Jayne Ozanne Bishop Liverpool Paul Bayes conversion therapy
Ethics & Morality

Faith, sexuality and conversion therapy: how not to do research

This is a guest post by Dr Judith Sture.

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We can only applaud those who wish to carry out research to help improve the lives of others. But the Ozanne Foundation’s Faith and Sexuality ‘survey’ is not the way to do it.

The Bishop of Liverpool states: “The statistics reflect lives which have been scarred and strained by mixed messaging of love, acceptance, condemnation and fear.”

Jayne Ozanne states: “The results provide strong evidence of the harm that attempts to change sexual orientation are reported to inflict.”

Well, sorry, but they don’t.

They show some people’s feelings and opinions. That’s not actual evidence of harm unless a lot more detail is gathered. LGBT+ people deserve better! And so do conservative traditionalists.

4,613 people responded to the survey online. Just over half identified as LGBT+. Most of the data simply shows what a relatively small number of respondents – compared to the general population – think about their situation. 458 people reported having experience of trying to change their orientation. Of these, 381 said this consisted of private prayer or prayer with a close friend. Is this really to be considered as ‘conversion therapy’?

The fact that a small number reported ‘forced’ sexual activity is appalling, but we don’t know what it involved. Legally, this would be a criminal act and should result in prosecution. The fact that it may have taken place in a religious context is arguably irrelevant – it’s a crime.

Hot-topic online surveys are highly self-selecting to would-be respondents. Typically only those with strong views respond. This doesn’t provide a broad reflection of what is actually ‘going on’ out there. We cannot seek evidence of harm to LGBT+ people unless we first clearly define what conversion therapy is, and who religious groups are. These sampling and definition problems automatically confound any meaningful ‘findings’ that may appear to emerge here. Ms Ozanne claims ‘a high level of response’ to the survey, but as it was online, this is meaningless.

The survey was not designed sufficiently well to elicit all the findings that are being claimed. The ‘research’ is exploratory in nature and cannot prove cause-and-effect. But here we have prominent figures trumpeting cause-and-effect ‘findings’. This is disingenuous, if not misleading. I am sure everyone involved meant well. But this does not fix the problems.

The way the questions were designed could only ever, at best, produce some opinions and some experiences without statistical validity in proving a hypothesis (because it was not testing one), and some possible associations between some experience of ‘religious’ belief or practice and the feelings of some individuals who chose to respond. That’s it. Finito. This doesn’t mean the survey is without value, but the findings cannot prove what is being claimed. A proper conclusive research investigation is now needed.

What is seriously concerning in the way that the survey’s ‘findings’ have been announced is the de facto admission of a liability of guilt on behalf of the Church of England by the Bishop of Liverpool. In his Foreword to the report, he admits responsibility for the Church and its teachings having caused trauma to vulnerable people. Will this open the door to a flood of compensation claims? You bet!

The claims made by the Bishop  and Jayne Ozanne are classic examples of falling into the logical fallacy. The logical fallacy – a form of flawed reasoning – here is the automatic assumption that all the problems cited in the responses are due to things that Christians have done to LGBT people. But we’ve already seen above that many respondents will be highly motivated by LGBT perceived grievances, which will skew – to some extent – the findings by being over-represented in the data. This means that their views as a whole are not an accurate reflection of the experiences of the wider LGBT community who come to church or who have had a Christian background. Behind this is, of course, the lack of evidence of a link between religious-based experiences and subsequent mental health issues. Despite this, Bishop Paul Bayes has jumped straight in – with the best of intentions, no doubt – and assumed responsibility on behalf of the Church for causing hundreds of respondents to fall into mental ill-health, be abused and attempt suicide.

Is this a logical way to behave when the ink is barely dry? Have we learned nothing from the Bishop George Bell apology and compensation case? Apparently not.

I wrote about this survey on my own blog in December and highlighted the problems with it then. I predicted that cause-and-effect ‘findings’ would be claimed, and they have been. I’ll be writing a detailed critique of the report in the next few days on my site, so please have a look for it.

 

Dr Judi Sture was formerly a senior lecturer and researcher at a UK university; she led a Master’s programme in Research Methods and spent 15 years teaching PhD students how to carry out effective research.