Itâs not often that a journalist convinces a prominent scientist to recant a controversial study that he has tenaciously defended for 11 years, but thatâs just what Gabriel Arana did last month.
While working on anÂ article forÂ The American Prospect about his experience undergoing so-called sexual reorientation, or reparative therapy, as a teenager in the late 1990s, Arana interviewed Dr. Robert Spitzer, who authored a controversial 2001Â research paper, which concluded that the therapy worked for some people.
Spitzer, then a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, had interviewed 200 patients who claimed the therapy had led to a shift toward heterosexual orientation.
The journalÂ Archives of Sexual Behavior published Spitzerâs paper along with more then two-dozenÂ commentaries from his peers, however, who criticized him for relying on patients referred by groups that condemned homosexuality and for uncritically accepting patientsâ assertions that theyâd changed, among other faults. As a recent front-pageÂ article inÂ The New York Times reported:
The study had serious problems. It was based on what people remembered feeling years before â 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.
Nonetheless, Spitzer stuck to his guns for more than a decade, until Arana showed up at his door earlier this spring. In the course of their interview, Arana told Spitzer that in 2001, his reorientation therapist had asked him to participate in Spitzerâs study. But Arana never called. Had he, Arana added, he would have told Spitzer that he, too, was making progress, even though he wasnât.
The revelation pushed Spitzer over the edge. When Arana asked about the criticisms, Spitzer finally admitted that they were âlargely correct,â according to Aranaâs article for theÂ Prospect.
âWhat impressed me was how he said that had he called in, he wouldâve told me he was making improvement, when in fact he was not,â Spitzer said in an interview with CJR. âIt made me think about what I didnât want to think about, which was my decision to accept the credibility of my subjectsâ answers.â
Spitzer accepted that those answers were inherently unreliable and unverifiable, and the conversation convinced him to follow through on a letter heâd been thinking about writing to theÂ Archives of Sexual Behavior formally disavowing his research.
âOnce I knew he [Arana] was going to write about my misgivings, I decided that I had an obligation to explain my feelings myself and not only through him,â he said.
The journal will publish the letter soon, according to Spitzer, but Truth Wins Out, a non-profit organization that âfights anti-gay religious extremism,â posted a leakedÂ draft in late April, a couple of weeks after Aranaâs article appeared in theÂ Prospect. In it, Spitzer credited the reporter and apologized to the gay community for âmaking unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy.â
E.J. Graff, one of Aranaâs colleagues at theÂ Prospect, who writes about human rights and discrimination issues,Â posted the draft as well. âAsk the right questions,â she wrote in the headline, âand you can change the world.â
Indeed, Aranaâs work is a wonderful, albeit rare, example of the corrective power of courageous science journalism. His article has set off a wave of high-profile coverage, including the front-pageÂ Times article cited above, which was published on May 19. On Monday, NPRâsÂ Talk of the Nation invited Spitzer, Arana, and Benedict Carey, the author of theÂ Times piece, toÂ discuss the repudiation of the 2001 study.
âI didnât go with the expectation of confronting [Spitzer],â Arana explained, adding that he âwas a bit taken abackâ when Spitzer conceded that his study was fatally flawed.
Unfortunately, coverage of reparative therapy was not always as critical as it could have been. In his article for theÂ Prospect, Arana noted that in 1998, the year he started therapy, national newspapers published an ad campaign sponsored by conservative religious organizations asserting that the technique worked. According to Arana:
With few voices to challenge the testimonials, reporters transmitted them as revelation.Â Newsweek ran a sympathetic cover story on change therapy, and national and regional papers published ex-gaysâ accounts.
By the time Spitzerâs paper was published three years later, the coverage had improved, but many problems remained. AnÂ article from The Associated Press quoted a variety of critics, for example, but featured a sensational lede that referred to the analysis as âan explosive new study.â It also failed to report that at the same meeting of the American Psychiatric Association where Spitzer was presenting his paper, other researchers were presenting research which found that reparative therapy was ineffective and could even cause âsignificant harmâ to patients.
Articles inÂ The New York Times,Â The Washington Post, andÂ San Francisco Chronicle were more comprehensive and critical, but aÂ news roundup by the group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) concluded that, on balance, journalists played up controversy at the expense of credibility.
Even Spitzer, who had led the charge for removing homosexuality from the list of disorders in psychiatryâs principal diagnostic manual in 1973, complained about the coverage. In an op-ed forÂ The Wall Street Journal (unavailable online), he wrote:
My study concluded with an important caveat: that it should not be used to justify a denial of civil rights to homosexuals, or as support for coercive treatment. I did not conclude that all gays should try to change, or even that they would be better off if they did. However, to my horror, some of the media reported the study as an attempt to show that homosexuality is a choice, and that substantial change is possible for any homosexual who decides to make the effort.
Now Spitzer has come to believe that reparative therapy shouldnât be used at all, but even that hasnât quelled problematic coverage. William Saletan, a science reporter forÂ Slate, argued that Spitzerâs disavowal of his paper doesnât mean reparative therapy should be âeradicated.â According to hisÂ post:
Experience and research suggest itâs extremely unlikely that you can change your sexual orientation, and youâre better off accepting who you are. But whatâs true for youÂ may not be true for someone closer to the margins of homosexuality. Tempting as it is to politicize Spitzerâs apology and dismiss the malleability of sexual orientation, resist that urge. Morally and therapeutically,Â itâs better to treat people as individuals.
Saletan is generally a good reporter, but his logic is hard to accept in light of the World Health OrganizationâsÂ statement on May 17 that, âServices that purport to âcureâ people with non-heterosexual sexual orientation lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected peopleâŚâ
In his article for theÂ Prospect, Arana wrote that his failed reorientation program almost drove him to suicide, and Spitzer said that while he still thinks peopleâs sexual orientations can change over time, âthere are dangers to reparative therapy that are quite clear and noticeable.â
Moreover, Spitzer added, âThere is really no such thing as reparative therapy. Reparative therapy is any therapy that has the goal of making somebody straight, but there are no specific techniques or approach that defines what reparative therapy is.â
Spitzer appreciates the coverage of his apology, calling the articles by Arana andÂ The New York Times âterrific.â As Arana reported, âNow 80 and retired, he was afraid that the 2001 study would tarnish his legacy and perhaps hurt others.â But he may never have done it without a push, and now Arana, who didnât respond to a request for comment, has a legacy that he can be proud of, too. Call it reparative journalism.