As part of my discussion of sex research, I play the This American Life episode 81 Words in my class. It’s about the 1972-73 removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.
One of the key characters is Robert Spitzer, who in 2001 published a study in support of reparative therapy – that is, therapy that causes people to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
The study was intensely criticized for methodological shortcomings, and now Dr Spitzer has recanted, and he has apologized. He said:
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.
This is the process, ya’ll, happening right in front of our eyes, of change at the scientific level, slower and more cautious than at the cultural level, but unlocking another piece of cultural capital that will support the promotion of gay civil rights.
For time’s sake, I eliminated from my sex research lecture the discussion of Dr John Money, the doctor in the case described in “As Nature Made Him.” Like Spitzer, Money later repudiated his own theories and beliefs. But my point in discussing Money, whom it’s easy, after reading the book, to vilify as evil and cruel, is that he was original with integrity. He was wrong. He paid attention to subsequent research and figured that out. He stayed intellectually honest. He was ORIGINAL with INTEGRITY.
Scientists, particularly those in clinical/therapeutic settings, are in a position to wield science for good or ill; it’s a heavy responsibility, and wrong science can hurt people both in the long- and short-terms. Most scientists are well-intentioned and largely aware of the power they hold. And for that reason (alongside the human enjoyment of BEING RIGHT), scientists and clinicians want to be right, need to believe they’re right.
At the same time, the endeavor of science demands space for minority views, uncomfortable views, unpopular views, and potentially dangerous views. As Carl Sagan said, “The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be commonplace in religion or politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and it has no place in the endeavor of science.”
“Original with integrity.” We’re all prone to confirmation bias. All of us. Dr Spitzer’s son is gay; Spitzer blamed himself for his son’s sexual orientation. He did not make an exception for himself.
We can only wonder what role the personal played in his openness to the methodological criticisms of his research.