Spitzer in the NYT
The New York Times had an article this weekend that was unprecedented. It was a long article about how a shabby piece of research was published, and an apology by the researcher for the consequences of it.
If you go to PFOX's web site you will see, on the right-hand side of their screen a little video of Robert Spitzer suggesting that people can change their sexual orientation. His 2003 study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, has been the one and only shred of justification for "ex-gays" to claim scientific support for their dangerous and nutty view that people can stop being gay through prayer, therapy, and/or willpower.
Of course there was controversy, and Spitzer endured it with a stiff upper lip, but as this NYT piece demonstrates, he has finally decided to honestly admit that the research was not well done, should not have been published in the scientific literature, and that there is no evidence that people can actually change their sexual orientation. And he's sorry.
It is a long article. I will quote the lede first, then skip through to the good parts:
PRINCETON, N.J. — The simple fact was that he had done something wrong, and at the end of a long and revolutionary career it didn’t matter how often he’d been right, how powerful he once was, or what it would mean for his legacy.The article describes why and how the study was conducted -- phone interviews with people who said they had changed. It also explains how this study, which is obviously methodologically substandard, came to be published.
Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, considered by some to be the father of modern psychiatry, lay awake at 4 o’clock on a recent morning knowing he had to do the one thing that comes least naturally to him.
He pushed himself up and staggered into the dark. His desk seemed impossibly far away; Dr. Spitzer, who turns 80 next week, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has trouble walking, sitting, even holding his head upright.
The word he sometimes uses to describe these limitations — pathetic — is the same one that for decades he wielded like an ax to strike down dumb ideas, empty theorizing and junk studies.
Now here he was at his computer, ready to recant a study he had done himself, a poorly conceived 2003 investigation that supported the use of so-called reparative therapy to “cure” homosexuality for people strongly motivated to change.
What to say? The issue of gay marriage was rocking national politics yet again. The California State Legislature was debating a bill to ban the therapy outright as being dangerous. A magazine writer who had been through the therapy as a teenager recently visited his house, to explain how miserably disorienting the experience was.
And he would later learn that a World Health Organization report, released on Thursday, calls the therapy “a serious threat to the health and well-being — even the lives — of affected people.”
Dr. Spitzer’s fingers jerked over the keys, unreliably, as if choking on the words. And then it was done: a short letter to be published this month, in the same journal where the original study appeared.
“I believe,” it concludes, “I owe the gay community an apology.”
Psychiatry Giant Sorry for Backing Gay ‘Cure’
The study had serious problems. It was based on what people remembered feeling years before — an often fuzzy record. It included some ex-gay advocates, who were politically active. And it did not test any particular therapy; only half of the participants engaged with a therapist at all, while the others worked with pastoral counselors, or in independent Bible study.This is an indictment of the journal as much as anything. Why did they publish the paper without peer review? Of course the researcher's reputation is important but it should never allow them to short-circuit the review process of a scientific journal.
Several colleagues tried to stop the study in its tracks, and urged him not to publish it, Dr. Spitzer said.
Yet, heavily invested after all the work, he turned to a friend and former collaborator, Dr. Kenneth J. Zucker, psychologist in chief at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, another influential journal.
“I knew Bob and the quality of his work, and I agreed to publish it,” Dr. Zucker said in an interview last week. The paper did not go through the usual peer-review process, in which unnamed experts critique a manuscript before publication. “But I told him I would do it only if I also published commentaries” of response from other scientists to accompany the study, Dr. Zucker said.
Those commentaries, with a few exceptions, were merciless. One cited the Nuremberg Code of ethics to denounce the study as not only flawed but morally wrong. “We fear the repercussions of this study, including an increase in suffering, prejudice, and discrimination,” concluded a group of 15 researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where Dr. Spitzer was affiliated.
But Dr. Spitzer could not control how his study was interpreted by everyone, and he could not erase the biggest scientific flaw of them all, roundly attacked in many of the commentaries: Simply asking people whether they have changed is no evidence at all of real change. People lie, to themselves and others. They continually change their stories, to suit their needs and moods.It is one thing to persuade yourself that your sexual orientation has changed. People are sometimes able to maintain the belief for years. They may show every outward sign of having changed, and how are you going to prove it one way or the other? There are very many more ex-ex-gays than ex-gays, as the self-deception evaporates over time.
By almost any measure, in short, the study failed the test of scientific rigor that Dr. Spitzer himself was so instrumental in enforcing for so many years.
“As I read these commentaries, I knew this was a problem, a big problem, and one I couldn’t answer,” Dr. Spitzer said. “How do you know someone has really changed?”
The study that seemed at the time a mere footnote to a large life was growing into a chapter. And it needed a proper ending — a strong correction, directly from its author, not a journalist or colleague.The letter to the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior has been posted at Truth Wins Out. It says:
A draft of the letter has already leaked online and has been reported.
“You know, it’s the only regret I have; the only professional one,” Dr. Spitzer said of the study, near the end of a long interview. “And I think, in the history of psychiatry, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a scientist write a letter saying that the data were all there but were totally misinterpreted. Who admitted that and who apologized to his readers.”
Several months ago I told you that because of my revised view of my 2001 study of reparative therapy changing sexual orientation, I was considering writing something that would acknowledge that I now judged the major critiques of the study as largely correct. After discussing my revised view of the study with Gabriel Arana, a reporter for American Prospect, and with Malcolm Ritter, an Associated Press science writer, I decided that I had to make public my current thinking about the study. Here it is.This is a remarkable statement. Unfortunately it will not put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Even though the author has renounced it, PFOX and other anti-gay groups will continue to point to the published research as evidence that people can stop being gay if they choose.
Basic Research Question. From the beginning it was: “can some version of reparative therapy enable individuals to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual?” Realizing that the study design made it impossible to answer this question, I suggested that the study could be viewed as answering the question, “how do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation?” – a not very interesting question.
The Fatal Flaw in the Study – There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation. I offered several (unconvincing) reasons why it was reasonable to assume that the subject’s reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.
I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals.
Robert Spitzer. M.D.
Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry,