Exposing the ''Experts''

Commentary: A Town Square Opinion

Here in Washington, being publicly discredited is no bar to employment for the industrious and well-connected. If you are sufficiently shameless, being a disgraced former official needn’t prevent you from reincarnating as a highly paid lobbyist or think-tank pundit or deputy something-or-other. As Bush administration flacks begin ”burrowing” into civil-service jobs, their theme song might be ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

A similar case is that of notorious junk-science peddler Paul Cameron. His spurious anti-gay statistics keep showing up in news stories that seldom mention his expulsion from the American Psychological Association in December 1983 for using unsound methods and misrepresenting the research of others.

For decades, Cameron has been the favorite ”expert” of anti-gay obsessives. His Family Research Institute publishes pseudoscientific reports filled with false claims, such as that child molesters and sex murderers are disproportionately gay. His work has been used by syndicated columnists, members of Congress and Pentagon officials. Therein lies the problem: Cameron’s preposterous pamphlets would vanish without a trace if others did not keep recycling them or if reporters were more careful about checking their sources.

Perhaps Cameron’s most oft-quoted claim is that gay men have a dramatically shorter life expectancy. After Cameron disseminated brochures claiming that the average male homosexual life span was 43 years, many people repeated it in print and on television as a serious statistic. Cameron arrived at that figure by examining obituaries in gay newspapers during the height of the AIDS epidemic and averaging the reported ages of death.

Even assuming that the readership of those papers was representative of the entire gay community and that the obits were representative of all gay deaths — both of which assumptions are questionable — this method excludes everyone who did not die. That is like surveying the obituaries of soldiers killed in Iraq and concluding that the average life expectancy of soldiers is in the low 20s.

Those unfamiliar with Cameron might get the impression from news stories that he is a serious researcher, however flawed his methodology and conclusions. In actuality, as the Box Turtle Bulletin Web site reports, Cameron refers to homosexuals’ ”parasitic lives,” decries equal rights as ”Super Rights,” accuses homosexuals of running a ”shadow organization” in the U.S. military (which would come as a surprise to the more than 11,000 servicemembers discharged under ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) and calls homosexuals a threat to Western civilization. The latter assertion is especially ironic considering that Cameron approvingly cites the work of the commandant of the Auschwitz death camp.

Cameron isn’t the only phony expert we need to watch out for. Last week after a protest by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Bill O’Reilly backtracked and Fox News Crime Analyst Rod Wheeler apologized for a June 21 story on The O’Reilly Factor alleging a nationwide epidemic of lesbian gangs. Wheeler had claimed, without citing any sources, that the Washington, D.C. area alone has more than 150 lesbian gangs, that they recruit children, and that many gang members use pink-painted Glock pistols. (This last stray bullet of wild invention struck the gay gun-rights group Pink Pistols, which has nothing to do with gangs and whose name is not intended literally.) The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that Wheeler is a ”food defense specialist” for the American Institute of Baking.

One advantage enjoyed by bogus experts is that those who interview them and report their published claims are seldom prepared to challenge either their claims or their credentials. At best, dissenting views are quoted, but with little context to facilitate an informed evaluation.

When counterposed quotes from newsmakers are substituted for investigative reporting, the implication is that there are no objective facts to be ascertained. Amazingly, the resulting ”he said, she said” standoff is treated as a reason for boasting, as with Fox News Channel’s slogan, ”We Report, You Decide.” This gives uninformed gut reactions the same standing as specialized expertise.

We are fortunate that groups like Box Turtle Bulletin and GLAAD are active in refuting anti-gay propaganda disguised as news, but there are far more news outlets than they can handle, in an expanding array of media. All of us who are consumers as well as subjects of the news must be vigilant. When you find a reporter giving credence to the work of an anti-gay ”expert,” call the reporter and the editor on it. Instead of merely berating them, use the occasion as a teaching moment. First, though, be sure to do more careful homework than the reporter.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org). He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

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