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Psychiatrist’s Apology Stands Out From Typical Scientific Regrets

Robert L. Spitzer retired years ago but his influence has not. That’s why his recantation last month of his own paper, research purporting to show that therapy could turn some homosexuals into heterosexuals, has such extraordinary resonance. The work of Dr. Spitzer, a psychiatrist and Columbia University emeritus professor–who actually got homosexuality removed from the medical list of mental disorders in 1973–rippled across society.

Robert Spitzer has recanted his paper claiming homosexuality can be changed.

This is not the usual apology for a scientific error. “I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy,” Dr. Spitzer has written in a letter to the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior,  which published his paper in 2003 and may publish his retraction. He first expressed his regret last month to writer Gabriel Arana, who interviewed him in The American Prospect about problems with the study.

Many scientists, when admitting they have been wrong, express much narrower mea culpas. Hwang Woo Suk of Seoul National University, whose breakthroughs in stem cell cloning were shown to be fake in 2006, apologized to his nation and the world while blaming the problems on his collaborators. In 1998, Bruce Wachholtz, then a radiation scientist at the National Cancer Institute, told the U.S. Senate he was sorry for a 15-year delay in releasing results of a radiation health study, and said it was because no one had seemed interested in the research. (The data, from Cold War bomb tests, indicated the radiation was responsible for tens of thousands of cancer cases.) And 60 years after a U.S. scientist infected thousands of Guatemalans with syphilis to test various therapies, federal officials apologized while reassuring the public that times, and research standards, had changed for the better.

The psychologist Diederik Stapel, formerly of Tilburg University, was caught fabricating data in dozens of papers last year, and directed his regret to his colleagues in a statement (translated from the original Dutch by The New York Times) that said “I have failed as a scientist and a researcher.”

Dr. Spitzer, on the other hand, has a keen awareness of the larger effects of his work. His study was taken up by anti-homosexual activists and therapists who said they could “cure” patients of their sexual orientation. (Mr. Arana, the American Prospect journalist and a gay man, spent years in such therapy.) Dr. Spitzer also apologized to those patients. He said he did not start the study to show that homosexuality could be done away with. He did it, rather, to debunk the claim that “reparative therapy” was completely ineffective in changing sexual orientation.

But he did so with bad science. He interviewed 200 people who said they used to be gay, and asked them if therapy helped them make the switch. There was, he now says, no way to determine if they were telling the truth, and no comparison group of people who didn’t undergo therapy. And there was no replication of the study. It didn’t validate anti-gay therapy for most scientists, but it did give ammunition to anti-gay groups. So he asked Mr. Arana to print his retraction. Dr. Spitzer wants not only to set the research record straight, but correct a mistaken cultural idea.

Bad science then, but few could say a bad scientist now.

 

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