(Reprint from AGLP Newsletter, April 2008)
The last AGLP Newsletter announced this year’ APA annual meeting would include a symposium, “Homosexuality and Therapy: The Religious Dimension.” AGLP has no official connection to the symposium, although our convention newsletter routinely reports APA programs that may be of interest to our members.
The symposium’ organizer wondered, “Could we ever get a group of scientists and clinicians on both sides of the religious divide to seek common ground while committed to honesty in the scientific research about homosexuality–no matter what the outcome?” This is an interesting question. Yet while the panel includes two psychiatrists and a psychologist with strong religious interests, there are no scientists. Instead there is a controversial gay Episcopal bishop and the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. So what is going on here?
In the last decade, I have had the dubious privilege of being asked by APA to speak to mental health professionals and to the general public about this symposium’ two main subjects‚Äîthe biology of homosexuality and so called sexual conversion therapies. This is because religious social conservatives have mounted a large-scale public affairs campaign to make the case that homosexuality is a “learned behavior” that can be changed. As the subject garners intense media interest, I have gone on TV, radio, spoken to major national newspapers and newsmagazines and been interviewed in documentaries produced in both the US and abroad, criticizing the science and methods of conversion therapy and explaining its potential harm.
What is the purpose of conversion therapy PR? One major goal is to influence public policies toward gay people. As religious social conservatives claim gay people can change from “gay to straight,” they also argue that homosexuality should not be regarded as a legally protected class (like race, age or gender). And if homosexuality does not meet the definition of a protected class, there is no reason to pass laws protecting gay civil rights. In other words, what appears on the surface to be a clinical, scientific debate has been subsumed in political debates known as the culture wars.
Efforts to distort scientific findings are not new, particularly when new discoveries challenge existing beliefs and political interests. For example, the 1632 publication of Galileo Galilei’ Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, which took up the issue of whether the earth (geocentrism) or the sun (heliocentrism) was at the center of the other’ orbit. Galileo’ astronomic findings supported the latter. Within a year of publication, the Roman Catholic Church, whose religious doctrines at the time included geocentrism, tried and condemned Galileo for heresy and forbade the publication of his past or future scientific works. He died under house arrest in 1642.
Yet, in the following century, as the weight of scientific evidence supported heliocentrism, Galileo’ remains were eventually reburied in hallowed ground and the Church allowed his scientific work to be published. Finally, 350 years after Galileo’ death, Pope John Paul II in 1992 expressed “regret” for the church’ handling of the case. Better late than never I always say.
Distorting science to suit religious and political purposes continues to the present. In July 2007, former Surgeon General, Richard Carmona MD, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that partisan, political ideology within the Bush administration prevented the Surgeon General from doing the traditional job of providing Americans with the latest in scientific understanding on a range of health issues. Carmona said:
“Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized orsimply buried . . . The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds.”
What issues could Dr. Carmona not discuss frankly during his 2002-2006 tenure? (1) the potential benefits of human stem cell research; (2) the limitations of abstinence-only sex education; (3) the need to make emergency contraception more accessible; (4) the potential health hazards of global climate change; (5) the need for increased prison mental health services; and (6) the health risks of secondhand smoke.
This pastiche of politicized issues mirrors the influence of the current administration’ political constituencies: religious social conservatives, large corporations opposing government regulation, small government/low tax advocates, and libertarian groups that reflexively favor most individual rights over any government-sponsored public health measures.
Does it matter if special interest groups try to distort scientific findings? I believe it does. Sound policy-making requires objective scientific data. The scientific methods that provide us with life-saving technologies and elevate our living standards require a shared set of operating assumptions. Yet distorting
findings from one scientific field out of personal or political beliefs may undermine the entire scientific enterprise.
Furthermore, creating research solely to support existing political agendas raises the question of whether science as we know it can survive in an environment of politicization at all.
How do politicized, special interest groups go about distorting scientific findings?
