Bil Browning

Kinsey & Statistics

Filed By Bil Browning | October 29, 2005 8:01 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, The Movement
Tags: Alfred Kinsey, LGBT history, sexual orientation

When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science.
                       -- William Thomson, Lord Kelvin
That's not the only ****** [stupid] thing he ever said.
               -- Jean Milo

A couple of days ago, I saw a broadcast about Alfred Kinsey on American Experience on PBS. I did not know much about Kinsey beyond the headline facts of his career and a sense that there was more to the controversy he engendered than mere bigoted rejection of unwelcome knowledge.

Two related things stood out for me in the film: First the description of his vast collection of gall wasps (tens of thousands, painstakingly collected and individually studied) and its importance in impressing on him that each was different from all the others in significant ways: no two were alike and the differences were not merely cosmetic. The understanding that individuals (members of a class) are varied and that the class (or species, or category) is a collection of varied individuals that we choose to recognize by characteristics they have in common, rather than a collection of imperfect examples of an ideal type decreed by something beyond our control, has been the foundation of human progress since the middle of the XVIII century. Our country was founded on that revolutionary understanding, still revolutionary today, and Darwin created the scientific field of biology based on the same principle. Those two beginnings have enabled, in their various ways, the entire world we live in, including most of the quality of life we enjoy and almost all of the ideas. The principle is essential to understanding that world.

I do not find fault with Kinsey because it took him years of collecting to reach this understanding that others had attained before him. I doubt that he got very far in his studies in biology without being told about it. His collecting _impressed_ him with the reality of it; an impression that many people, even scientists, lack today.

The second thing that caught my attention was, when McCarthite criticism started to threaten the Rockefeller Foundation who funded his research, the foundation sent a team to Bloomington to validate his methodology. According to the film, the sticking point was that the team insisted that Kinsey use a "scientifically valid" statistical sample (of 400 individuals) to map the sexual activities of Americans. Kinsey was confident that of 400 randomly selected Americans of his day, most would refuse to discuss their sex lives with a stranger and that from refusal to refusal he would end up with a pitifully small, scientifically invalid, sample that would add little to his understanding. He could not agree with the terms the team insisted on and he lost his funding.

But there is another problem with the sampling method (valuable as it can be in some cases). As with other academic practices of our day, statistical sampling slots individuals into predetermined categories. I am sure that you have all had the expereince of participating in a survey and finding yourself faced with a choice of responses that made you think to yourself "NO! None of those describes my case." In contrast, Kinsey's broad-based approach, thousands of interviews with every person he could get to talk, asking them every question he could think of, did not ensure statistical accuracy; statistical accuracy in reporting sexual behavior in humans is impossible still today becuase people lie. Fewer lie or refuse to answer questions about their sex lives than you might expect, but lie enough of them do and there is nothing we can do about it, except either give up trying to understand a crucial aspect of our existence or accept that we can learn things, if we abandon the requirement to determine percentages accurately. In this case, as in many others, statistical accuracy can be incompatible with greater understanding.

By slotting individuals in to predetermined categories, we inevitably lose the sense that Kinsey gained from his myriads of gall wasps: his knowledge of the essential, inherent, variety of life. There exist statistical techniques that seem to extract the categories from the data, but they  merely remove the predetermination up a level or two, up my sleve, so to speak; the experimenter predetermines the category of categories he is looking for, or the characteristics that can determine categories. Such characteristics are another way of predetermining categories: if we include a variable for "handedness" we predetermine categories of "left-handed", "right-handed" and "ambidextrous".

Statistics are valuable in many ways, and they are cheaper than exhaustive studies, but they contain errors that the public, at least, is prone to overlook, and they do not broaden our knowledge of what is possible; if anything they restrict it artifically. Breadth of knowledge, how many people you know, how many books you have actually read from the beginning to the end, how many places you have visited, how many experiences you have had, is the best source of understanding.

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Lord Kelvin may have been correct in that while one may draw from experience to create their understanding, they cannot share that understanding with others. And indeed, it is not science if the exact same idea cannot be passed from person to person.

Regardless, I do admire Kinsey's work.

Of course they can share understanding. The only way to share it is to tell your story. Numbers only convey information in the context of a story. Often much of that story is contained in accepted conventions and, thus not explicitly repeated in every narrative, but numbers, in themselves, clearly mean nothing whatsoever, while stories without numbers still do have meaning.

Science, as opposed to mathematics, is not "exact". The ideas, concepts, of science are usually well-defined, but often misunderstood; and "well-defined" does not mean "self-explanatory, or even "exact". A "repeatable experiment" needs only be repeatable with respect to selected variables and only to a conventional degree, not "exactly"; what Kinsey observed was that the "gall wasp experiment" when repeated hundreds of thousands of times, was never "exact". That is why scientific "facts", numbers, if you will, are so dangerous, or ludicrous, in the hands of people who do not understand the concepts.

The use of numbers in science since the XIXth century has allowed inconceivable progress in understanding and exploiting our environment, Our lives are longer, healthier and richer because of it, but while it is folly to ignore or misuse science, it is equally dangerous to create from it a graven image.