How One Flawed Study Spawned a Decade of Lies
Posted by Xeno on May 22, 2012
David DiSalvo – for Forbes writes:”
In 2001, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, psychiatrist and professor emeritus of Columbia University, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association about something called “reparative therapy” for gay men and women. By undergoing reparative therapy, the paper claimed, gay men and women could change their sexual orientation. Spitzer had interviewed 200 allegedly former-homosexual men and women that he claimed had shown varying degrees of such change; all of the participants provided Spitzer with self reports of their experience with the therapy.
Spitzer, now 79 years old, was no stranger to the controversy surrounding his chosen subject. Thirty years earlier, he had played a leading role in removing homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in the association’s diagnostic manual. Clearly, his interest in the topic was more than a passing academic curiosity – indeed, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he seemed invested in demonstrating that homosexuality was changeable, not unlike quitting smoking or giving up ice cream.
Fast forward to 2012, and Spitzer is of quite a different mind. Last month he told a reporter with The American Prospect that he regretted the 2001 study and the effect it had on the gay community, and that he owed the community an apology. And this month he sent a letter to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which published his work in 2003, asking that the journal retract his paper.
… In his recantation of the study, he says that it contained at least two fatal flaws: the self reports from those he surveyed were not verifiable, and he didn’t include a control group of men and women who didn’t undergo the therapy for comparison. Self reports are notoriously unreliable, and though they are used in hundreds of studies every year, they are generally regarded as thin evidence at best. Lacking a control group is a fundamental no-no in social science research across the board. The conclusion is inescapable — Spitzer’s study was simply bad science. …
Not only did he rely on self reports, but he conducted the participant interviews by phone, which escalates unreliability to the doesn’t-pass-the-laugh-test level. By phone, researchers aren’t able to evaluate essential non-verbal cues that might cast doubts on verbal responses. Phone interviews, along with written interviews, carry too much guesswork baggage to be valuable in a scientific study, and Spitzer certainly knew that. …