Monday, January 09, 2006

Toying With Theoretical Models - Part VI: The Critical Thoughts

This is part VI of a series of essays:

Part I Motivations

Part II Obvious Problems

Part III What Evidence Must Be Addressed

Part IV Towards A Layered View

Part V Beauty and the Beast

Part VI The Critical Thoughts

To this point, I've put forward a hypothetical model, and then made an effort (imperfect as it is) to examine whether the model is able to accomodate the data and claims that are available. My list is far from absolutely complete - I could spend many hours poring over data, and tossing things around with statistics. It is not my intention to "prove" something, but rather to put forward a rational model that works with respect to the data available, and does not make moral or ethical judgements about the people involved.

Like any model, there are aspects that can be - and should - be criticized. A few have come to my mind as I have written this series, and I will try to address them here.

Criticism #1: The "Core Attributes" are invisible and untestable

Not quite. I can't tell by looking a piece of ground whether there is a pool of oil underneath it either. We find those pools of oil mostly by indirect techniques such as seismic analysis - and eventually prove it by drilling a hole in the ground which we hope will provide that gusher of oil that we can put a well on top of. Even then, I will never know the precise shape of the reservoir, instead I will only be able to deduce an approximation of it.

A skilled psychoanalyst can get a sense of the form of someone's personality attributes through the various techniques of psychoanalysis that are available. Certainly, the analysis is not going to have the mathematical elegance of a geologist's analysis, but it will become reasonably complete over time. A good therapist will be able to see when a patient is 'stringing them along' or trying to manipulate things.

Psychology is still a discipline with few absolutes, and those few attempts at creating "concrete" measures have turned out to be quite limited in their accuracy and clarity. (please see my comments back here where I addressed the realities of the domain.

Criticism #2: This Opens Everything Up For Inclusion - an interest in feathers could be seen as a sexual orientation

Perhaps it does - I certainly haven't made any rules about what is "core" and what is "behaviour". To borrow from the movie "Shrek" - Ogres are like onions - made of layers. So are people - there may well be layers of behaviour wrapped around our basic personality attributes that are nearly as difficult to change. As I stated earlier, in many ways our understanding of the human mind's workings is like Galen's understanding of the human body - imperfect, and likely deeply flawed.

Nevertheless, a model that encompasses the known data reasonably is better than no model at all.

Criticism #3: Where's the data that backs this model up?

I can't give you statistical data that reinforces this, it's a model that I have derived from reading, and thought on my part. In some respects, it could form the basis for a long, happy career on my part trying to substantiate it and flesh out with empirical data.

At best, my data is anecdotal - based on what I have read and observed over the years I have been aware of such issues in life. Some of the books I have read are written by people with far more depth in the issues of psychology and psychotherapy than I have, and I take their bibliographies as a clue to what seems to be reasonable research and conclusions drawn from it.

Criticism #4: Aha! So you accept that orientation may change!

No. I accept the possibility that behaviour may change. I am much more skeptical about the underlying impetus for those behaviours. There is simply too much evidence that contradicts that precept. In particular two key areas of evidence trouble me with the assertion of orientation changing:

1) The 'failed ex-gay' issue is very troublesome. The reports from former 'ex-gay's suggest to me that for all of their efforts, some core driver brought them back to where they were.

2) The persistence of feeling that has been reported by both homosexual and heterosexual people. Whatever the roots of one's sexual orientation, it seems that once it is set, it is very unlikely to change dramatically. (Try interesting most heterosexual people in a homosexual relationship, and they get very uncomfortable, and the converse is also true overall)

These two areas in particular make me very suspicious of the claim that "change is possible". Behaviour modification, certainly, but core attribute change seems less likely. I am familiar with Spitzer's study, and the criticisms of it. Until a more objective study emerges that confirms the claims Spitzer is making, I personally remain skeptical.

Criticism #5: No Explanation of Origins

I am playing on some of what we do understand of human behavioural development, and modification of behaviour. Newton's physics didn't try to explain the origins of the world - it merely describes the observed behaviour in the world. So it is with my model.

I don't even begin to claim that I believe that we have a good understanding of the roots from which the human psyche develops. Certainly, we do understand that environment and experiences play a big role, but we don't fully understand that role yet, nor do we understand the basic behaviours that children exhibit early in life.

While no "gay gene" has been found to date, all that means is that we haven't established an understanding yet of the base development of the human psyche. The human genome is huge, and we only understand a small fraction of how it fits together, much less how it influences the brain, and the higher level functions of the brain. Among other things, hormones affect the brain, as do exercise and stimuli.

The absence of absolute data explaining human psychological development is simply that - an absence of data. In such a situation, the field is quite open to a variety of explanatory models. My guess is that the long range explanation of human psyche development will be firmly rooted in multiple disciplines - developmental psychology, biology, biochemistry and genetics - just name a few - bringing together such disparate disciplines will be a long time in coming.

The model I have presented isn't about origins, it's about trying to frame the available data in some kind of reasonable fashion.

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