Controversial homosexuality “reparative therapy” paper staying put despite author’s regrets

We’ve been watching with interest an unfolding flap about a controversial 2003 paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (ASB) by a prominent mental health researcher, Robert Spitzer, which suggested that gays could be deprogrammed by so-called “reparative therapy” to change their sexual orientation.

Spitzer, who was instrumental in the effort to extradite homosexuality from the realm of mental illnesses, apparently had developed serious doubts about the validity of his paper, which has been cited 47 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. His regrets came to light recently in a piece by Gabriel Arana, of The American Prospect, detailing his own unfortunate experience with “ex-gay” therapy. In his article, Arana says Spitzer requested that he

  print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”?

(Of note: Well-known sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson also claimed to have “converted” 12 gay and women of homosexuality, but those cases have also been questioned.)

We think a better choice of words than “retraction” in the Spitzer case might be “repudiation,” since Arana obviously would not be in a position to retract anything Spitzer wrote, unless of course he’d published it in The American Prospect.

And it doesn’t look like the ASB has any intention of doing so, either. Northwestern’s Alice Dreger, who blogs for Psychology Today, spoke with ASB editor Ken Zucker, who said he told Spitzer that controversy alone did not make a paper retraction-worthy —  a sentiment with which we heartily agree:

A few months ago, Zucker told me, Spitzer had called Zucker wanting to talk about the latest DSM revision. During that call, according to Zucker, Spitzer “made some reference to regretting having done or publishing the study, and he said he wanted to retract it. My recollection of the conversation was something like this: I said, ‘I’m not sure what you want to retract, Bob. You didn’t falsify the data. You didn’t commit egregious statistical errors in analyzing the data. You didn’t make up the data. There were various commentaries on your paper, some positive, some negative, some in between. So the only thing that you seem to want to retract is your interpretation of the data, and lots of people have already criticized you for interpretation, methodological issues, etc.’”

Zucker went on: “Did he ask me whether, if he submitted a letter to the editor, I would say no? No. I didn’t say no, I didn’t say yes. I basically think that, in the conversation, I was pushing back in terms of what exactly he wanted to say.” In other words, Zucker was trying to get Spitzer to articulate exactly what he wanted to say now, publicly, about his 2003 article. “And that was the end of the conversation. Now had Spitzer a week later submitted a letter to the editor saying ‘I no longer agree with my own interpretations of the data,’ would I have published it? Of course. Why not?”

We think the questions of whether and when researchers should be able to call do-over, as Spitzer is trying to do here, are complicated. To be sure, discovery of a fatal flaw in an experiment — ordering the wrong mice, for example — is a no-brainer. But does questionable interpretation of the data meet the threshold of retractability? And if not, how should the record be corrected, so that anyone who finds the original paper also finds the doubts and questions? Finally, does that threshold vary by field?

We look forward to a robust discussion.

Hat tips: Alice Dreger, Ben Goldacre, Steve Silberman

13 thoughts on “Controversial homosexuality “reparative therapy” paper staying put despite author’s regrets”

  1. Something conspicuously missing from your considerations is how heavily politicized and commercialized “Pray away the gay” so-called “therapy” is, and how that might have impacted Spitzer’s research. Spitzer noted how difficult it was to find subjects. His call for subjects released to the public, it is far from unthinkable that right wing anti-gay religious bigots would have paid plants to participate in the research. Those carrying out “reparative therapy” have it as their cash cow; the perpetuation of anti-gay bigotry is essential to their business. Additionally, whenever you look deeply enough, religion is always an element of the supposed “therapy.” Most often, it’s that Jesus is alleged to save the patient from “the homosexual lifestyle,” but only if the patient prays hard enough to Jesus for that happen. In a supposed mental health services context, that is sheerest quackery. Surely, you, and the journal’s editors, should be taking this into account. No wholly gay person can be magic-poofed into a heterosexual one, by praying to Jesus or by any other means. It should give you pause for thought, furthermore, that there is no clinical therapeutic movement to magic poor heterosexuals into gay people. “Reparative therapy” only exists because of ugly, ignorance-fueled hatred of gay human beings.

  2. It is almost impossible today to understand the mental attitudes of people thirty years ago towards homosexuality. This is because today, most people accept the hypothesis that one’s sexual preference is decided before birth; however, in that prior era, there was a vague impression that preference is somehow socially related to something in early childhood or something like that.
    The prevailing hypothesis affects the type of social psychological research one would attempt. Today, research predicated on an attempt to alter a person’s sexual preferences would be considered unethical; yet, in that era, it was appropriate.
    Poorly performed research would usually confirm the prevailing attitude that somehow those with aberrant preferences could be at least partially, in some cases, treated. Reading the abstract of the study one is struck by the vagueness and hedged character of the conclusions. A major problem affecting the results is mentioned in the abstract, which highlights its importance: the study participants, interviewed by telephone, could be dissembling about their actual behavior or states of mind. In an era in which such behavior was illegal, the pressure to minimize it could be intense.
    A study as cautious as this need not be retracted, only pointed to as an example of what pre-existing aspirations of the researchers can produce in telephone interviews.
    On the other hand, the behavior of Masters as described by Kolodny appears to be fraudulent. It doesn’t sound as if Kolodny did anything about it. Any better information on Kolodny?

