Accurate public statements: A Montel post-mortem

Since last Thursday’s Montel Williams Show, I have called show producers and emailed the show several times asking them for research to support a statement made by psychiatrist Alicia Salzer in reference first to Alan Chambers’ story and then to change therapies in general. She said:

This is marketing; this is not science: Science has shown us that 96% of people cannot change and along the way, absorb an enormous amount of self-loathing, a lot of confusion, a lot of family conflict, so I know the harm.”

I am completely aware that harmful things have been done and continue to be done in the name of reparative therapy, but Salzer’s statement about a rate of change cannot be supported. The closest thing to a study that might yield a 4% change rate is Shidlo and Schroeder’s qualitative study of those who said they were harmed by some type of effort to change. This was not a study that could test hypotheses about rate of change for any population. At present, science cannot say much about such change, and “it” surely cannot say what Dr. Salzer did. As noted, I have repeatedly contacted the Montel show about this statement with no response.

All mental health professionals are bound to make tentative statements about research findings and to take care to separate opinion from “science.” Consider this statement from the physician code of ethics:

Section 7

A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health.

1. Psychiatrists should foster the cooperation of those legitimately concerned with the medical, psychological, social, and legal aspects of mental health and illness. Psychiatrists are encouraged to serve society by advising and consulting with the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of the government. A psychiatrist should clarify whether he/ she speaks as an individual or as a representative of an organization. Furthermore, psychiatrists should avoid cloaking their public statements with the authority of the profession (e.g., “Psychiatrists know that…”).

I feel pretty sure that Dr. Salzer believes she is acting to better community and public health. However, I do not believe exaggeration is the way to accomplish this end.

UPDATE: 3/20/07 – I received a call from Melissa Borusso, producer of the Montel Show. She left a voice mail saying that, as suspected, Dr. Salzer was relying on the study of Shidlo and Schroeder for her statistics.

So if I went on national television and said that science has shown us that 66% of gay males and 44% of lesbians can achieve good heterosexual functioning through reorientation therapy (from Spitzer’s study), what do you think the reaction would be? Would there be a You Tube video up denouncing my misuse of research? I would hope so…