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Fighting a Distortion of Research

December 19, 2006

When academics feel that their work has been distorted in the press, they frequently have to settle for griping to colleagues or writing a letter to the editor. But for Carol Gilligan, a prominent psychologist and author of In a Different Voice, a mere letter did not suffice. When she was alerted that James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, referenced her work in a Time magazine column, she denounced his interpretation of her research -- posting her views Monday in a video on YouTube.

In his magazine piece, Dobson criticized Mary Cheney’s decision to become pregnant. “[T]he majority of more than 30 years of social-science indicates that children do best on every measure of well-being when raised by their married mother and father,” he wrote last week. Dobson backed up his claims by citing Gilligan’s work. Gilligan is a renowned expert on gender and human development and is a professor of education and law at New York University.

“I was stunned to hear that James Dobson quoted me in Time magazine,” Gilligan says in the video. “I had no idea. I was mortified.” She says that there is nothing in her research that would lead anyone to agree with Dobson's claim that same-gender families are unhealthy for children.

In a statement released by Focus on the Family, the organization said, "[I]n his Time essay, Dr. Dobson does not represent Professor Gilligan as supporting or opposing same-sex parenting, but only that her work shows that men and women stress different elements in moral teaching."

The video was commissioned last Friday and quickly edited over the weekend by Wayne Besen, the executive director of Truth Wins Out, an advocacy group for gay rights. Besen said that he has grown weary of Dobson mangling science to advance a political agenda against gay families. Last summer, he started contacting researchers to alert them whenever Dobson cited them in his writing.

“None of them know this is going on,” Besen said of the academics. “That’s how [Dobson] gets away with it.” This certainly holds true for Gilligan. In the video, she states that she learned of Dobson’s article after Besen notified her. While Gilligan does not appear to dispute any specifics in Dobson's article, she says that Dobson distorts the meaning of her work which does not support his conclusions.

Another professor highlighted in the video and in Dobson’s article is Kyle Pruett, a professor of child psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and author of Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child. Citing Pruett, Dobson wrote, “The fact remains that gender matters -- perhaps nowhere more than in regard to child rearing.”

After he was contacted last week by Besen, Pruett sent a letter to Dobson asking him to stop citing his research. The letter is posted on Besen’s Web site .

“I pointed out that gay or lesbian relationships do not at all compromise childhood,” Pruett said in an interview. He added that Dobson’s analysis of his research on fathers was “destructive and highly prejudicial,” and cherry-picked information. When people start spinning science, Pruett said, you have to respond.

“Journalism used to handle this, but not anymore,” he said. “So it’s bounced back to become the responsibility of the people doing the research.”

In response, Focus on the Family stated, "While Pruett has tried to distance himself politically from the use of his scientific conclusions, those conclusions still remain."

Besen said that he has contacted other professors who Dobson has cited, and he plans to release more videos with academics countering Dobson’s claims. “They’re getting defined by Dobson who has the President on speed dial,” he said. “They’re reluctant to get involved. But in the name of academic credibility, they step forward.”

Besen said that he thought of using YouTube after watching former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) getting ridiculed for the video featuring his famous "macaca" quip. "It's the medium to reach the masses when you don't have a large media budget," he said.

The recent incident with Dobson is not the first time that academics have grumbled that Focus on the Family perverts science. Last summer, Elizabeth Saewyc, an associate professor with the school of nursing at the University of British Columbia, accused the group of “hijacking” her study on suicide rates among bisexual youth.

She said that she would not have learned that Focus on the Family was distorting her research unless Besen had contacted her. Her study found a link between homosexuality and risk for suicide, but she said that Focus on the Family blamed the high suicide rate on pro-gay activists. Saewyc said in an email interview that her study found only a correlation and was not designed to find causation.

“What was more surprising were the conclusions they drew from the information,” she said of Focus on the Family.

 

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