Mark Yarhouse on the Spitzer Retraction

Interesting Stuff.

People  are asking me about Robert Spitzer’s reported desire to retract his study of 200 people who claimed to have experience change of their sexual orientation. It is unclear what people want me to say. When I first read his reported exchange with Gabriel Arana, I reflected on what I know about retracting studies. Research is typically retracted for gross errors or deception, as when data has been fabricated, for example. I had not seen anyone addressing this, however. All of the blogs and reports were on Spitzer’s desire to make a retraction (or whether he was feeling pressure to do so or whether he was protecting his legacy, etc.) but not on what constitutes or warrants a retraction. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

So we may or may not see a retraction in the formal sense of the word. I don’t know how much it matters. In the blogosphere, where folks on both sides of this particular debate take shots at one another, what constitutes grounds for a retraction will likely be lost on those who want to use Spitzer’s “change” to support their position. It was the case when Spitzer interpreted his data one way; it appears that way with Spitzer interpreting his data another way. (Although, as I suggested from the outset, Spitzer may be interpreting his data in much the same way he did originally–as when he first presented his findings at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in 2001: as evidence that the people he interviewed believed they had experienced change of orientation.)

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10 Comments on “Mark Yarhouse on the Spitzer Retraction

  1. Thanks for posting this artcile by Mark Yarhouse, Peter. The original article by Gabriel Arana ‘My So-Called Ex-Gay Life’ which is also interesting. My overall feeling after reading both articles is “No News”. Spitzer did a series of around 200 phone interviews with self-described ex-gays who had gone through religiously mediated sexual orientation change effort (SOCE) ministries. They self-reported that they had significantly changed their sexual orientation (SO). Nothing I read in Arana’s article suggests that Spitzer has retracted the findings, data or methodology, which is presumably why the editor of the journal that published the original article does not feel that there are grounds for retraction of the study. He does however seem to be worried about both the way that the article has been used by the Christian right in the US ‘Culture Wars’ and his own legacy. All very interesting as background but hardly earth shattering stuff …

    • Hi Philip,

      have just read Gabriel Arana’s article and found it moving and very well written. I agree with you that Dr Spitzer seems “to be worried about both the way that the article has been used by the Christian right in the US ‘Culture Wars’ and his own legacy” but am surprised you felt that “Nothing I read in Arana’s article suggests that Spitzer has retracted the findings, data or methodology”. Arana writes, “I asked about the criticisms leveled at him. “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” he said. “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.””. If Dr Spitzer thinks the critiques of his study are “largely correct” that might suggest he’d accept that its methodology was not of the finest, for example. And if all the study gives is evidence that some people who have undergone SOCE believe it was effective, but without any attempt to test their self-report, then that isn’t evidence of much. Now maybe that does mean that the initial reaction to this study was greatly overheated, but still, I think there’s more in this than you’re allowing here. 

      in friendship, Blair 

      • Thanks for the reply Blair. I also found the Arana article very moving. I probably wasn’t clear enough in my original comment. What I mean is that if you read the original Spitzer article then all he did was telephone interview around 200 people who had been through an SOCE ministry. He didn’t use a questionnaire designed to measure degrees of sexual attraction or to internally check data, unlike Jones and Yarhouse. He conducted guided phone interviews on the participants perceptions of SOCE ministry and their experience since, aiming to cover a series of issues in a general way depending how the interview flowed. I’ve used similar methods myself, although in a different social science field. His paper was essentially based on notes from his phone interviews.

        This is why when he’s reported by Arana as saying “The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more” I say this is “No News”. Given his methodology of guided phone interviews this is exactly the type of evidence that would have been, and was produced – essentially a significant number of self-reports.

        I can understand why he would deplore the way in which elements of the Christian right have used his study, and I would agree with him. I can also understand why he would want to safeguard his legacy as a scientist given the way that his study has been abused.

