NARTH, the New Epigenetic Model and Confirmation Bias

Last week, I wrote briefly about the new paper from William Rice et al which describes an epigenetic model of homosexuality. In that post I reported a quote from National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) spokesman David Pruden regarding the study. Here is Pruden’s statement which was cited in the Christian Post:

“The theoretical model itself attributes only 10-14 percent of the factors to genetics or epigenetics. That leaves the remaining 85 percent or so of the factors to environmental influences,” said Pruden.

That assessment did not sound right to me so I contacted William Rice who informed me that his model accounted for homosexuality generally speaking, not just for “10-14 percent.” The Christian Post rightly printed the correction at the end of the article.

So where did the 10-14 percent figure come from? According to an email from Pruden, that range came from NARTH Scientific Advisory Board member, Neil Whitehead. Whitehead has speculated in the past that the maximum genetic contribution is between 10-14%. While I believe his assessment is low, he has referred to various studies to provide support. However, in the case of the new study, it appears no one at NARTH has even read the paper.

If Pruden read it, he didn’t refer to it. Rather he referred to Whitehead who yesterday placed a brief article on the NARTH website about the paper. Here is the body of Whitehead’s statement:

(A  fuller evaluation will appear here on this site: when the full paper is available)

Recently (Anonymous, 2012) a summation of a published paper (Rice, W.R., Friberg, U. Gavrilets,  2012) has  achieved attention as being an explanation for homosexuality.

Readers should note this is a theoretical model only and  that  historically many theories have been put forward as the single overriding factor  causing homosexuality.  The current best consensus is that there is no single over-riding factor – the  trait is multifactorial and overwhelmingly environmental. The Rice paper is quite unlikely to be “critical”. Like previous  theories, the current epigenetic one may well have a small contribution, but  this remains to be established. The authors themselves  note that laboratory work has yet to be done. The paper built on  previously published work (Rice, Gavrilets, & Friberg,  2008).

Apparently, Whitehead has not read the paper because he said the “full paper” was not available. On the contrary, the paper is freely available online here.

What is striking is what Whitehead says about the topic of the paper before seeing it. He says homosexuality is “overwhelmingly environmental” and opines that the current epigenetic theory is unlikely to make more than a “small contribution” to homosexuality. It appears that Pruden and Whitehead have their minds made up.

NARTH is so committed to an environmental/family model of cause that organization leaders jump to a preferred conclusion before even considering the evidence.  This is one way confirmation bias operates. In this case, NARTH representatives said things about the theory before they read or studied it, and what they said came, not from the paper, but from their preconceived ideas.


NARTH Report: Suicide attempts increase during sexual orientation change therapy

Writing in the second edition of NARTH’s (National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) Journal of Human Sexuality, Neil Whitehead proposed a reanalysis (NARTH summary here) of a paper by Ariel Shidlo and Michael Shroeder on potentially harmful outcomes of sexual orientation change efforts. NARTH’s headline describing the paper is

Sexual Orientation Change Efforts Do Not Lead to Increased Suicide Attempts.

Contrast NARTH’s headline with the title of my post. After examining  Whitehead’s  article, I submit that his analysis supports my title as much or more than it does NARTH’s claim.
 Shidlo and Shroeder wrote the following about suicide attempts in their 2002 report:

In examining the data, we distinguished between participants who had a history of being suicidal before conversion therapy and those who did not. Twenty-five participants had a history of suicide attempts before conversion therapy, 23 during conversion therapy, and 11 after conversion therapy. We took the subgroup of participants who reported suicide attempts and looked at suicide attempts pre-intervention, during intervention, and post-intervention to see if there was any suggestive pattern. We found that 11 participants had reported suicide attempts since the end of conversion interventions. Of these, only 3 had attempted prior to conversion therapy. Of the 11 participants, 3 had attempted during conversion therapy.

In his NARTH paper, Whitehead makes a series of assumptions about the participants in the Shidlo and Schroeder study. I think these are questionable assumptions but for sake of discussion, I will play along. First, he assumes that these suicide attempts occur over a span of 25 years (13 years pre-therapy, two years in therapy and then 10 years post-therapy). He then assumes that the attempts occurred at a constant rate over that span to calculate an expected number of suicide before, during and after therapy. Whitehead then compares his expected attempts with the actual number of attempts as reported by Shidlo and Schroeder. Whitehead summarized his findings as follows:

(a) Comparing pre-therapy, therapy, and post-therapy groups, there is overall no significant increase in suicides per unit time.
(b) There is a very clear increase in attempts during therapy.
(c) There is a trend to fewer attempts after therapy.

