NARTH, the New Epigenetic Model and Confirmation Bias

Last week, I wrote briefly about the new paper from William Rice et al which describes an epigenetic model of homosexuality. In that post I reported a quote from National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) spokesman David Pruden regarding the study. Here is Pruden’s statement which was cited in the Christian Post:

“The theoretical model itself attributes only 10-14 percent of the factors to genetics or epigenetics. That leaves the remaining 85 percent or so of the factors to environmental influences,” said Pruden.

That assessment did not sound right to me so I contacted William Rice who informed me that his model accounted for homosexuality generally speaking, not just for “10-14 percent.” The Christian Post rightly printed the correction at the end of the article.

So where did the 10-14 percent figure come from? According to an email from Pruden, that range came from NARTH Scientific Advisory Board member, Neil Whitehead. Whitehead has speculated in the past that the maximum genetic contribution is between 10-14%. While I believe his assessment is low, he has referred to various studies to provide support. However, in the case of the new study, it appears no one at NARTH has even read the paper.

If Pruden read it, he didn’t refer to it. Rather he referred to Whitehead who yesterday placed a brief article on the NARTH website about the paper. Here is the body of Whitehead’s statement:

(A  fuller evaluation will appear here on this site: when the full paper is available)

Recently (Anonymous, 2012) a summation of a published paper (Rice, W.R., Friberg, U. Gavrilets,  2012) has  achieved attention as being an explanation for homosexuality.

Readers should note this is a theoretical model only and  that  historically many theories have been put forward as the single overriding factor  causing homosexuality.  The current best consensus is that there is no single over-riding factor – the  trait is multifactorial and overwhelmingly environmental. The Rice paper is quite unlikely to be “critical”. Like previous  theories, the current epigenetic one may well have a small contribution, but  this remains to be established. The authors themselves  note that laboratory work has yet to be done. The paper built on  previously published work (Rice, Gavrilets, & Friberg,  2008).

Apparently, Whitehead has not read the paper because he said the “full paper” was not available. On the contrary, the paper is freely available online here.

What is striking is what Whitehead says about the topic of the paper before seeing it. He says homosexuality is “overwhelmingly environmental” and opines that the current epigenetic theory is unlikely to make more than a “small contribution” to homosexuality. It appears that Pruden and Whitehead have their minds made up.

NARTH is so committed to an environmental/family model of cause that organization leaders jump to a preferred conclusion before even considering the evidence.  This is one way confirmation bias operates. In this case, NARTH representatives said things about the theory before they read or studied it, and what they said came, not from the paper, but from their preconceived ideas.


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  • William Birch

    I suppose credibility (or objectivity for that matter) is not NARTH’s top priority.

  • Jarred

    From Whitehead’s statement:

    …many theories have been put forward as the single overriding factor causing homosexuality.

    Am I the only one who thinks a certain proverb about glass houses might apply here?

  • Teresa


    Am I to understand, Warren, that most therapists (all, many, some?) belonging to NARTH adhere to the broken family model: overbearing mother, emotionally or physically absent father?

    Further, no matter the number of NARTH therapists espousing this environmental model, do these certified therapists then overlay the client with this model, no matter what the clients’ background may be?

    Also, if they’re into the environmental, why don’t they glom onto something like vaccines causing same sex attractions. I guess there’d be no business for them in that environmental model?

    Warren, why isn’t NARTH even amenable to ‘thinking’ about a significant amount of SO being nature … enough to bring great weight to any environmental condition? Is this a religious bias passing as science?

  • Jeremy Schwab

    Warren, are there any change therapies that you DO support?

  • David Hart

    Instead of testing a hypothesis they are hell bent – using selective observation – to prove a pre-ordained result. It’s not science.

    The methodology depicts a quasi-therapeutic organization that is more interested in helping themselves than others. The entire culture can be defined as “getting over.” Critics are dismissed as “homosexual advocates.” Allies include people like Mat Staver who is thoroughly unqualified to make any judgment.

  • JCF

    @ JeremyS: changing what?

  • Warren Throckmorton

    Jeremy – I do not see change therapy of any kind as having a basis in research so why would I support it? I do think some people have as an aspect of their sexual orientation the capacity for cross orientation relationships and I also think some people are more fluid than others but there is no solid basis for believing that therapy is responsible for any of that fluidity.

    But more to the point of this post, aren’t you bothered a little bit that NARTH claims to be a scientific organization in light of this post?

  • Warren Throckmorton

    PS – I also think therapy might give the client some misleading sense that inherent personality factors are alterable via mental manipulation and reframing. For instance, when a SSA male reframes his attraction to another male as being admiration or some kind of desire to be that person, a feeling of understanding can support an intermittent boost to a person’s internal locus of control. I think some people can manage their behavior better when they think they are doing something rather than nothing. However, the reason (I believe) therapy persists so long and there is need for so many weekend retreats is that repetition is needed to bolster that sense that one is altering one’s brain responses.

    I don’t think this is change of sexual orientation but I think it is managing it and if the claims were reasonable, I would not write about it as much. However, the claims from NARTH, JIM, etc., are not reasonable and are made primarily to support right wing political opposition to gay rights.

    Jeremy, remember I was in that world for about 9 years and am not speaking out of school.

  • Lynn David

    Once again NARTH jumps the shark.

  • stephen

    ‘However, the claims from NARTH, JIM, etc., are not reasonable and are made primarily to support right wing political opposition to gay rights.’

    And there you have it in a nutshell.

  • Patrocles

    I’ve just read the paper of Rice et alii.

    The base of their argument is the theory that circulating testosterone leads to a progressive masculinization of the male fetus, both of his sexual organs and his brain. They don’t discuss the brain aspect at all.

    Now, there’s a problem with this theory, namely, that the amount of testosterone can be, in an earlier stage of pregnancy, even greater when the fetus is a female. That is here explained away by the hypothesis that there may be epigenetic markers which make the male fetus more sensitive to the circulating testosterone. So far, so good.

    Now they look for the most sensationalist turn they can give to their idea. It’s well known that epi-markers can be inherited, occasionally. What would happen, if a son inherits his mother’s epi-marker? Obviously, the fetus would get rather testosterone-insensitive and would not get as masculine as normal (with the daughter, it’s the other way round, of course).

    To speculate about homosexuality we have to make even more hypothetical presuppositions. Namely, first that that the masculinization of the fetus is done in distinct stages. Secondly, that one of the last stages is: developing attraction to the female gender (= sexual orientation). (A previous stage is mostly: developing a male sexual identity, but Rice et alii prudently tell us that they don’t want to speculate about sexual identity. Why then do they think that it’s more apt to speculate about homosexuality?) None of these presuppositions is discussed in the paper, and I don’t know how far they are confirmed in tests. These presuppositions given, thirdly, for every stage of masculinization there must be a different epi-marker. (Only, the original problem they explained by epi-markers was the incongruency of testosterone amount in an earlier (!) stage of pregnancy!)

    There are holes in this bucket …

  • Patrocles

    The central question is, of course:

    Is male heterosexuality impressed on the male fetal brain by testosterone (in a later stage of fetal masculinization)?

    If that’s correct, the “epi-mark” idea is a clever way to explain male homosexuality. If not, it’s not.

    May I add that it’s a very old idea that testosterone makes men more attracted to the other sex. Only, the idea didn’t work for adult (gay) men. Meseems a bit, that scientists think: Oh it was such a nice idea, why shouldn’t it at least work for the unborn?

  • Patrocles

    By the way -

    even if male heterosexuality is impressed on the male fetal brain by testosterone, homosexuality might be explained as well by too little testosterone in the decisive stage of fetal development. This seems to have been the original explanation of Guenter Doerner. The epi-marks, even if an interesting invention, aren’t necessary for that ( they are necessary to solve Rice’s original problem).

  • Richard Willmer

    There are holes in every bucket (none of us ‘knows it all’). It’s how many holes there are in a particular bucket that is important, and the size of those holes.

    The sex of a person is determined at conception; I see no reason why it should be inadmissible that a certain group of epi-markers could have the ‘opposite’ effect on each of the sexes.

  • Zoe Brain

    Richard Willmer wrote:

    The sex of a person is determined at conception;

    Factually incorrect, I’m afraid.

    At conception, we don’ t know whether the result will be a rare kind of foetiform tumour, half a person (chimerality), one person, or two people (monozygotic twins – who in rare cases may be of opposite sexes).

    Sex is only defined much, much later. Genitally, when either wolfian or mullerian duct inhibition takes place (they may not). Neurologically, even later.

    Chromosomal makeup – usually 46XX or 46XY – biases the odds of course. But even there, if the first few cell divisions end up with a significant proportion of 45X or 47XXY, or both, an originally 46XY fertilisation can end up with a 47XXY or even 46XX individual.


    Sex Chromosome Abnormalities Found Among 34,910 Newborn Children: Results From a 13-Year Incidence Study in Århus, DenmarkJ.Nielsen and M.Wohlert in Birth Defects: Original Article Series, Volume 26, Number 4, pages 209-223

    Klinefelter syndrome was found in 1 per 596 boys, XYY in 1 per 894 boys, triple X in 1 per 1002 girls, and Turner syndrome in 1 per 2130 girls. Other sex chromosome aberrations were found in 1 per 11,637 children. The total incidence of sex chromosome abnormalities was 1 per 448 children or 2.23 per 1000.

    Karyotype Number

    47,XXY 20

    46,XY/47,XXY 7

    46,XX(male) 2

    48,XXYY 1

    47,XYY 18

    46,XY/47,XYY 2

    47,XXX 17

    45,X 1

    45,X/46,XX 2

    45,X/47,XXX 1

    45,X/46,X,r(X) 1

    45,X/46,X,inv(X)** 1

    45,X/46,X,i(Xq)/47,X,i(Xq),i(Xq) 1

    45,X,inv(9)/46,XX,inv(9) 1

    45,X/46,XY (male) 1

    46,XX/ 47,XX,del(Yq) (female) 1

    46,XX/46,XY (female) 1

    Sorry, there are a number of (pardon the atrocious pun) misonceptions about biology out there, which owe their existence to religious belief about “when life begins” rather than fact.

    The existence of such biologically anomalous people as myself rather explodes the whole Catholic “dogma of the body” that is fashionable these days, not to say the Evangelical mainstream belief about ensoulment at conception that has come into existence since 1980.

    A quote from Dr Who is apposite:

    You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.


  • Richard Willmer

    I think you missed the point of my comment, Zoe.

  • Richard Willmer

    Obviously, I am well aware of the existence of a considerable number of ‘sex’ genotypes (XX, XY, XXY, etc), and my point was that it is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the effect(s) of genetic epi-markers could differ depending on the genotype.

    Does that clarify my point, Zoe?

  • inca nitta

    [q]However, the claims from NARTH, JIM, etc., are not reasonable and are made primarily to support right wing political opposition to gay rights.[/q]

    Dr. T.

    Do you perceive NARTH’s core agenda as stripping LBGT people of all the civil/human rights that they have?

  • Zoe Brain

    Richard Wilmer – the (only)point I was trying to make is that sex is not determined either at or by conception, unless you redefine the word “sex” to encompass something out of its ordinary, everyday meaning.

    On another topic, yes, you’re correct, and to give an obvious example, the state of”activation codes” for gene sequences in epigenetics are irrelevant if the requisite gene sequences they can effect aren’t present.

  • Zoe Brain

    Inca Nitta asked of Dr T.:

    Do you perceive NARTH’s core agenda as stripping LBGT people of all the civil/human rights that they have?

    If I may answer – and I may be completely wrong – no. It’s merely a necessary pre-requisite to eradicating LBGTI people as completely as possible, in accordance with God’s will (as they perceive it). For their own good, of course.

  • Richard Willmer

    Hello Zoe

    I was using using the term ‘sex’ in the sense of ‘genotype’. Of course, I take the view that sexual identity and gender identity are much more complex matters …

    Above all, I take the line that it is the humanity of a person that is key to their human identity, and not their sex / gender / sexual identity / gender identity / sexuality. Is that radical? I don’t think so – it seems bleedin’ obvious to me!

    Happy Christmas!

  • Zoe Brain

    Richard Willmer

    I was using using the term ‘sex’ in the sense of ‘genotype’.

    (Pedant mode = ON)

    Except that that‘s not fixed at conception either. While usually a 46XY conceptus will lead to a 46XY foetus, it doesn’t always.

    Then there’s the possible changes to genotype long after birth – the most obvious being that of bone marrow transplant recipients, whose bodies gradually become genetically identical to that of the donor, due to replacement of senescent cells by stem cells.

    (Pedant mode = OFF)

    Of course, I take the view that sexual identity and gender identity are much more complex matters …

    Above all, I take the line that it is the humanity of a person that is key to their human identity, and not their sex / gender / sexual identity / gender identity / sexuality.

    As you said, bleedin’ obvious to me too. Not, alas, to others, who place The Law above Humanity (and get The Law wrong much more often than not too)

  • Richard Willmer

    But I can see that you see my original point, Zoe – which was addressed to Pat’s ‘concern’.

    (Homily mode = ON)

    There is really nothing ‘fixed’ in this transitory world.

    (Homily mode = OFF)