This week the Sunday Times of London published a pack of lies so transparent, so thoroughly discredited, that its appearance can't be chalked up to mere journalistic sloppiness. Rather, the timing of the piece, its willful disregard of the truth, and the behavior of the journalists themselves indicate a deliberate political hit job purposefully dressed up in the garb of one of the most internationally respected newspapers. The Times repeats and amplifies lies made by PETA in August claiming that Dr. Charles Roselli is experimenting on gay sheep to try to cure homosexuality -- total nonsense, but PETA saw that by targeting Roselli's work they could exploit the gay rights community and promote their anti-research agenda. At the time, I spoke out against PETA and talked with many bloggers who had been duped to set the record straight -- the story then died down, until it re-emerged, almost unchanged, in the Sunday Times last weekend. The question is, who's pulling the gay sheep fleece this time? And why?
I won't go over the science in detail this time -- you can read it here if you're interested -- but the upshot is that Roselli is one of many scientists trying to understand the biological basis of behavior, including sexual behavior. His work is no more aimed at curing gayness than it is at curing straightness; in fact, if anyone were to attack his research I would have expected it to be the religious Right because his results demonstrate that homosexuality is a normal part of the natural world. But instead, it was PETA: they picked Roselli over the dozens of other major labs doing this work, as Shalin Gala of PETA explained to me by email, not because he is a special threat to gays but rather because Roselli works on sheep. That means he is required by NIH to follow a higher standard of animal care than labs that work with mice, and that extra documentation gives PETA more details to distort. (Also, I'm guessing a fuzzy lamb is a better fund-raiser than a rat would be.)
That's the background. That was August 2006. Now, last weekend, for some reason we find this four-month-old dead fish wrapped in the Sunday Times. The first thing to notice is the timing. The article is tied to no news event. It gives the impression that a new study has been released, for example stating that "The research is being peer-reviewed by a panel of scientists in America." I contacted Roselli by email, as I did in August, to check this out. He emailed me that they have no study undergoing review now, and that nothing new has been published in the last six months. The last thing they put out was a paper last June in the journal Endocrine in which, Roselli wrote by email, "we failed to significantly alter any aspect of sexual differentiation." That wasn't worth a mention in the Sunday Times when it was fresh, let alone six months later. Something else clearly prompted this article. What -- or who -- was it?
The second thing to notice is the way the reporters got nearly every fact wrong. Most glaring is the subhead of the article itself: "Experiments that claim to ‘cure’ homosexual rams." Well, let's see -- is that what the experimenters claim? Halfway through the piece, they cite Roselli: "[The researchers] insist the work is not aimed at “curing” homosexuality." But the article not only asserts that this is, in fact, their aim, but that they have achieved it: "By varying the hormone levels, mainly by injecting hormones into the brain, [the scientists] have had “considerable success” in altering the rams’ sexuality..." Let's check that one out, shall we? First, let's check the scientific literature. Here's the abstract from that Endocrine paper: "Prenatal ATD exposure did not interfere with defeminization of adult sexual partner preferences, receptive behavior, or the LH surge mechanism." And here's Roselli, by email: "What is so frustrating is that articles like this pit the scientist against the activist and then pretend to present a "balanced" account. They also don't understand the science and perpetrate a lot of misinformation and outright lies, like the line that we have had "considerable success" in altering rams' sexuality - where did this come from? I never claimed this and never published anything to suggest it."
Roselli also noted, "They describe the research wrong - injections of hormones into the brain and talk about electronic sensors on the brain. Pure fabrication." In fact, reading the Endocrine paper it is clear that the researchers administered to pregnant ewes a drug that inhibits production of a particular hormone during fetal development -- there was no injection of hormone into the brain. I can't even imagine where they got the electronic sensors from, as there is no neurophysiology in this work at all. Yet there it is in the Sunday Times: "The animals’ skulls are cut open and electronic sensors are attached to their brains."
Is this just journalistic sloppiness? If they had googled "charles roselli" they would have seen my post debunking these claims, fifth hit from the top. If the reporters had read Roselli's papers, they would have known they got the conclusions wrong. But clearly the Times did some background work: they say they talked to uncited "experts" who told them "in theory, the “straightening” procedure on humans could be as simple as a hormone supplement for mothers-to-be, worn on the skin like an anti-smoking nicotine patch." Or did the Times just make that up, too?