  3. Spitzer did some research and published an article, puttimg him on the record as having done, believed and claimed this and that. His thinking later evolved and he decided he was wrong. Now he wants to correct the record. It’s laudable, I think, for a researcher to wish to correct the record this way by repudiating his earlier article.

    The journal should publish his letter, correction, re-analysis, new article, or whatever he wishes to submit in his effort to correct the record, as is consistent with the journal’s article types and guidelines. Regardless of what format or name the journal uses for the published item, it should be treated bibliographically as a correction and clearly linked to the original 2003 article.

    The problem now seems to be that 1) the editor is unsure of his motives, and 2) Spitzer has not yet submitted anything for publication.

  4. Whatever the content or topic of the original article, there can never be grounds for retraction on the basis that the author has changed his mind about it. That’s bunkum.

    If he really thinks that its findings were incorrect, let him carry out another, more comprehensive and rigorously sound, study and see what he finds.

    In fact, if he wants to investigate whether or not the results of that study are sound, let him examine the topic several times, with several different methods and populations. And then, with several different datasets, and several published studies, let him question the results of the first study – yes, on the basis of published research, not on the basis of personal doubts.

    You know what that’s called? Science.

  5. Here’s what Live Science says:
    “Still, the APA included a diagnosis in the 1980 DSM-III called ego-dystonic homosexuality. This category was a compromise with psychiatrists who insisted that some gays and lesbians came to them looking for treatment. “This revision in the nomenclature provides the possibility of finding a homosexual to be free of psychiatric disorder, and provides a means to diagnose a mental disorder whose central feature is conflict about homosexual behavior,” explained *Robert Spitzer*, a member of the APA’s task force, in a 1973 position statement.

    But ego-dystonic homosexuality was short-lived. The category didn’t make sense to many psychiatrists, who argued that anxiety over sexual orientation could fit into already-existing categories, according to UC Davis psychologist Gregory Herek. In 1986, ego-dystonic homosexuality disappeared from the DSM.”

    It appears that Dr Spitzer was a few years behind the times in his conception of his research to begin with. He was using as subjects people who had the disorder “ego-dystonic sexuality” that had been deleted from DSM fifteen or more years before his paper was finally published. The monkey is not surprised nor unsympathetic that he now wishes to change his mind. Other, more intelligent species seem to have gone ahead of us.

    Perhaps he would be the ideal researcher to publish social psychological studies that demonstrate the currently accepted hypotheses as to sexual preference and its etiology. I think the studies that McMahon (above) suggests are an excellent plan for Spitzer’s rehabilitation, as it were. I for one am convinced that genetic or epigenetic factors determine sexual preference and that the appropriate studies would bear this out.

    I’m more interested in the behavior of Masters described in that Scientific American article. That sounds like a subject for a really meaty investigation.

    1. At the very least, it is worth noting that the work in the study was shoddy. Spitzer could at first could not find people to participate until an “ex-gay” organization rounded up folks. And then he conducted phone interviews with these folks. That was it.

    2. Yes, exactly, as I noted before (I’m so bright) these telephone reports were, as the author admits, subject to a significant risk of dissembling (lying).
      There’s a definite political aspect to recruitment of these “reformed homosexuals” (who by definition of DSM 1986 do not exist) who then get to report to Spitzer on the phone as to their ability to maintain a sexual identity which is at best a self-delusion and more likely an attempt at propaganda for the religious inclinations of those who recruited them in the first place.
      There is a strong likelihood that Spitzer, knowingly or unknowingly, was a party to the maintenance of a heterodox (by DSM standards) approach to homosexuality. That heterodox approach was driven by a religious dogma which implied that homosexuality could be “cured”.
      This blatantly unscientific attitude has delayed a rational societal approach to homosexuality at a time (remember AIDS?) when scientific research was most needed to save lives.
      If Spitzer has changed his mind, then I agree that he ought to write up a note or a letter giving his thoughts on the matter and call it a correction. A retraction wouldn’t be enough, somehow, unless he could say that he found out his patients were lying(not likely). Maybe it’s too late for him to do any more research.

  6. There have been further developments: Spitzer has written a letter to be published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, according to today’s New York Times. Truth Wins Out put up a draft of the letter a few weeks ago.

    I haven’t read the original 2003 article, but the Times story mentions methodological flaws and a lack of peer review. The unscientific aspects (including biased subjects and no data on whether behavior changed) were not hidden at the time, and Spitzer didn’t extrapolate unduly from the data about the larger implications on homosexuality.

    But it doesn’t sound, either, like Arch Sex Behav is considering this a retraction as such.

    Do we get an update post when the letter is published?

  7. Apparently the NYTimes article was mistaken about Spitzer’s apology being published in Arch Sex Behav “this month.” There’s no sign of anything new authored by Spitzer there. So what’s the hold-up? Per your reporting above) Zucker told Dreger that “of course” he’d publish a letter to the editor.

    Controversy alone does not warrant retraction. But this wouldn’t be the first author-requested retraction to push back against political extrapolations on barely-scientific conclusions. And Spitzer’s current statements about the scientific content of his paper do not give it much more credit than that cut-and-paste “problematic problem” math paper.

  8. While not scientific, I sure like Pope Francis’ comment when he was asked about gay people; “Who am I to judge?”

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