Mormon Ex-Gay Group Still Cites Retracted Ex-Gay Study
May 29th, 2012
For more than eleven years, ex-gay groups across the country depended on Columbia University’s Robert Spitzer’s 2001 ex-gay study to justify their programs to turn gay people straight. Spitzer’s study purportedly “proved” that with a great deal of effort, some people could change their sexual orientation, and it was a huge boon to the ex-gay movement. Now that Spitzer has officially withdrawn the study because of its numerous flaws, ex-gay organizations are being left in the lurch. But Evergreen International, the Mormon ex-gay group, continues to defend the study:
David Pruden, executive director of Salt Lake City-based Evergreen International, is sticking with the study’s initial conclusions — even though the author, Robert L. Spitzer, is backing away from them. Pruden told The Salt Lake Tribune the group has no plans to remove Spitzer’s initial research from its website.
Spitzer “defended his methods for 10 years. To suggest that his feeling ‘sorry’ somehow changes the data in any way is totally unscientific,” Pruden wrote in an email to The Tribune. “Science is not about the researcher’s feelings one way or the other. Good science asks a question, sets up a research process and then the data leads where the data leads.”
Pruden is being far less than honest in this assessment. It’s true that good science asks questions, sets up a research process, and then follows the data wherever the data leads. But that is only true when all three parts come together using sound methods. Spitzer’s ex-gay study fell apart on the middle, most important part. As Spitzer explained in his letter retracting his study now online at the Archives of Sexual Behavior (PDF: 1 page/110KB):
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 participants’ reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple factis that there was no way to determine if the participants’ 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.
Pruden would have us believe that Spitzer was “feeling sorry” for letting the gay community down. He is, but the reasons for his apology go much deeper to the study’s unscientific methods which led to “unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy.” That fact was so important that he chose to highlight the study’s “fatal flaw” as a boldfaced header to this section of his letter.
When Spitzer’s study appeared in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2003, the journal took the unusual step of publishing 26 “peer commentaries,” many of which examined the study’s numerous flaws and argued that it didn’t deserve to be published. Last week, The New York Times revealed that the study did not undergo an independent, blind peer review where the author’s name is removed before the study is passed to other knowledgeable professionals for suggestions and comments — the normal route for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Because Spitzer was (and still is) one of the giants in psychiatry — he is largely responsible for the removal of homosexuality from the APA’s list of mental disorders in 1973 — Archives editor Kenneth J. Zucker gave his study special treatment.
That is, in effect, the only reason we’ve been talking about this study for the past decade. It wasn’t the study’s scientific merits — there was none. Spitzer’s peers have said so for a decade and now even he admits it. But don’t count on the ex-gay industry letting go of this study without a fight.