        But it is significant to me that the relevant journal would not print a retraction. If that this is because there was no need to do so. Spitzer’s paper was exactly what it purported to be – a discussion of the self-reporting of around 200 ex-gays who had gone through SOCE ministry on their experiences and the results. His paper is no more and no less than what it purports to be so there is no need for retraction.

        The whole episode contains two lessons for me:

        1. The way in which the whole area of sexuality research has been politicised to the extent that it is very difficult to simply give a straightforward report of experience.
        2. The need for sexuality research with more systematic and rigorous methods than used by Spitzer in his study and which is provided by the ongoing Jones and Yarhouse study.

        • Hi Philip,

          again I largely agree but would raise a little question about why ‘Archives of Sexual Behavior’ wouldn’t print a retraction – Arana’s article merely said  that they refused previously, and couldn’t now be contacted, so it’s unclear to me how significant that is. 

          I think your last 2 ‘lessons’ are basically right but that does mean that all the fuss over Dr Spitzer’s study has been overdone, both when it first appeared and now, given how little it proves. And even Jones & Yarhouse’s study has its flaws… 

          in friendship, Blair 

          • >>again I largely agree but would raise a little question about why ‘Archives of Sexual Behavior’ wouldn’t print a retraction<<

            The blog post linked in Mark Yarhouses article is I think quite fair and covers this issue very fully (see http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fetishes-i-dont-get/201204/how-ex-ex-gay-study). What seems to emerge to me is that Spitzer's interpretation of the data he collected in his study has now changed but he hasn't yet gone through the proper process to publish his changed interpretation through a letter to the relevant journal.

            What is very clear as well is that the editor of the journal does not feel that there are sufficient grounds to retract the study. There are no identified flaws in the data or the methodology. It remains a study on the self-reported views of some 200 people who went through SOCE ministry and claimed that their sexual orientation had changed in a manner that was significant to them – no more and no less.

            What such data actually says is of course open to interpretation and that interpretation in a sense never stops, as it is still there as data and if good research continues to be done previous studies and data can be reanalysed in the light of new findings. So it isn't in principle greatly surprising that Spitzer now wants to change his interpretation – people change their views over time about many things.

            What is clear is that the study has not been invalidated for reason of bad data or methodology.

            And then of course there is the interpretation of why Spitzer would want to change his interpretation …. :-)

            • Hi Philip,

              well, again, I mostly agree – having read Mark Yarhouse’s piece it looks as though Dr Spitzer now wants to somehow ‘fence off’ his study from being misinterpreted or used to flag-wave for ex-gay ministries, but that since a formal retraction probably isn’t possible, he may have to be content with the interview with Gabriel Arana.

              My quibble is with your line above that “What is clear is that the study has not been invalidated for reason of bad data or methodology”. Maybe not bad data, but certainly flawed methodology, as many voices said at the time it was first published. Yarhouse quotes Dr Zucker, editor of ‘Archives of Sexual Behavior’, remembering that he told Dr Spitzer that “lots of people have already criticized you for interpretation, methodological issues, etc”. 

              So, yes, “It remains a study on the self-reported views of some 200 people who went through SOCE ministry and claimed that their sexual orientation had changed in a manner that was significant to them”, but could be said to fail the ‘so what’ test…

              in friendship, Blair

  2. “Spitzer may be interpreting his data in much the same way he did originally…as evidence that the people he interviewed believed they had experienced change of orientation.”
    I suggest that the difference in his interpretation of his data is this: back then he was inclined to believe it too, but now he isn’t.

    • No, Spitzer doesn’t discuss whether or not people are born gay (or born straight, come to that). And whether or not they can change is a separate question. Even if people aren’t born gay, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they can change. I don’t think that Spitzer has said that people can’t change their sexual orientation (although it doesn’t sound as though he thinks it at all likely that they can). What he is saying is that he no longer regards his study as providing credible evidence that anyone can, and that it should therefore no longer be cited for this purpose.

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