Using his assumptions, Whitehead wrote:

Suicide attempts reported before therapy were 25, and those reported during and after therapy combined numbered 34. The expected numbers allowing for the time periods and normalized to the above total are 30.55 and 28.44. The expectation on which this is calculated is that therapy has no effect, either positive or negative.

In this analysis, no difference shows up in suicides related to therapy when suicide attempts before therapy are compared with the time period during and after therapy. However, Whitehead does not stop there. About suicide attempts during therapy, he wrote:

For attempts before and during therapy, the observed results are 25 and 23, and the calculated expected normalized figures are 42.18 and 5.82. These are very different from the observed, and the chi-square test produces a result of p < 0.001. They are not the same, and therapy has therefore been associated with a several-fold increase in attempts.

In other words, there is a very large increase in suicide attempts during therapy. The title of my post is accurate. According to this NARTH report, sexual orientation change “therapy has therefore been associated with a several-fold increase in attempts.”
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Brain plasticity and sexual orientation: Wrapping up with a couple of experts

Earlier this month, I posted three times regarding an article by Neil and Briar Whitehead with the title, “Brain Plasticity Backs Up Orientation Change.” This is a wrap up for those posts to indicate that very little backs up the Whiteheads’ article.

I asked Adam Safron and Norman Doidge to comment about the Whitehead article. Dr. Doidge is the author of the book (The Brain that Changes Itself) misrepresented by the Whiteheads. As I noted in a previous post, the Whiteheads failed to cite Doidge completely and provided quotes which gave the incorrect impression of Dr. Doidge’s views. About sexual reorientation, Dr. Doidge pointed me to the correct passages in his book and wrote in an email:

Readers of all my actual quotes will see that I have made no comments on therapeutic techniques for changing sexual preference and plasticity in my book.

And of course, that is the problem with how the Whiteheads treated Doidge’s book. As I pointed out here, they provided only part of his quotes and failed to include what he actually said about sexual preferences, which was very little.

Adam Safron is a researcher at Northwestern University and the lead author of the article I often cite here titled, “Neural Correlates of Sexual Arousal in Homosexual and Heterosexual Men.” He read the Whitehead article and had several reactions, two of which I will share here. First, the Whiteheads say that changing sexual orientation and learning a musical instrument would be about the same.

Because of brain plasticity it’s quite possible that homosexuals can become more heterosexual and heterosexuals could become homosexual, though persistent work could be needed, about equivalent to learning a new musical instrument.

Safron’s reaction to this was to say, “There is absolutely no evidence for this statement.” However, in spite of no evidence, the Whiteheads press their case regarding musical lessons and sexual preference. They write:

Even if part of the brain is strongly associated with a particular sexuality it should be possible to change it. Stopping a sexual activity and avoiding stimulation of that brain region, and plunging into some other intense brain activity for months would lead to a diminishing of the intensity of that sexual response. Months is about the timescale of first significant change. That can be true for learning a musical instrument too!

To this proposition, Safron responded,

But the devil is in the details here.  How large is the change? How permanent? People can frequently modify their behavior on short time-scales but find themselves going back to their old ways on longer time scales. These arm-chair speculations are no substitution for real studies actually looking at the efficacy of therapy designed to change orientation.

No substitute indeed. Safron makes a good observation. What does plasticity mean in terms of durability? And then how would be able to know unless research can find some verification. Unless the Whiteheads are keeping secrets, we can only go on what research we have. Apparently, learning a new orientation is not as easy as learning a new musical instrument, given the modest changes reported in existing studies.

Parents and Friends of Ex-gays now has this article up as well.

Related posts:

Brain plasticity and sexual orientation: Train it to gain it?

NARTH authors again mislead readers: More on brain plasticity and sexual orientation

My Genes Made Me Do It and brain plascticity

My Genes Made Me Do It and brain plasticity

Just a postscript to my earlier posts on brain plasticity and sexual orientation…

Neil Whitehead first authored his signature work, My Genes Made Me Do It in 1999. Now he maintains the book on his website saying that “It is under constant review to keep it up-to-date so readers can be asssured (sic) of its on-going relevance.”

In chapter 8, on page 6, Whitehead recommends Norman Doidge’s book on brain plasticity. He takes some of the same liberties with Doidge’s book that he does in the Anglican Mainstream article and again fails to quote what Doidge actually says about sexual orientation.

Doidge gives a neurological principle: Neurons which fire together wire together. In human sexuality this means that if something extraneous is often associated with sexual arousal it will tend to become part of it. In brain maps genital response regions lie alongside the response region for feet, and Doidge wonders if this might relate to sexual fetishes involving feet. It also becomes very reasonable to suppose that (for example) intense emotional focus on someone of the same sex might get triggered together with sexual excitement, and if frequently repeated ultimately seem to be very deeply ingrained homosexuality.

