In Defense of Good Science

Megan Grammatico ’15

I have to preface this: the whole making waves and writing blog posts thing? Not me. I’ve always been a keep-your-opinion-to-yourself kind of girl, and I’m usually of the mind that there are plenty of people out there that know a lot more than me. But yesterday I checked my email, and I was horrified. Horrified enough to need to say something, and not just by texting my dad to vent. So here goes: 

By now, you’ve heard. PC is once again buzzing about a speaker invited to campus by the philosophy department—talking about what else? Homosexuality, of course. This speaker is Dr. Michelle Cretella, M.D.  Her talk has been billed as being “attentive to science and to faith,” but a quick googling of her name and credentials reveals a pretty big problem with the “science” part. I am not going to go into the academic freedom thing. I am also going to stay away from the fundamental lack of regard this shows for PC’s LGBTQ population, since others have already done that far more succinctly and eloquently that I could. But there is another angle here, and it is one worth considering.

Dr. Cretella is a board-certified pediatrician, as well as the vice president of the American College of Pediatricians. The American College of Pediatricians is a socially conservative organization that formed in 2002 as part of a protest regarding the American Academy of Pediatrics support of adoption by gay and lesbian couples. Among other things, it advocates support for selective parental use of corporal punishment in child discipline, support for abstinence-based sex education, and discouraging the adoption of children by same-sex couples or single parents. Many of the views it holds are in direct contradiction with the recommendations made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is

a professional membership organization of 60,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical sub-specialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety, and well being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults”.

For comparison purposes, the American College of Pediatricians does not disclose its membership statistics (trust me, I looked everywhere) but Wikipedia estimates its membership to be between 60 and 200 members. So herein lies the first problem. Dr. Cretella is already biased. She is the vice president of an organization that was formed originally to oppose adoption by gay and lesbian couples, and relies on bad science to do so. See the heavily criticized research of Mark Regnerus here.

I might be going out on a limb, but it seems to me that an organization founded to protest a sociopolitical issue cannot be very scientifically objective.

Dr. Cretella’s talk poster also advertises her position on the Board of Directors of that National Association for Research of Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). NARTH’s stated mission is to provide service to those with “unwanted same-sex attraction”—a fancy way of saying that they support “conversion therapy,” a practice that has been denounced by the American Psychiatric Association as most certainly not beneficial and quite possibly harmful. The APA says this:

Psychotherapeutic modalities to convert or ‘repair’ homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable. Furthermore, anecdotal reports of “cures” are counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm. In the last four decades, “reparative” therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure. Until there is such research available, [the American Psychiatric Association] recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to first, do no harm.”

So let’s get this straight. The philosophy department invited a speaker who belongs to two organizations that expressly contradict the viewpoints of major, established, well-respected groups (the APA and the AAP). Furthermore, the groups that Dr. Cretella belongs to rely on misuse and misrepresentation of the work that other scientists have done. At Providence College, we have a name for misusing or misrepresenting the work of another author: we call that plagiarism.  For example, in 2010, the work of Dr. Gary Remafedi, a pediatrician at the University of Minnesota, was used by the organization in a pamphlet mailed out to superintendents across the country to advocate not supporting gay and lesbian students that come out in high school. This was most certainly not what the body of Remafedi’s research as a whole was saying. In fact, Dr. Remafedi wrote a letter to the American College of Pediatricians that reads in part:

“Dear colleagues,

I am deeply concerned about misstatements attributed to our research on the “Facts about Youth” website of the American College of Pediatricians (http://factsaboutyouth.com/ [accessed on April 12, 2010]), as they appear in the “Letter to School Officials” and “What You Should Know as a School Official.”

The first reference to our research in these documents deceptively states: “Rigorous studies demonstrate that most adolescents who initially experience same-sex attraction, or are sexually confused, no longer experience such attractions by age 25. In one study, as many as 26% of 12-year-olds reported being uncertain of their sexual orientation1…”

Although the finding (“26% of 12-year-olds…”) is accurately reported, the sentence preceding it invites misinterpretation. Our original interpretation, as presented in the discussion section of the paper, is: “Taken together, these data suggest that uncertainty about sexual orientation and perceptions of bisexuality gradually give way to heterosexual or homosexual identification with passage of time and/or with increasing sexual experience.” 

The letter goes on to ask that all reference to his work be removed from the website, a request with which the American College of Pediatricians did not comply. On top of totally misrepresenting his work by taking several statements completely out of context, in all the citations of Remafedi’s work by the American College of Pediatricians, his name was spelled wrong. That makes me doubtful those at the American College of Pediatricians even read Remafedi’s work in its totality; it certainly does not increase my confidence in the scientific accuracy of what ACP claims.

I came to Providence College to get an education. I have spent the last almost-three years studying biology and neuroscience at PC, and I have been lucky to have incredible professors. But my professors are not just good teachers—they are excellent scientists. And through my biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology classes and lab work, I have learned a lot about the way good science is done. It relies on a special methodology, a certain “way of knowing” that insists that hypotheses must be made, tested, challenged, supported, challenged again, tested again, and only “accepted” until evidence to the contrary presents itself. So, if Dr. Cretella is going to bill her talk as being “attentive to science,” I would hope that she was going to discuss the myriad of studies done by the APA, the AAP, the American Sociological Association (ASA) and other reputable pediatric scientists—but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case at all. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem for the reputation of the school, particularly in a year when negative publicity by the New York Times was discussed ad nauseum. In a very short time, myself and many other science students will apply to graduate school or medical school. When institutions we apply to see the name of our school, we need it to be synonymous with the well-respected, Catholic institution that provided an excellent education in both liberal arts and biology that it is. We just don’t need any media claims that Providence College cannot distinguish between science and pseudoscience—it does the reputation of our students, faculty, and institution great harm.

