There is good news in Tuesday’s release from the CDC’s National Health Information Survey. No, it’s not the revelation that the gay and lesbian population may be slightly smaller — 1.6 percent — than many scholars have believed; population-based surveys tend to fluctuate. The results of the report make sense to me, and since others have already described them, I will refrain from repeating them at length here.
The good news is that the survey’s questions were administered to over 34,000 Americans, randomly sampled, enabling scholars to get quality information about even small communities. And since the NHIS didn’t broadcast its interests or commitments to its survey pool (unlike some studies), we are treated to valid data — on sexuality as well as many other subjects — largely devoid of a form of social-desirability bias wherein respondents’ awareness of their own participation in a study whose topic is dear to them affects their survey answers.
I owe my career, in part, to that study, whose complexity and thoroughness taught me that high-quality survey data — carefully collected — is a treasure, even if the populations it illuminates couldn’t care less, or actively oppose the light. Good information is just that, and scholars and citizens of all stripes value knowing the truth about Americans as it can best be discerned.
Of course, a quality sample and a good set of questions is just a start. Moving from survey construction to data collection to analysis to interpretation multiplies the opportunities for ill will and intellectual contest. That’s understandable; humans are the most challenging subjects to understand, and their behavior the most difficult to predict with accuracy. Thus surveys have limitations; they’re not poised to go deep into human motivation. But they’re good at description.
So, yes, the government is in your bedroom, figuratively (and indirectly) speaking. But information-gathering about Americans’ attitudes and behaviors — when obtained from their own mouths and with their consent and confidentiality — is okay. From social studies like the Add Health and the NCIS we can learn, clarify, and correct. Both sides of the aisle ought to continue to support ample federal funding of general data-collection projects like these, because a citizenry that lacks good data about itself — or worse, doesn’t care — is willingly choosing ignorance over illumination.
— Mark Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, a research associate of its Population Research Center, and a senior fellow of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture.