Republican Senator Tom Coburn has issued a report on waste in government — a two hundred page report of excessive spending in the millions and as small as $300. As a former intern for Sen. William Proxmire (D., Wis.) who used to issue his Golden Fleece Award, I always find such reports interesting. However, one small item caught my eye: $30,000 to the University of Washington and Cornell University for a study that proved that “Gaydar” actually exists. Of course, you might ask why the government has an interest in such a study but do not be surprised if the next DoD budget has $30 billion in research and development of a stealth gay project for the evasion of Gaydar.
The National Science Foundation contributed $30,000 to fund a study done by the University of Washington and Cornell University to measure “Gaydar.” They found it to be 60 percent accurate. That is only 10 percent over a random 50-50 bet, it would seem. However, the result were considered significant. According to the Science Daily, the study found “After seeing faces for less than a blink of an eye, college students have accuracy greater than mere chance in judging others’ sexual orientation.” The authors argue that this may assist in establishing the basis for discrimination claims.
The study involved 129 college students who were given 96 photos each of young adult men and women. Notably, the selection of gay women showed a higher percentage of accuracy: 65 percent. Even when the faces were flipped upside down, participants were 61 percent accurate in telling the gay and straight women apart. That means, that we can still peg the sexual preference of “Silly Sally” even after she “Went to Town Walking Backwards Upside Down.”
For men, the accuracy rate was only 57 percent. So there you have it. I am just not sure what it is except that I am pretty sure we could have used the money better in adding more science books in one of our struggling public schools. This is particularly the case when the limitations of the study are considered. Even assuming that this is a valuable exercise for federal funding, the subjects were shown simply still pictures of individuals. These pictures were further made more uniform by removing facial hair and other characteristics. I am not sure how such a display offers a real measure. Of course, the researchers could note that the percentage of accuracy is all the more remarkable given the lack of such distinguishing characteristics or the use of moving images.
Here is one serious concern that I have. The study actually shows slightly over random selection for males and a bit better for women. However, while I see the marginal value for a discrimination lawsuit (though I am skeptical of its admissibility in a given case), it also will likely reinforce the belief of many (including many homophobes) that they can tell someone is gay. Such suspicions are often wrong and based on stereotypes. From secondary school to employment environments, people are often subject to such rumors or harassment. I take from this study that there is actually a high level of inaccuracy in such assumptions.
I do not object to the universities pursuing such research. This is a major social and political segment of our population and the perception of the sexual orientation of individuals has, as the authors note, significance in a variety of different contexts. However, there is a legitimate question of whether public funds are justified.