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An open letter to Chibuihem Amalaha

Thu, 2013-09-26 01:59

Dear Chibuihem,


I'm sure this has not been the best week for you. I have no idea whether or not you'll actually read this, but I'm writing it because it just felt like the right thing to do.


I read your interview, where you describe that you have "proven with science that gay marriage is improper", with a fair amount of dismay. I decided, instead of greeting the article with derision and ridicule, which has, unfortunately, been the prevalent reaction, to give you a bit of un-asked-for advice. I tend not to do this sort of thing, really (ask my friends.) But I seem compelled to, so I will.


You say you want to be the first African to win a Nobel Prize in science. That's quite an ambition, and a laudable one. And one that will take a prodigious amount of work and drive, and you seem to be on the way, at least in that department. But in the science department... not so much. Let me tell you a little bit about science, and, more particularly, since you seem to be focused on homosexual behavior and gay marriage, a little bit about the science of sexuality. I have a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, if you're wondering about my ability to tell you about science.


Science is really more about asking questions, not "proving" already fully-formed ideas, like whether gay marriage is "proper". Scientists observe, measure, and form hypotheses, which are then tested. A hypothesis or theory  is proven after a long while of many scientists working together over years. Asking whether gay marriage is "proper" using science is not appropriate. What is proper, anyway, in scientific terms? What does that actually mean? And marriage is a human construction, not a biological phenomenon.


If you are going to scientifically compare something, you need to use things that are, in some intrinsic way, similar. For instance, scientists often study the brains of rats to get clues to how human brains work. Those are somewhat similar things (They are, actually quite different, but similar enough to give clues and directions.) It doesn't make sense to use what goes on inside a tree for instance, to figure out what happens in our brains. They aren't alike enough. Even though trees have cells, like brains have cells, they are too different to really make any reasonable conclusions about the human brain based on the characteristics of a tree. You might well compare a maple tree to an oak tree. 


You've gone even further than the tree-brain comparison. You are comparing human behavior, which very complexly influenced by biology, genetics, social context, and experience to ... a magnet? And acids and bases? Um, no. No can do. That isn't science. They share very little in common. Sure human cells have chemical reactions - that's an essential part of life. And some cells respond to magnetic charge (pigeons are thought to navigate using magnetic fields.)


So what would be similar? What would be a reasonable kind of comparison to make to human behavior? Well, how about the behavior of the primate genetically closest to us? Do you think that might make a reasonable comparison? Some people don't, and most of those reasons are, frankly, colored by social bias. That's the other thing about science. It is imperative (although very often ignored) that scientists look closely at their own social location and bias, and make sure that it isn't influencing the questions they ask, and the conclusions they draw. There have actually been many studies (one particular, relatively well-known example is actually in the realm of primate behavior,) where people went back to look at old studies and old conclusions, and found that they were badly influenced by the social biases that the original scientists had.


So what about those Bonobo chimpanzees, our closest cousins? You'd blush to read studies of their sexual behavior.  In fact, let's just talk about sexual behavior of all animals. Know what? Homosexual behavior, from the occasional dalliance, to the lifetime pair-bonding, is found in 1,500 species of animals. That's a whole lot. I think it's kinda safe to say that at least when it comes to the behavior of the animal kingdom, homosexual behavior is indeed natural, given how often it occurs.


So here's the real advice: stop. Think about what you really want in your life. Do you really want to be a scientist? If you really want to be a scientist, then, get yourself a boatload of books by people like Stephen J. Gould, Carl Sagan, Neil Degrass-Tyson, Diane Fossey, Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose and Jane Goodall. Really. I'll even buy some for you, if you can't afford them.


And, let's get personal. Why is this such an important issue for you? Are you trying to prove something to yourself, after all? Have a look at that, will you? It will be fine. Really, it will be. You are loved exactly as you are.


Best Wishes,


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