In fact, it is clear that the Times deliberately misrepresented the truth. They say, "The tests on gay sheep are the latest in a long line of experiments seeking to alter the sexuality of humans and animals" (never mind the researchers already made clear that is not their aim) and then they cite two other examples of research in the field: one is a
discredited study from 1991 (although the Times cites it as 2002) and the other is an East Berlin scientist from the 1960s. (The 1991 study was controversial but is not discredited. Please see my correction.) One wonders why the Times picked these two examples, and chose to skip over Catherine Dulac's landmark 2002 Science paper in which she discovered that changing a single pheromone receptor caused male mice to make (gay) love instead of war; the detailed work in fruit flies showing that a single gene can make males or females gay; or other sexual behavior studies like the major one on prairie voles a few years back showing a particular hormone determines how faithful they are to their mates or the studies just coming out recently about how the stickleback fish picks a mate. These are not obscure studies -- on the contrary, the genetics of behavior (and sexual behavior in particular) is one of the major frontiers of biology today, and these studies are all being conducted at the top institutes and published in the top-tier journals. Funny that the reporters didn't mention them.
But, then, a lot of what the reporters did was a little funny. That's the third thing to notice, and one that I've only learned about in the last few days through email with Roselli -- the conduct of the reporters themselves while this article was being put together. Some background first: The Times byline is Isabel Oakeshott and Chris Gourlay. Oakeshott has previously written uncritically anti-abortionist articles about how fetuses smile in the womb and an anti-"plan B" hit piece cited approvingly by anti-abortionist web sites (she also seems to have used her uncle as an anonymous source for political reporting); she is the deputy editor of the Sunday Times. Gourlay seems to be a more junior reporter.
According to Roselli and Jim Newman, the press officer at his institute, who both were in contact with Gourlay, here is how the reporting went. Gourlay phoned Roselli on the Friday before the New Year's holiday weekend. He left a voice-mail saying that there were only four hours left until his press deadline, but he was working on an article on Roselli's work and it would be great to get his input. I'm guessing the article was already written at this point. Gourlay left call-back numbers that Newman says didn't work. Between the last-minute contact and the faulty phone numbers, my impression is that Gourlay wanted to be able to exclude Roselli from the article altogether, perhaps with a darkly worded "did not respond to requests for comment."
Newman then emailed Gourlay, provided a fact sheet on the research (which he has provided me here), and asked Gourlay to call his cell phone. Gourlay instead replied by email to Newman, saying he didn't need to speak with Roselli directly but asking for permission to attribute quotes from the fact sheet to Roselli (which seems weird to me on its own). Finally,
Roselli managed to phone Gourlay Gourlay called Roselli [correction via Roselli just now --ep.] and spoke with him just before deadline. Roselli said that he told Gourlay about their most recent experiments, the ones from the Endocrine paper last summer: "[we] saw no effect on preference behavior or on more traditional measures of brain masculinization/androgenization, like gonadotropin secretion. I explained this to the reporter and also told him that the experiment was inconclusive." And two days later, Oakeshott and Gourlay published in the Sunday Times that Roselli was trying to cure gayness, that he had been able to do that in sheep, and implied he was now going to do it in humans.
This article was a deliberate hit piece. There are real ethical issues to debate in Roselli's -- or any -- research: Is it worth the cost in animal life? Is it ok to do research that may someday lead to something that could, conceivably, be used to harm people? Should the NIH fund research that is not designed to cure any disease? (On that last one, I have written a post here that I'm proud of in which I explain that basic research, including Roselli's, not aimed to cure any human ailment, is the engine that drives all scientific enterprise: "...the stuff that affects health directly -- new drugs, new diagnostics [--] are like the waves of a river current that lap along the banks. If you're standing on the side, it's what you see the most -- what gets your feet wet. But the energy of research, what pushes it along, is the central current of fundamental discoveries not aimed at curing any single disease." In fact, 6 of the last 10 Nobels in medicine have been given for basic research, and some of the biggest discoveries of the last 50 years -- the fact the nerve cells communicate by releasing chemicals, and what those chemicals are; the fact that hormones control organ development, and how -- are exactly what Roselli's work is in line with.) These are all debates that we should have, that we need to have. That's how society guides science. But those debates need to be held honestly -- not based on lies, or a hit piece dressed up as reporting.
If you aren't aware by now of how important it is to maintain integrity in the media, to not allow it to be used as a mouthpiece for propaganda, then you haven't been paying attention. Unchallenged lies, rebroadcast and amplified by the media, were directly responsible for our entry into Iraq. (You could write a book on it.) Anti-research groups, including large swaths of the Republican party, have used the media to further their anti-science agendas. (You could write a book on that, too.) It needs to stop.
While this particular pack of lies was first promulgated by PETA, it's an open question in my mind whether they are behind the deceit at the Sunday Times. They are not credited until nearly the end of the article, and only in passing as if they were one of many groups opposing Roselli's studies (which is weird in itself). And, as my colleague James here has noted by email, PETA does not seem to have benefited measurably by this latest episode -- the reverberations among gay rights groups ,and particularly, anti-gay-rights groups seems to be stronger than those felt in animal rights circles. So who planted this story? Why did Isabel Oakeshott and Chris Gourlay write it? And how is it that the Sunday Times was turned into an attack vehicle to be used against science?