I was unsurprised to learn that Gary Gates’ careful estimate of the proportion of Americans who are LGBT prompted a huge controversy. The answer is that 3.8% of people self-identify as a member of one of these groups, which is an average across eleven population-based surveys. One common reaction from the LGBT community was anger at such a low estimate; Larry Kramer called Gates a “horse’s ass”. The probably reason is that much LGBT activism has seized on “one in ten” as the true frequency (I first heard it as the share of homosexuals), as a way to emphasize how the importance of the group and to promote LGBT status as part of the mainstream. Those are both noble goals, and worth pursuing, and these pesky facts assembled by Gates threaten the means chosen to promote them.
This is far from the only situation where activists or intellectuals take a noble goal as justifying the means of statistics that are misrepresented or just fake outright. For example, the semi-anonymous Chris of Aspiring Economist deconstructs the claim that one in four women are raped here. It’s probably not true, and the top comment is telling – Angie more or less admits the statistics are a means to an end, rather than facts. And it happens on all sides – in the Gates article above, he talks about conservative groups just ignoring the bisexuals in the LGBT figures to downplay the percentage of people in the overall group.
I’m increasingly obsessed with the way people are misinformed or misled about statistics, by well-intentioned activists and policymakers, due to my own research – lots of people have totally wrong impressions about how HIV is transmitted and the course of the disease once you get it. I’m not sure how intentional the creation of those misconceptions is.
Gates’ whole piece defending the original estimate is carefully considered and worth looking at. Fascinatingly, the share of people who admit any same-sex attraction in their lifetimes is just over one in ten – with a slightly different initial spin, this study might have been heralded by the same activists who denounced it.