From the Outside In

Beginnings are the most difficult moments. They lurk, threaten and implore, urging us on into uncertainty. The very possibility of a beginning can be daunting because it opens a road ahead that might prove too challenging or even too easy, which raises the prospect of beginning again. So this post is tentative, a partial map of the direction I intend to take in the near future. It carries the assumption that things will change, my focus will meander, I might get lost.

The initial aim of Greetings Earthlings! is to show up the peculiarity of the usual, the illogic of what often passes as logic. Peculiarity is an underrated attribute – we tend to normalise things that don’t fit, force compliance on them through straightened perspectives. But often enough our presumptions have little basis in fact, no logical connection to the premises whence they came.

I’m reminded of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Bill Watterson sets Calvin on one of his incisive rants:

Calvin rant

Quite often we do just let it slide. Maybe not the truly loony moments – George W Bush met his detractors mercifully early – but the little irrationalities or the small inconsistencies that accumulate day by day.

Let me give you an example, from the burgeoning economics of everything literature.

The Logic of LifeIn the first chapter of his otherwise compelling Logic of Life, Tim Harford discusses the rationality of sexual orientation and how it can change given sufficient incentive. In particular he describes fellow economist Andrew Francis’ work on how the male and female relatives of gay men with AIDS are less likely to have sex with men (the Freakanomics blog covered the study in 2005 if you would like a wider perspective on it). Francis doesn’t claim that all relatives do this, just enough to make it worthwhile commenting on.

Leaving aside instant lesbians on the margins, in tracing Francis’ puzzlement at this state of affairs Harford writes that:

if anything genetic theories suggest that people with gay relatives should be more likely to be gay, not less.

WHAT? Hello? Which theories would they be Tim? The ‘gay uncle’ theory? What else? Clearly Harford isn’t propounding these ‘theories’, but he does suggest they exist, and his passing mention implies that they are written into the framework of our collective knowledge about genetics and homosexuality.

Francis wrote the paper Harford comments on in 2005. What he actually claims (on page 5) is:

Studying the sexual orientation of twins, some researchers maintain that male homosexuality has a genetic basis (Bailey and Pillard 1991, Kallmann 1952, Kendler et al. 2000, Pillard and Weinrich 1986, Whitam et al. 1993). If anything, having a relative with AIDS makes it more, not less, likely a male respondent is homosexual . . .

So a specific twin becomes a generic relative, and where Francis comments on AIDS, Harford changes the focus to homosexuality. In a similar paper written last year, Francis modifies his claim to this (on page 6):

Genetic studies report that the rate of homosexuality is greater among men who have a male homosexual relative (Bailey and Pillard 1991, Hamer et al. 1993, Pillard and Weinrich 1986). Men who have a male homosexual relative may be over three times more likely to be homosexual than the general population (Hamer et al. 1993).

A slightly different focus, but still discussing empirical findings and moving on to a touch of speculation (“may be over . . .”). There are no theories in sight; no hypothesis has been described or implied, no chain of logic has linked a specific genetic sequence to gay nephews or cousins (or, as the case may be, gay cousins gone straight).

So where did the notion that Francis commented on genetic ‘theories’ come from? Tim Harford might know, but maybe he doesn’t. As Calvin might say, maybe he just wasn’t aware that he changed something fairly straightforward into something preposterous.

So that’s the starting point, looking from the outside in at a small moment of presumptive ‘looniness’.

It’s a puzzling world.

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