Everything you wanted to know about
For the first time ever in U.S. history, Congress officially condemned a study published in a major scientific journal. The study was published in 1998 in Psychological Bulletin, the flagship journal of the prestigious American Psychological Association (APA), and it was condemned the next year. The APA apologized for printing the article, resulting in a three-year controversy that threatened to split the organization in half. Some claimed the study was pseudo-scientific propaganda, while others charged that Congress’s and the APA’s actions amounted to censorship and would have a chilling effect on scientific research. Numerous articles were published in the popular and professional press over the next two years. The controversy was rekindled in 2001 when a psychologist’s critique of the APA’s actions was accepted for publication in another APA journal, then rejected just before publication. This site details the events of this drama, and links to articles published in the professional journals.
The controversy centered around the study “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples,” published in the APA’s Psychological Bulletin in 1998 (Vol. 124, No. 1, pp. 22-53). The authors were Bruce Rind of the Department of Psychology at Temple University, Philip Tromovich of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Robert Bauserman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan. The study was a review of 59 studies of college students assessing the effects of childhood and adolescent sexual experiences with adults. During the peer review process (in which the APA reviewers critique the article and suggest or require changes before publication), the action editor asked Rind and his colleagues to discuss the implications of the studies’ findings that willing minors often experienced such activity as neutral or positive, and evidence of psychological harm often could not be found. As a result of this request, the authors wrote in their article that using definitions of “abuse” and “consent” based on legal or moral rather than scientific considerations resulted in poor predictive validity, and impeded an understanding of the phenomenon and its effects. Thus they recommended that more neutral terminology (“adult-minor sex” rather than “abuse”) be used for interaction experienced positively and resulting in no sign of harm—a recommendation for which Rind et al. would later be attacked by politicians and professionals.
In the summer of 1999, the article was discovered by the National Association for Research and Treatment of Homosexuality (NARTH), a conservative organization that believes homosexuality is a disorder that can be cured. NARTH condemned the study in an article on its website. As a result, two conservative Christian publications discovered and also condemned the study, and it eventually came to the attention of syndicated radio talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Schlessinger, who considers homosexuality to be "unnatural", publicized the study on her radio show and website, referring to it as "junk science." Along with NARTH and the Family Research Council (a conservative lobbying group), she put political pressure on Congress to condemn the study.
Under threat of being censured itself by Congress, the APA publicly responded to the controversy by distancing itself from the study in a statement which said that some of the authors’ conclusions were “inconsistent with the positions of the APA.” However, an internal memo indicated that the APA had earlier supported the article, saying its findings were “consistent with, and, in fact, based on, the 59 previous studies.” It agreed with Rind and colleagues that some subjects found sexual experiences with adults during childhood or adolescence "positive," that this may be an “artifact” of overly broad definitions of child sexual abuse, and that boys respond more positively than girls. Furthermore, the APA found the study’s methodology to be sound: “This study passed the journal's rigorous peer review process and has, since the controversy, been reviewed again by an expert in statistical analysis who affirmed that it meets current standards and that the methodology, which is widely used by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop guidelines, is sound.” The APA concluded that “science has been misrepresented to further the cause of politics and sensationalist publicity.”
However, the Congress continued to pressure the APA to condemn the report. Eventually, as the House vote neared, the APA responded to the pressure by writing a letter to one of the sponsors of the bill, saying that “clearly, the article included opinions of the authors that are inconsistent with APA's stated and deeply held positions on child welfare and protection issues,” and promising that the Rind report would be reviewed again by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The APA also promised to consider whether future articles are in the interest of public policy before publishing them. The House accordingly passed an amended version of the bill, which condemned the report itself but not the APA.
