UC-Davis Psychology Professor Gregory Herek Aims to Debunk Anti-Gay Extremist Paul Cameron

Paul Cameron's discredited research remains a mainstay of the anti-gay religious right. But one key expert aims to change that.

As a scientist, Paul Cameron is a disgrace. Under his chairmanship, the Family Research Institute, a Colorado Springs, Colo., gay-bashing propaganda mill, has churned out reams of pseudo-scientific "studies" purporting to prove that gays and lesbians are more prone than heterosexuals to commit murder, die young and molest children, among many other dubious findings.

The American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association have publicly discredited Cameron. But he remains a hero to homophobes on the religious right who deploy his junk science in their campaigns against civil rights for gays and lesbians. One of Cameron's most articulate critics is Dr. Gregory Herek, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis, who has also served on the faculties of Yale University and the City University of New York.

Herek in recent years has debunked Cameron's findings in dissections archived on-line at the UC-Davis website, including a point-by-point takedown of a 1983 national sexual behavior survey that Cameron used as the foundation for most of his subsequent research papers. Herek has identified numerous fatal flaws in that survey's methodology, meaning that any conclusions drawn from it are irremediably tainted -- "garbage in, garbage out," as the expression goes. Cameron has said very little in his own defense against Herek's withering critiques, other than to call his opponent "a flaming gay."

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: Dr. Herek, let's start off by discussing your critique of the 1983 national survey conducted by Paul Cameron as director of a group he called the Institute for the Scientific Investigation of Sexuality [ISIS]. Given that one of the best ways to evaluate the reliability of a research survey's results is to examine its sample selection, what do you see when you scrutinize the sampling in the 1983 ISIS survey?

GREGORY HEREK: First of all, the response rate is unacceptably low. Cameron reports his research team randomly targeted 18,418 households for their sample, and of that initial group, only 4,340 households actually completed a survey. The rest either weren't home when the doorbell rang, they directly refused the survey, or they accepted a survey but never completed and returned it. Divide 4,340 by 18,418 and you have a 23% response rate. It's important to judge the response rate in its historical context. High-quality surveys typically obtained response rates around 75% back in the early 1980s. There is no absolute scientific standard for what constitutes an acceptable rate of response for research of this kind. By any stretch, however, 23% is inadequate.

IR: Considering that extremely low response rate, how do you think non-response bias affected the validity of the data collected?

HEREK: The simple answer is that we can't know for sure. However, given the survey study's other methodological problems, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the people who took the time and initiative to complete and return a 550-question survey left at their front door -- which included many poorly worded and often intrusive questions about sexual matters -- differed in important respects from those who didn't complete it. I think most social scientists would be concerned that the pool of respondents included a disproportionate number of people who had a special interest in reporting their sexual experiences.

Another concern would be that some respondents may not have been providing accurate data but instead might have purposely exaggerated their sexual experiences to have some fun at Cameron's expense.

IR: You've criticized the design of the ISIS survey as being too long and needlessly complex, and for lacking certain basic accuracy safeguards. Could you outline those design flaws?

HEREK: Many of the questions required respondents to read a large number of alternative answers and then to follow intricate instructions. For example, in one section respondents were expected to read a list of 36 categories of persons, including, "My male YMCA counselor," "My male Scout counselor," "My male camp counselor," and "My female grad school teacher," and then to note the age at which each of these categories of persons made what was described in the instructions as "serious sexual advances."

There's good reason to believe the validity of the results obtained by such a questionnaire would be negatively impacted by what's termed "respondent fatigue," but there's no way to know for certain because Cameron failed to follow the basic practice of including consistency checks in his questionnaire, which is where questions from the early section of a survey are repeated with alternate phrasing toward the end.

IR: Cameron also gave numerous media interviews in the cities where his surveys went out in which he predicted and even promoted certain results. You've identified his conduct as a serious breach of professional standards. Why is that?

HEREK: One of the principal challenges of social research is that the individuals who are being studied can become aware of the researcher's expectations or goals, which can alter their behavior. For this reason, researchers do not communicate their expectations or hypotheses in advance. Nor do they bias participants' responses by suggesting that a particular answer is more correct or desirable than others.

Contrary to this well-established standard, Cameron publicly disclosed the survey's goals and his own political agenda. In one front-page interview, he characterized the survey as providing "ammunition for those who want laws adopted banning homosexual acts throughout the United States." This was in an article headlined "Poll Will Help Oppose Gays" that appeared while data collection was still in process.