Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Boston Globe reveals sham "think tanks" and "research journals"

Saw this Boston Globe article floating around the blogs today and initially I was dismayed -- not just because there are well-funded people out there who are trying to "spoof" actual academic associations and journals with sound-alike scam versions in order to peddle their personal (and, to me, hateful) beliefs as honest, peer-reviewed research, but because the president of the dominant economic and military force across the globe apparently believes this stuff (or, worse, doesn't believe it personally but wants voters to think he does):

President Bush had a ready answer when asked in January for his view of adoption by same-sex couples: ''Studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family with a man and a woman,' the president said.

Bush's assertion raised eyebrows among specialists. The American Academy of Pediatrics, composed of leaders in the field, had found no meaningful difference between children raised by same-sex and heterosexual couples, based on a 2002 report written largely by a Boston pediatrician, Dr. Ellen C. Perrin.

But Bush's statement was celebrated at a tiny think tank called the Family Research Institute, where the founder, Dr. Paul Cameron, believes Bush was referring to studies he has published in academic journals that are critical of gays and lesbians as parents. Cameron has published numerous studies with titles such as ''Gay Foster Parents More Apt to Molest' -- a conclusion disputed by many other researchers.

The president's statement was also welcomed at a small organization with an august-sounding name, the American College of Pediatricians. The college, which has a small membership, says on its website that it would be ''dangerously irresponsible' to allow same-sex couples to adopt children. The college was formed just three years ago, after the 75-year-old American Academy of Pediatrics issued its paper.

That pediatric study asserted a ''considerable body of professional evidence' that there is no difference between children of same-sex and heterosexual parents.

The Family Research Institute and the American College of Pediatrics are part of a rapidly growing trend in which small think tanks, researchers, and publicists who are open about their personal beliefs are providing what they portray as medical information on some of the most controversial issues of the day.

Created as counterpoints to large, well-established medical organizations whose work is subject to rigorous review and who assert no political agenda, the tiny think tanks with names often mimicking those of established medical authorities have sought to dispute the notion of a medical consensus on social issues such as gay rights, the right to die, abortion, and birth control.

For example, Cameron's Family Research Institute, with an annual budget of less than $200,000, tries to counter the views of the 150,000-member American Psychological Association, which has an annual budget of $98 million. The tiny American College of Pediatricians has a single employee, yet it has been quoted as a counterpoint to the 60,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics.

Senior Bush aides, asked for the basis of the comment about adoption, now say they are unaware of any studies comparing heterosexual and same-sex adoptions -- by Cameron or by any pediatric association. The president, they say, was probably referring to studies that show children are better off living with both biological parents -- though those studies have nothing to do with adoption by same-sex couples.

But Cameron said that he feels confident that Bush was referring to his work, and that he once briefed two White House aides on his research, which is widely distributed through the Christian Communication Network, a public relations firm run by an antiabortion activist, Gary L. McCullough, who also was the press agent for the parents of Terri Schiavo.
Indeed, a web search found that Cameron's findings had been repeated on a variety of conservative websites and blogs.

The first point to understanding this story, though, is that an interlocking set of mutually-validating information interests are at work in producing and reproducing this "research". An individual creates an "institute" with a funding source and an authoritative name; that helps to legitimize the "research" in the eyes of the media, especially a media so underfunded and, apparently, lazy that it asserts "balance" in a news story by citing this institute in the same breath as large, longstanding, and open-to-scrutiny scientific and acacemic organizations representing the bulk of a profession. Then this institute finds further legitimacy by "publishing" (really, paying for publication of) its findings in supposedly peer-reviewed journals:

Cameron's adoption study, and at least 10 more of his works, appeared in Psychological Reports, a small journal based in Montana, which says its studies are peer-reviewed, although editor Doug Ammons said: ''No reviewer has a veto right." The journal, which typically charges $27.50 per page to print an article, is portrayed by Ammons as a ''scientific manifestation of free speech."

By contrast, the largest professional journals, which are often cited as sources of medical information -- such as Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine -- say they will reject an article if any peer reviewer raises serious objections about its methodology. Those journals do not charge for publication.

Anyway, as I said, this story really depressed me until I realized the silver lining: The Boston Globe was publishing a piece bringing these practices to light, and the blogosphere was picking up the story and perhaps giving it legs. Where those legs will take it, I'm not sure. I doubt the story will break on the network evening news tonight. But it may stick in the mind of a documentary film producer, or it may get into the hands of an instructor like myself who can use it as an instructive example and generator of debate in a university course. Journalism is serving its purpose as a check and balance on the truth statements and political manipulations of persons with divisive social agendas -- and in doing so, it will perhaps allow entertainment and education to serve those purposes as well. That gives me hope.

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