citizen witnesses the horrific images behind the fuzzy rhetoric of “choice”, they come to oppose abortion.
Now some Christian activists are attempting to apply similar methods in the battle to protect marriage… Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do, a seven-page pamphlet by Paul Cameron… is a frank clinical discussion of the diseases and disorders attendant to homosexual behavior… Such data obviously must be readily available, widely disseminated and seriously studied.7
It’s clear then that extremists have consiously decided to engage in a two-pronged attack: 1) to present a “scientific” case against homosexuality, and 2) to present such a thoroughly disgusting image of gays and lesbians that the general public would have no choice but to be roused with anger and revulsion. Medical Conseuquences provides a perfect example of this two-pronged approach, and it has been so successful that the same formula is being replicated all across the spectrum of anti-gay politics.
Dr. Cameron presents himself as a disciplined professional while paying a “peer-reviewed journal” to publish his work. But his blatant disregard for professional ethics — not to mention the truth — harms not only his own credibility, but the credibility of those who rely on his work to bolster their opposition to homosexuality. His patina of science will never be a substitute for the real thing.
1. Herek, Gregory M. “Publication outlets used by the Cameron Group.” Web page (Undated): http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/facts_cameron_journals.html (accessed March 17, 2004).
2. Kranish, Michael. “Beliefs drive research agenda of new think tanks.” Boston Globe (July 31, 2005). Available online at http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2005/07/31/beliefs_drive_research_agenda_of_new_think_tanks/.
3. Family Research Institute. “20th Anniversary Banquet Huge Success!” Family Research Report 17, no. 5 (August-September 2002). Also available online at http://www.familyresearchinst.org/FRR_02_09.html.
6. Mandak, Joe. “Diocese tells priest to stop distributing anti-gay sex pamphlets.” Bucks County Courier Times (December 10, 2003). Also available online at http://www.phillyburbs.com/pb-dyn/news/103-12102003-211093.html.
7. Kopp, Brian J. “Exposing the Facts of Homosexuality.” Web site World Net Daily (December 13, 2003): http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=36109.