When psychologist Rebecca A. Turner, PhD, heard that a Bush administration appointee was citing her research as evidence for why the unmarried shouldn't have sex, she was dumbfounded.
In a 1999 study published in Psychiatry (Vol. 62, No. 2), Turner and her co-authors reported preliminary findings about the link between emotion and the hormone oxytocin. A physician who went on to become the administration's top family-planning official pointed to the paper as proof that sex with multiple partners damages women's ability to bond.
"We couldn't have imagined in our wildest dreams that someone could misinterpret our research that way," says Turner, now a professor of organizational psychology at Alliant International University in San Francisco.
Of course, Turner is not the only psychologist whose research has been co-opted, misinterpreted or attacked. While researchers working in such contentious areas as homosexuality, divorce or abortion are the most frequent targets, even those studying such seemingly innocuous areas as depression have been misconstrued.
What the strategies have in common, says Turner, is an emphasis on ideology rather than science.
But psychological researchers are fighting back, providing accurate, unbiased information to policy-makers, courts and the media. They're also noting methodological problems in research that contradict established science. And, perhaps most important, they're promoting the need for review by peers rather than politicians.
Setting the record straight
For Robert-Jay Green, PhD, it was the "accumulation of distortions of research" by anti-gay groups that spurred him into action.
"I just reached a point where I felt that those who know the most about lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) issues--legitimate social scientists and mental health professionals who have spent their entire careers studying the issues--had lost their voice in the national debate," he explains.
To counter the distortions, Green founded the nonpartisan Rockway Institute at Alliant International University, where he is a clinical psychology professor.
Educating the media is especially important. In many instances, Green says, journalists become unwitting allies of well-funded anti-gay groups. Whether they're trying to achieve balance or feed their thirst for controversy, he says, journalists sometimes rely on spokespeople from groups that "frequently and categorically dismiss all reputable existing research on LGBT issues" or rely on dubious findings from discredited researchers.
Green points to a 2006 Time article by Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson, PhD, as an example, noting that Dobson ignored an extensive body of quantitative and qualitative literature when he claimed that children do best when raised by heterosexual couples. "In one fell swoop, Dobson dismisses all that research," notes Green. And because corrections or rebuttals often receive less attention than the original assertion, he adds, the damage is done.
To counter such misinformation, the Rockway Institute draws on the expertise of behavioral scientists, mental health professionals and physicians who can provide accurate information. The institute also conducts its own research to fill knowledge gaps, with Green, fellow faculty members and doctoral students exploring such topics as same-sex marriage and coming out. Green and a colleague are currently seeking funding for a study that will supplement the many qualitative studies of gay male parenting with a longitudinal study of outcomes of children raised by gay men. In another study in the planning stages, Green and colleagues will examine the impact of an LGBT-affirmative curriculum being used in health science classes taken by ninth-graders in Los Angeles. The goal, says Green, is to "answer some of the most pressing public policy questions related to LGBT issues."
Funding for the institute's dual roles comes from private donations, faculty research grants and paid research assistantships.
In other issue areas, special-interest groups have assumed the trappings of science to bolster ideology-driven claims. One example is so-called "post-abortion syndrome," a scientific-sounding name for something most researchers say doesn't exist. Nancy E. Adler, PhD, a professor of medical psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, is one of them. She has found that the rate of distress among women who've had abortions is the same as that of women who've given birth. Adler and other experts reviewed the literature in the late 1980s as part of an APA panel and found no evidence of a post-abortion syndrome. Even the anti-abortion Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD, refused to issue a report on abortion's supposed psychological impact when President Ronald Reagan asked him to, citing the lack of evidence of harm.
Since then, says Adler, anti-abortion advocates have become more world-wise.
"They're using scientific terminology," she points out. They're also gaining credibility by getting published in mainstream journals.
But such research often has methodological problems, Adler claims.
"Women are not randomly assigned to have abortions," she points out. "Women who are having abortions are having them in the context of an unwanted pregnancy, which usually has some other very stressful aspects. Their partners may have left them. They may have been raped."
In addition, says Adler, proponents of the syndrome don't mention the base rate of depression and other psychological problems in society as a whole. And they always attribute such problems to abortion rather than any other possible causes.
A new APA Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion will examine such issues in a report later this year.
Trying to explain methodological deficiencies can be tough, adds Adler, who is not a member of the new task force. "I don't know that the 10 o'clock news is going to cover the problem of reverse causation," she says.
Defending peer review
Researchers working on controversial topics aren't the only ones who have had trouble.
Sam Gosling, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, was startled to learn that Congress thought his research on mood was frivolous. In 2004, a member of Congress added an amendment to an appropriations bill attacking Gosling's grant as a waste of National Institute of Mental Health funding.
"I don't want federal funding to be frivolous either," says Gosling, noting that his study analyzed the effect of personal living environments on college students' moods. "My research can easily be made to sound frivolous, but depression is a serious issue among students."
Because the research was nearly complete, Gosling was never in danger of losing his funding. But the experience of being part of what he calls "a political gesture" left him shaken.
"It's incredibly chilling and scary--the idea of having government interference in these things," he says. "It has made me much more reluctant to submit a grant."
While Congress does have a legitimate role in setting the research agenda, he emphasizes, politicians should leave the review of individual grants to scientists.
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.