Let’s be clear: I have absolutely no problem with Dr. Cretella coming to talk about her moral, religious, and philosophical convictions regarding homosexuality. In keeping with academic freedom and my belief that good people, people of faith, can respectfully disagree about this while still upholding human dignity, she absolutely should come to campus and present her viewpoint—no respondent necessary. My issue lies solely with the way the talk has been advertised. It is not going to be “attentive to science” because the positions of the organizations Dr. Cretella is a part of are not attentive to science.

If she is going to put the fancy letters after her name, and call herself a doctor and scientist, she should probably keep in mind the first and most important part of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” Inviting a speaker to campus, and advertising her as a scientist, while she advocates for the “curing” of homosexuality, does great harm. I trust my doctor. I do not thoroughly vet every piece of advice that she gives me with my own research, because I truly believe she will live up to the highest standards of her profession, and give me only the most up to date, well-researched, evidence-based advice that she can. I do not think this is uncommon among most patients, and I shudder to think of the harm that might be caused if her position is taken as medically sound by LGBT students (because, well, she’s a DOCTOR). Furthermore, though I in no way downplay the message this sends to the LGBTQ students and faculty at PC, this false advertising is harmful to the college as whole. And you know what? That’s worth a totally-out-of-character, opinionated blog post about. 

CITATIONS: (Because good authors, like good scientists, cite their work)

14 thoughts on “In Defense of Good Science

  1. Pingback: Controversial Talk Postponed By Sponsor | Friarside Chats

  2. Pingback: Providence College postpones controversial anti-LGBTQ lecturer

  3. Show me peer-reviewed studies that contradict the Regnerus research and not just a link to the Huffington Post and then perhaps you’ll have an argument. Acknowledge the fact that the latest edition of the APA’s DSM is now boycotted by psychologists and social workers throughout the country because of its seemingly arbitrary changes in the definitions of autism and intellectual disability, and I’ll accept that you’re making an objective argument. Otherwise, this post is just typical polemical jargon. Psychology and clinical practice is not a hard science, and it’s subject to the observer bias, which is exactly why there are competing organizations with different assumptions.

    • Fr. Petri,

      The study by Dr. Regnerus has been heavily criticized on methodological grounds (e.g., see Amato’s and Eggebeen’s responses in the same issue as the original article). However, arguably the more problematic thing about that study is that is has been used to support claims that Regnerus himself did not explicitly make, e.g., gay and lesbian marriage should be forbidden because of the “suboptimal” (his word) outcomes of the adult children in the study whose parents had engaged in some kind of gay/lesbian relationship. In the Regnerus study, the sample size is not sufficient to distinguish between “planned” children (e.g., through adoption) of gay parents in a long-term marriage-like relationship, versus those children whose biological parents divorced and one or both parents subsequently had a same-sex relationship of some kind. It is likely that these are two very different scenarios when it comes to the effect on the children. Using cases in the latter group to make conclusions about cases in the former group is scientifically unfounded.

      As for bias, all social science research is biased, at the very least to the extent that all data are theory-laden (as the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn said). That is precisely why a single study, or studies by a single researcher, should never be taken as absolutely conclusive, especially for controversial topics. The nature is science is such that the entire corpus of research studies should be considered, each in the context of its own strengths and weaknesses, including samples used, study design, analyses performed. Much more favorable outcomes for the children of gay parents have been reported in studies that have compared “planned” children of same-sex parents to children who have been raised by both biological parents.

    • Rev. Petri:

      Southern Illinois University sociology department chair Darren Sherkat is a member of the editorial board of Social Science Research, the journal that published the Regnerus paper. Dr. Sherkat was engaged by Social Science Research, to lead an internal audit into the peer review process.

      His conclusions include that peer reviewer responses, “were milquetoast critiques by scholars with ties to Regnerus and/or the Witherspoon Institute” and that the paper, “should have been published.”

      You can read the entire report here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0049089X12001652

      Shortly thereafter, Dr. Sherkat was interviewed by the Southern Poverty Law Center about the issue. In that interview Dr. Sherkat stated, “When we talk about Regnerus, I completely dismiss the study. It’s over. He has been disgraced. All of the prominent people in the field know what he did and why he did it. And most of them know that he knew better.” Sherkat stated the Regnerus study, “is bad scholarship,” and laments that, “We don’t have any ASA ethics rules about bad scholarship done for political reasons.”

      The entire SPLC interview is here: http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2013/summer/suspect-science#.UadntUDVDLn

      Dismissing an article in the Huffington Post may be easy, but make no mistake — the Regnerus study was deeply flawed, there is no shortage of reliable journalism detailing those flaws, and spending just a few minutes of your own time doing your own research will reveal data that “contradict the Regnerus research.”

    • One more comment, Rev. Petri: you said, “Show me peer-reviewed studies that contradict the Regnerus research …”

      I’m happy to oblige. The American Sociological Association weighed in on the same-sex marriage cases before the U.S. Supreme Court last year, filing an amicus brief outlining social science research that shows “children fare just as well” when raised by same-sex or heterosexual parents.

      The amicus brief is chock full of citations to peer reviewed studies. You can find a pdf of the ASA amicus brief here: http://www.asanet.org/documents/ASA/pdfs/12-144_307_Amicus_%20%28C_%20Gottlieb%29_ASA_Same-Sex_Marriage.pdf

      Best regards.

    • Bravo for calling out a Providence College undergraduate on this forum Father. The Dominican tradition is one of disputed questions, not disputed answers. Pope Francis has called upon the faithful to become less obsessed with a variety of issues such as gay marriage, perhaps that is his Jesuit training.

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