In a letter to the APA, 12 past and current presidents of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex strongly objected to the APA’s response to the controversy, saying that it “cast a chill on all such research” and that in order to solve serious social problems, the search for accurate information must be protected from political considerations and pressures. Nationally respected sexuality researcher Leonore Tiefer also sent a letter to the APA calling its position “contemptible” and describing Rind’s work as “clear-eyed and comprehensive.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship issued a statement on the incident in which it said, “The APA, to its discredit, responded not by defending the integrity of the scientific process by which research is peer-reviewed, published, debated, and critiqued, but by ‘resolving to evaluate the scientific articles it publishes in light of their potential social, legal, and political implications.’ The APA says this isn’t censorship—but what else can it be called?”
Similarly, the American Association for the Advancement of Science refused to review the study, writing, “We see no reason to second-guess the process of peer review used by the APA journal in its decision to publish…we saw no clear evidence of improper application of methodology or other questionable practices on the part of the article's authors...The Committee also wishes to express its grave concerns with the politicization of the debate over the article's methods and findings . . .All citizens, especially those in a position of public trust, have a responsibility to be accurate about the evidence that informs their public statements. We see little indication of that from the most vocal on this matter, behavior that the Committee finds very distressing.”
In the fall of 1999, at the joint annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex and the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, Philip Tromovitch, one of the authors of the study, presented the authors’ detailed account of the controversy and their response.
However, the story was not over, as a second wave of controversy was ignited. Two years later, Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, an outspoken critic of pseudo-science and harmful or ineffective therapies, submitted an article to the APA’s publication American Psychologist in which he defended the Rind study and criticized the APA for “caving in to political pressure.” His article was reviewed and accepted for publication. However, four months later the APA editor changed his mind, requiring Lilienfeld to remove references to the Rind controversy and material critical of the APA and members of Congress the APA tried to placate. Lilienfeld charged the APA leadership with censorship, and informed his colleagues on a widely read mailing list. The resulting storm of protest pressured the APA to publish the article after all, in a special issue concerned with both the Rind and the Lilienfeld incidents.
Rind, B., Tromovitch, P., & Bauserman, R., “Condemnation of a scientific article,” Sexuality & Culture, vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring 2000), pp. 1-62.
Lilienfeld, S., “A funny thing happened on the way to my American Psychologist publication,” letter to the American Psychologist, vol. 57, no. 3 (March 2002), pp. 225-227.
The politics of child sexual abuse research by Janice Haaken and Sharon Lamb
“The controversy that erupted in response to this article has been most frequently framed as a dispute between science and public morality... neither position captures the complexity of the issues….In this essay, we "unpack" the findings of the Rind et al. study, exploring key issues raised and placing them within a wider cultural context.”
The uproar over sexual abuse research and its findings by Carol Tavris
“Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman's paper on child sexual abuse that appeared in "Psychological Bulletin" in 1998 called into question assumptions in which several constituencies have extensive political and professional vested interests. Congress and clinicians may feel a spasm of righteousness by condemning scientific findings they dislike, but their actions will do little or nothing to reduce the actual abuse of children.”
Pedophilia and the Culture Wars by G.E. Zuriff
“The APA's decision to side with the article's critics radically reverses the role it has played in the assault on the primacy of the traditional nuclear family over the past quarter century. . . A full analysis of the APA's position reveals basic internal ideological contradictions that more completely explain the APA's public response.”
The Congressional censure of a research paper: Return of the inquisition? by Kenneth K Berry and Jason Berry
“Although this may be the first time in US history that the legislative branch of the federal government has officially condemned and censured a scientific publication, it is not a first in world history. . .Perhaps the best known incident of suppression of scientific research was Galileo's proposition of the heliocentric theory of the solar system. . . We have taken the first large and frightening step away from scientific freedom and toward totalitarianism in control of scientific endeavors.”
The debate in Sexuality and Culture
The entire Spring 2000 issue was devoted to the Rind controversy, and contained the first five articles below. This special issue was entitled “Consequences of child sexual abuse.” The other two articles appeared in the fall 2000 and winter 2001 issues.
In this article, Rind et al. explain the rationale of their study, provide a summary of its findings, and describe the events leading up to its condemnation. They also present and carefully refute each criticism leveled against their study, and outline threats to science that may result from the reactions of professionals and politicians. They conclude that their critics have a moral and economic agenda.
