There’s been a lot of buzz about Gabriel Arana’s piece about his experience in reparative therapy, that was published in the American Prospect. But the Columbia Journalism Review has done a great analysis of the impact of Arana’s piece in Curtis Brainerd’s Observatory blog focusing on science journalism, specifically Arana’s decision to ask for comment from the author of a controversial study backing the therapies. That psychiatrist, Robert Spitzer, has now backed away from his findings and credits Arana’s journalism for the move.
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 Spitzer’s study. But Arana never called. Had he, Arana added, he would have told Spitzer that he, too, was making progress, even though he wasn’t.
The revelation pushed Spitzer over the edge. When Arana asked about the criticisms of his paper, Spitzer finally admitted that they were “largely correct.”
“What impressed me was how he said that had he called in, he would’ve told me he was making improvement, when in fact he was not,” Spitzer said in an interview with CJR. “It made me think about what I didn’t want to think about, which was my decision to accept the credibility of my subjects’ answers.”
Spitzer saw that those answers were inherently unreliable and unverifiable, and the conversation convinced him to follow through on a letter he’d been thinking about writing to Archives of Sexual Behavior formally disavowing his research.
Brainerd says Spitzer’s repudiation of the his research is an example of what good science journalism should do, and something that has often been lacking when it comes to covering reparative therapy.
Indeed, Arana’s work is a wonderful, albeit rare, example of the corrective power of courageous journalism. His article has set off a wave of high-profile coverage, including the front-page Times article cited above, which was published on May 19. On Monday, NPR’s Talk of the Nation invited Spitzer, Arana, and Benedict Carey, the author of the Times piece, to discuss the repudiation of the 2001 study.
“I didn’t go with the expectation of confronting [Spitzer],” Arana explained, adding that he “was a bit taken aback” 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 the 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.
It’s worth noting that all science journalists aren’t ready to jump on the bandwagon that reparative therapy is junk science based on Spitzer’s repudiation of his own very flawed study. Slate’s William Salatan says that while Spitzer’s study was flawed doesn’t mean there isn’t some meat to the suggestion that reparative therapy can work for a small, subset of people.
The gist of the literature is that a few people might manage to change their feelings, and some can change their behavior, but most fail. In his report on the 2001 study, Spitzer argued that even a partial change in attraction after therapy should be acknowledged as significant, as it would be in evaluating a drug. But the FDA doesn’t approve drugs that work only in an unquantified, poorly defined subpopulation, based on self-reporting, when such drugs are also reported to have harmed other patients. Look what happened to Arana. After his conversion therapy, he writes, “I spent hours in front of the window of my third-story room, wondering whether jumping would kill or merely paralyze me.”
Spitzer’s study never was the smoking gun it was cracked up to be. It didn’t substantiate conversion therapy as a cure, or even as a safe treatment, for homosexuals in general. By the same token, his apology doesn’t warrant the therapy’s eradication. What he showed us, anecdotally, is that an unusual subset of highly motivated people can find ways to alter their sexual self-understanding and possibly their behavior. Those people have no grounds to say conversion therapy will work for the rest of us. And we have no grounds to say it can’t work for them.