Because of brain plasticity it’s quite possible that homosexuals can become more heterosexual and heterosexuals could become homosexual, though persistent work could be needed, about equivalent to learning a new musical instrument

A prediction of plasticity principles though not mentioned by Doidge, would be that any brain structures associated with sexual activity would be much changed in those very old people for whom such activity has long ceased eg those brain regions would have shrunk and lost function.

Doidge’s conclusion about sexuality is that “Human libido is not a hard-wired invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters.” And “It’s a use-it-or-lose-it brain, even where sexual desire and love are concerned.” This would apply both to same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction.

There are numerous problems with Whitehead’s extension of Doidge’s ideas into the area of sexual orientation. However, I will note again that he selectively quotes the book and adds his own ideas as if they come from Doidge’s book.

Whitehead’s predictions that sexual reorientation should be as easy as learning a musical instrument should be offensive to celibate gays, ex-gays, post-gays, and ex-ex-gays. I have heard hundreds of narratives from people who sought change, are seeking change and/or congruence with their nongay-affirming religious beliefs and no one has ever described the process in those terms.

Another problem with this book is a reference to Paul Cameron’s anti-gay pamphlet, The Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do in chapter 6. He even incorrectly says the Family Research Council published the thing (Paul Cameron’s DBA Family Research Institute is the actual publisher). He quotes him two additional times in the book as well. One might understand these inclusions better if they occurred in the 1999 version. One could make the case that the degree of Cameron’s bias was not clear at that point. However, since this is an effort “under constant review,” I am assuming that the presence of these references is intentional.

Related posts:

Brain plasticity and sexual orientation: Train it to gain it?

NARTH authors again mislead readers: More on brain plasticity and sexual orientation

NARTH authors again mislead readers: More on brain plasticity and sexual orientation

This post is a follow up to the one about Neil and Briar Whitehead’s article titled, “Brain Plasticity Backs Up Orientation Change” published on the Anglican Mainstream.

In their article, the Whiteheads liken sexual reorientation to learning to play a musical instrument and proclaim that science leads us to this assumption:

Our assumption now should be, change is possible in many behaviors – sexual orientation not excluded – and extraordinary effort will produce extraordinary change.

In their article, the Whiteheads frequently quote and recommend a book by Norman Doidge called “The Brain that Changes Itself.” To prove their contention about sexual reorientation, the Whiteheads use quotes from Doidge’s book saying:

Doidge’s conclusion about sexuality is that “Human libido is not a hardwired invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters.” and “It’s a use-it-or-lose-it brain, even where sexual desire and love are concerned.” This would apply both to same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction.

These quotes come from a chapter titled “Acquiring tastes and loves” and describe human sexuality as being pretty flexible compared to other species. Doidge says “human libido is not a hardwired invariable biological urge” on page 95 and is plucked from the middle of a sentence. Here is the whole sentence:

The plasticity of this man’s sexual tastes exaggerates is general truth: that the human libido is not a hardwired invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters.

Who is the man Doidge refers to here? While he is not named, he is described.

One homosexual man had successive relations with men from one race or ethnic group, then with those from another, and in each period he could be attracted only to men from the group that was currently “hot.”

Dr. Doidge was talking about a gay man and the variability within his sexual orientation — not about easy movements from one orientation to another. The gay man was not changing his sexual orientation but his attraction preferences. The Whiteheads leave out this aspect of the story.

The Whiteheads say that Doidge is talking about same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction. However, in the quote provided, Doidge is talking about a gay man. The Whiteheads further obscure Doidge’s views by failing to quote what he does say about sexual reorientation. On page 95 Doidge writes:

Even sexual preference can occasionally change. Though some scientists increasingly emphasize the inborn basis of our sexual preferences, it is also true that some people have heterosexual attractions for part of their lives — with no history of bisexuality — and then “add on” a homosexual attraction and vice versa.

I wonder why the Whiteheads did not quote these two sentences. This is directly on point. Quoting this section and another on page 341 would have presented Doidge’s views more clearly. This is clearly not the same perspective as is portrayed by the Whiteheads.

On page 341, Dr. Doidge provides a reference for his view about adding on sexual responsiveness to an existing orientation. He first says, it is well known that straights can engage in homosexual relations when members of the opposite sex are not present and gives prison and the military as examples. However, he then quotes an authority with no research references.

According to Richard C. Friedman, researcher on male homosexuality, when male homosexuals develop a heterosexual attraction, it is almost always an “add on” attraction, not a replacement (personal communication).

This is far cry from what the Whiteheads would have us believe about brain plasticity and sexual orientation and even about what Norman Doidge says in his book. They could have quoted what Doidge said but didn’t in favor of quotes which misrepresented what the author said. And they really did not need to wonder what Doidge thought since he spelled it out.