‚Ä¢ They present a marginal or discredited scientific issue to the public as if it were a debate among scientists and professionals;
‚Ä¢ They promote and publicize their own self-appointed “experts” and “think tanks” to speak to the media and make a case to the public for a marginal or discredited scientific theory; these “experts” are often invited to speak at public hearings to counter the arguments of legitimate spokespersons for the scientific mainstream;
‚Ä¢ They claim that proponents of the marginal or discredited theory are discriminated against in academic quarters;
‚Ä¢ They directly or indirectly question the motives of both mainstream organizations and individuals whose scientific work is critical of the marginal or discredited theory‚Äî”a group has been taken over by the homosexual agenda” being a common charge;
‚Ä¢ They confuse the general public with pseudo-science, using selective scientific citations that support the marginal or discredited theory and by adopting scientific language when criticizing the mainstream theory.
One example of an organization that promotes pseudoscience is the Discovery Institute (http://www.discovery.org/csc), which advocates teaching Intelligent Design in the schools as an alternative to the theory of evolution. However, the archetypical model of scientific distortion was perfected by the tobacco industry, which as the American Cancer Society notes:
“The industry is not an honest partner in research. Entities such as the Tobacco Institute, the Counsel for Tobacco Research and the Center for Indoor Air Research were jointly created and funded by tobacco companies to create the appearance of scientific legitimacy and independence while deceiving the public about the adverse health effects of tobacco smoking and secondhand smoke.
“These entities are essential to a sophisticated public relations campaign that seeks to buy credibility while recruiting a coterie of “expert” witnesses who create the appearance of scientific controversy long after genuine scientific controversy has ended . . . the industry funds scientifically inferior proposals
“that could never survive legitimate peer review. Results from these studies are then selectively publicized as part of industry campaigns to deny the addictiveness and extraordinary harm caused by active smoking and secondhand smoke, and to attack legitimate research findings.” [Retrieved August 1, 2007 from scientificintegrityinstitute.org/SeffrinACS101206.pdf].
Other organizations use similar approaches in pursuing an antigay political agenda. Among them:
‚Ä¢ The Family Research Institute (http://www.familyresearchinst.org), which, for purposes of influencing public policy, generates “empirical research” to demonstrate the harm caused by homosexuality;
‚Ä¢ Focus on the Family (http://www.family.org), an interdenominational, evangelical group that opposes gay and lesbian civil rights; FOF sponsors “Love Won Out” conferences (http://www.lovewonout.com) in cities around the US featuring “experts” on changing sexual orientation;
‚Ä¢ The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (http://www.narth.com), an organization that maintains “same-sex attractions” are “treatable”; NARTH was founded in 1992 by the late Charles Socarides, a major opponent of the APA’ 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from the DSM.
Although these groups produce “research” of questionable quality, they are highly adept at “spinning” their point of view. And while their actual numbers are relatively small when compared to the mental health mainstream, they often get their “expert opinions” out to the media, in testimony before school boards contemplating sex education curricula or sanctioning Gay-Straight Alliances in the high schools, and in trying to influence legislators and policy makers whose decisions may affect the lives and civil rights of LGBT people and their families.
In 2000, the APA took the position “that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individual’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm.” And as publicity for conversion therapies has increased in recent years, a growing number of “ex-gay survivors” are coming out to speak of how they were damaged (http://www.beyondexgay.com/).
Inviting the spin doctors of the ex-gay myth to participate in an APA symposium is, in my opinion, akin to asking creation scientists to speak at a conference of the National Academy of Sciences. And although few professionals in the audience are likely to be persuaded by conversion therapy pseudoscience, just publicizing that such a symposium was presented at the APA becomes a PR tactic to buttress the standing of conversion therapists to the general public.
Sadly, the organizers of this symposium seem to be unaware of the potential harm they are doing.
Jack Drescher, MD, is a Distinguished Fellow of the APA, Past Chair of APA’ Committee on GLB Issues (2000-2006) and a Consultant to APA’ Committee on Public Affairs. He is the outgoing Editor of AGLP’ Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health.