David Spiegel, one of the main critics of the study, presents his views. He asks whether the study’s authors are simply presenting an unpopular but intellectually defensible position, or trying to justify “the sleazy exploitation of children.”
A professor of social work writes that the APA’s statement in response to the controversy has been proved false scientifically, and warns of harmful effects on children resulting from professionals ignoring the study’s recommendations.
A professor of political science explains how the controversy could have been predicted based on an understanding of sexual politics. He writes that “the problem with the article was not that it was methodologically weak, but that is was strong. It broke the rules of sexual politics.”
Rind et al. answer each of Spiegel’s criticisms. They accuse their critics of using moral criteria to attack scientifically sound procedures, and of resorting to misrepresentation and distortion.
Spiegel repeats, refines, and reframes his criticisms. He accuses Rind et al. of making disparaging comments about his professional affiliations, and leaves it up to the reader to decide who is distorting and misrepresenting.
Rind et al. summarize the criticisms of their opponents and their own refutations of those criticisms. They answer each of Spiegel’s newly modified criticisms. They argue for a rejection of moralistic psychiatry in favor of Kinsey’s scientific approach in order to understand adult-child sexual interaction.
The debate in Psychological Bulletin
The original article:
“Many lay persons and professionals believe that child sexual abuse (CSA) causes intense harm, regardless of gender, pervasively in the general population…The college data were completely consistent with data from national samples. Basic beliefs about CSA in the general population were not supported.”
The following three articles appeared in the November 2001 issue:
“The current analysis revealed numerous problems in that study that minimized CSA-adjustment relations, including use of a healthy sample, an inclusive definition of CSA, failure to correct for statistical attenuation, and misreporting of original data.”
“In this commentary, the authors summarize the controversy that has ensued, place it in a historical context, discuss the limitations of B. Rind et al.'s findings, and critique the manner in which those findings are presented. The authors also argue for the appropriateness of the term abuse and for scientific terminology that reflects rather than contradicts consensual public morality.”
“The authors respond to 2 victimological critiques of their 1998 meta-analysis on child sexual abuse…The authors show all these claims to be invalid. To the contrary, they demonstrate frequent bias…This reply supports the original methods, analyses, recommendations, and conclusions of Rind et al.”
The Rind and Lilienfeld controversies in American Psychologist
The entire March 2002 issue was devoted to the Rind and Lilienfeld controversies. All of the articles below appeared in this special issue, entitled “Interactions among scientists and policymakers: Challenges and opportunities.”
“In the spring of 1999, a storm of controversy arose at the local, state, and national levels surrounding an article on the effects of child sexual abuse published in 1998 in Psychological Bulletin...The authors chronicle these unprecedented events and related challenges faced by the American Psychological Association. The authors also describe the Association's efforts to resolve the crisis, while staunchly upholding academic freedom and scientific integrity, and review the lessons learned for the field of psychology.”
When worlds collide by Scott Lilienfeld
“The congressmen, Dr. Laura, and others maintained the pressure, and the APA finally capitulated… A second issue raised by the Rind et al. affair concerns the vital importance of defending scientists’ rights to explore controversial research questions, draw conclusions that are potentially unpopular, or both…Many of the critics’ attacks on the Rind et al. study reflect basic errors in logic…Yet this and other errors in reasoning, which were made repeatedly by both Dr. Laura and many members of Congress, went largely or entirely uncorrected in the APA’s public statements…”
Politics, operant conditioning, Galileo, and the APA’s response to Rind et al., by Congressman Brian N. Baird
“The American Psychological Association took unprecedented measures in an effort to assuage its Congressional critics…Scott Lilienfeld has done psychology a valuable service, first by chronicling the events surrounding the publication and subsequent reaction to Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman, then by standing firm when his article was initially accepted, then rejected for publication in the American Psychologist…My goal is to explore these issues in the context of the political and legislative realm as one who participated, and stood in opposition, in the first occasion in recent history in which the United States Congress voted to officially condemn findings published in a peer reviewed scientific journal.”
