A new survey about how Americans make up their minds on political issues calls into question how effective expertise and research are at influencing opinions, which could have significant implications for future LGBT advocacy.
NORC at the University of Chicago asked 1,007 people various questions about how they collect information about both consumer products and national policies and which sources they value most. This produced some interesting juxtapositions in regards to how trusting certain sources aligned with taking certain positions on various controversial issues.
In particular, those who placed a high value on expert opinions and scientific evidence were more likely to support Obamacare, marriage equality, and the belief that climate change is real. In the case of marriage equality, the effect strikingly cut across party lines. Valuing expert opinions, for example, produced an even bigger gap among Republicans than among Democrats or Independents:
This results seem to suggest that experts — and to a slightly lesser extent scientific evidence — can play a prominent role in influencing opinion on issues, at least for those who value them as sources. But this, of course, does not account for those who do not rely on such sources, nor does it account for how people make decisions with the information they have.
The survey’s findings also point to the possibility that many people might only seek out information that reinforces their own predispositions. For example, it found that when considering national issues, respondents were most likely to seek out additional information “when your gut tells you to beware.”
But then, when they encounter conflicting information, they are most likely to seek out more information, but then “go with the information that feels right.”
As Carl Bialik points out at FiveThirtyEight, “The study doesn’t tell us whether holding certain policy beliefs makes people more likely to place a premium on expertise or data, or the other way around — or whether some other trait determines both policy beliefs and prizing evidence.”
But the findings do offer some insight into ongoing debates over LGBT equality, particular transgender issues, which are still further behind in terms of public opinion.
Research on sexuality
These findings might explain why, for example, opponents of LGBT equality have increasingly attempted to produce research that they argue supports their positions. As marriage equality started making its way to the Supreme Court, there was a concerted effort to produce research in time to influence those cases that showed negative outcomes for the children of same-sex couples. It was this effort that produced Mark Regnerus’ study that, despite conservatives’ spin, infamously contained no data that actually impugned same-sex families.
But even though the marriage equality fight is essentially over, researchers like Regnerus and Paul Sullins continues to publish shoddy “studies” attempting to find negative outcomes for kids raised by same-sex couples and critiques of the decades of studies that have found the opposite. Even when a study met all the research standards Regnerus regularly insists are necessary and found positive outcomes, he rejected the results.
Likewise, there are researchers still positing the legitimacy of ex-gay therapy, though all major medical organizations have disavowed the treatment as both harmful and ineffective. One of the latest tricks is to use research on sexual fluidity — shifts in sexuality found almost exclusively in women — to challenge the notion that sexual orientation is fixed.
The appetite to revisit this dead horse was particularly evident this summer when The New Atlantis, a journal that is affiliated with anti-LGBT organizations and is not peer reviewed, published a massive report challenging the “born this way” myth, among other conclusions about LGBT people. The report cherry-picked studies that reinforced its anti-LGBT theses, but added absolutely no new information to the public debate. Nevertheless, countless conservative sites latched onto the report as “new” evidence to support their anti-LGBT predispositions.
Given the consistent trends on support for marriage equality and other issues impacting LGB people, it seems unlikely that these attempts at creating a research-based rationale for opposing gay rights has actually impacted those who value expertise and research when considering policy opinions. But these research efforts arguably came late in the public debate around issues like marriage equality. On the more nationally divisive question of transgender issues, the impact could be different.
Research on gender identity
Transgender issues have only really emerged prominently as a national issue in the past five years. The backlash was first foreshadowed by the 2012 campaign against nondiscrimination protections in Anchorage, Alaska, but it exploded in last year’s fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) and has been magnified further by North Carolina’s HB2. As a Pew survey recently found, the nation is far more divided on the question of respecting transgender identities, and conservatives are already pushing anti-trans research quite hard.
That report in The New Atlantis, for example, equally targeted transgender people. In fact, one of its co-authors, Paul McHugh, is generally one of the only “experts” on transgender issues ever referenced by anti-LGBT conservatives — probably because he’s one of the only people with the title of “Dr.” who actually takes anti-transgender positions. The other author, Paul Mayer, claimed throughout to be supportive generally of LGBT people, but revealed his own bias by opining against affirming children when they assert a nonconforming gender identity.
Like they did about sexual orientation, McHugh and Mayer argued that gender identity is not biologically fixed, again cherry-picking studies that supported their argument and ignoring studies that contradicted it. In a report that was supposed to be comprehensive, they omitted various studies that found incredibly positive results for affirming transgender children — which of course would have contradicted their warning that it could be harmful.
Their report was published mere weeks after a similar attack on transgender kids from the American College of Pediatricians (ACP), a tiny group formed for the sole and explicit purpose to advance the anti-choice and anti-LGBT biases of its members. In an extensive position paper advocating against affirming transgender children, they openly admitted that they were making an ethical argument — not a scientific one — but still attempted to claim that science supported their opinion. It doesn’t, but the report was framed in a way that might be appealing to those whose instinct is to be skeptical of kids expressing gender identities.
Both reports have been widely promoted by conservative outlets and cited in cases and political arguments over the fate of transgender people.
The other side of the coin
With the anti-trans “research” more primed to actually influence doubters who do rely on research, it’s important to highlight the forms of influence that don’t rely on science or expertise. Though changes in scientific opinion certainly impacted public opinion on homosexuality, polls have consistently shown that one of the effective impacts on people’s opinions was actually knowing a gay person.
On transgender issues, this presents an uphill battle for a number of reasons. First, though visibility and acceptance is helping reveal that the transgender community is much larger than previously thought, it’s still a significantly smaller portion of the population than the LGB community.
Moreover, transgender people, in general, may not be as visible to the people around them. Where LGB people make their identities visible through their dating lives, weddings, and the families they form, transgender people don’t necessarily do anything that is “openly” trans. Many people might thus know a trans person but not know that they know a trans person.
The recent Pew Research Center’s recent study confirmed the challenges ahead. It found that 87 percent of respondents reported knowing someone who is gay or lesbian, but only 30 percent reported knowing someone who is transgender. In both cases, knowing someone with either identity was strongly associated with taking a supportive position on issues related to that identity.
These results confirm that visibility and familiarity continue to be important factors for advancing LGBT equality. Indeed, it may even be true that people who do value expertise and research may still not be able to contextualize support for LGB or T issues if they don’t have contact with members of those communities. And this makes some amount of sense. Individuals with no way to conceptualize the impact of an issue on real people will probably be more inclined to take a more cautious position.
If nothing else, all of these surveys highlight how long the fight for LGBT acceptance still has to go. Both research and visibility have come a long way in regards to improving support for the queer community, but ensuring that all queer people can grow up, live, work, and thrive in welcoming environments is not a guarantee that can be made anytime soon.