The Box Turtle Bulletin has put together a great parody of anti-gay, fear-mongering pamphlets. Entitled, "The Heterosexual Agenda: Exposing the Myths", it includes important revelations about the heterosexuals and their plans for your children and our country. Here's a quick excerpt from a section that documents some of the depraved behaviors that heterosexuals are known to engage in:
... unsafe behavior is often compounded by drug use, which is an integral part of the heterosexual lifestyle. College students who engage in heterosexuality are 30% more likely to use marijuana than gay students, and they are nearly 40% more likely to use other drugs. (71) Among Redbook readers, 90% of heterosexual women admitted to initiating sex while under the influence of alcohol, and 30% had sex after smoking marijuana. For women under twenty, marijuana use before sex skyrocketed to 63%, with 45% of them using it often. (72)
Those numbered citations are important. In fact, this slim booklet contains more than 100. And it's not just part of the parody. Instead, author Jim Burroway uses these ostensibly unbiased sources of information as a way showing how people can use real information to corroborate a lie. Follow up on his citations at the end of The Heterosexual Agenda, and you'll find a breakdown of how, exactly, he contorted the cited source to fit his own goals.
For instance, consider these facts about how heterosexuals are always getting stoned and drunk before engaging in their filthy heterosexual encounters. Here's what Burroway had to say about it:
This study was a based on the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS), a randomsampled survey. But notice the phrase “those who engage in heterosexuality.” This is a very deliberate choice of words, and an alarm should go off whenever you see it. When anti-gay writers talk about people “who engaging in homosexuality”, they often include bisexuals, who may have been previously (or currently) heterosexually married, or they may have been essentially heterosexual but experimented once or twice with homosexuality at some point in their lives. All of this depends on the definitions used in the particular study. Many anti-gay writers exploit these inconsistent definitions, sometimes including bisexuals in their statistics for homosexuality, while other times including them with heterosexuals. This choice is typically done on a statistic-by-statistic basis, driven by which set of numbers will portray gays and lesbians in the worst light. For this study, the actual breakdown of marijuana use is: heterosexual, 19% (of 8816); homosexual, 14.6% (of 225); and bisexual, 33.3% (of 348). For other drug use: heterosexual, 7.1%; homosexual, 9.9%; and bisexual. 18%. As you can see, when you work from a paradigm that divides everyone along heterosexual and homosexual lines, you can make a huge difference based on how you deal with bisexuals.
Changing the context, removing the context, and generally cherry-picking the data that shows what you want it to show is a great way to make spurious claims look more legitimate. It's a tactic that's used in homophobic hate tracts, but it's not ONLY used in those places.
The value of Burroway's work goes far beyond the topic of sexuality and GBLTQ rights. If you want a better idea of how "authoritative" sources lie, this is a great place to start. It'll get you looking for the context and asking the right questions. In general, it's a great primer in learning how to be skeptical.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.