Science, politics, and peer review: An editor’s dilemma, by Editor Richard McCarty
“S. O. Lilienfeld submitted a manuscript to the journal that was accepted by the ad hoc action editor; however, the action editor's decision was later overruled by the editor, and additional changes to the manuscript were requested. Because of this editorial decision, a controversy arose that played out on various Internet discussion groups. The author presents his perspective as the editor in this controversy.”
Five commandments for APA, by Action Editor Nora Newcomb (unavailable on the web)
“The author delineates 5 rules of scientific review and publishing and argues that these norms need to be upheld even when to do so proves politically difficult. The 5 rules are: (a) Scientific articles should be judged only by their logic and the strength of their evidence; (b) the results of a competent peer review should be accepted; (c) disagreements with scientific articles should be aired in peer reviewed commentaries; (d) efforts to judge scientific articles on the basis of political concerns should be resisted; and (e) the explicit rules and normative expectations of peer review should not be arbitrarily altered…APA did not exert its full efforts to explain the nature of scientific evidence and the relation of evidence to policy…APA undermined the peer review process by suggesting that the process could be second-guessed…APA did not adhere to these standards of debate. APA officials never made a serious attempt to explain to critics of the Rind et al. article why some of their points were flawed…At the height of the Rind et al. controversy, APA caved in to Congress…I simply question whether the moral response to threats is capitulation…One of the normative expectations in the publication process, hitherto not enunciated, is that once a manuscript has been explicitly accepted and scheduled for publication, it will not be further reviewed nor will substantive changes be requested. In the case of the Lilienfeld article, this expectation was violated when Richard McCarty first affirmed the acceptance of the Lilienfeld article and then sent it out for re-review…The fact that top APA officials continued a bland defense of this chain of events for weeks is deeply troubling.”
“The authors address several issues surrounding the B. Rind, P. Tromovitch, and R. Bauserman (1998) meta-analysis on the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse from their perspective as the editors who accepted the manuscript for publication. In particular, they discuss the appropriateness of their editorial decision, the appropriateness of a policy of considering authors' prior publications in editorial decisions (as suggested by some critics), and the editors' role in the specific recommendations made by B. Rind et al…we are the first to have our decisions rebuked by being unanimously condemned by both houses of the United States Congress…Our opinion is that Rind et al. made the type of contribution that we look for in a Psychological Bulletin review…Could the APA have done better? In our opinion, yes. Both of us received the news of the capitulation letter to Congressman DeLay indirectly and in an untimely way…The other matter about which we were disappointed was the decision not to carry the text of the AAAS letter in the Monitor on Psychology…We were informed by a senior APA staff member that the letter was not of sufficient general interest…That rationale seemed then, and still seems, disingenuous.”
A funny thing happened on the way to my American Psychologist publication, letter to the American Psychologist by Scott Lilienfeld
“McCarty’s recounting of the events is selective and paints a misleading picture of the train of events. First, McCarty’s assertion that my initially accepted article was not rejected is disingenuous. McCarty does not inform readers that he demanded that I delete approximately 60% of my article, including all material dealing with the Rind et al. incident, all material critical of the APA…Moreover, when my article was initially accepted for publication, McCarty compounded the confusion by informing me that the editorial decision was entirely up to action editor Nora S. Newcombe…Mc Carty’s handling of my AP manuscript was indefensible…By encouraging the author to unertake revisions that he later told the author to undo, soliciting a new round of peer review without informing the action editor or author, and informing the author that he was now unwilling to consider the already accepted manuscript for publication unless the author expunged any mention of an incident that placed the organization of which he was a paid employee in a negative light, McCarty himself placed the peer review process in grave jeopardy. McCarty is understandably displeased that I made these revelations public, as they created considerable embarrassment for both himself and the APA leadership.”