As social science, Mark Regnerus’s study of gay parenting is debatable. As Charles C. W. Cooke detailed here at NRO, Regnerus wasn’t able to find many stable homes run by gay parents — a fact that conservatives might attribute to the nature of gay relationships and liberals might attribute to the lack of legal recognition for gay marriage and the stigma against gay adoption. Undeterred, Regnerus simply lumped together all homes in which at least one parent had had a “romantic relationship” with a same-sex partner at some point and compared them with stable homes run by straight biological parents. Unsurprisingly, the children from the stable homes run by heterosexuals did better on a number of measures.
But there’s lots of bad science out there, especially regarding this topic. As researcher Douglas W. Allen has explained, the social-science “consensus” that there’s no difference between gay and straight parenting stands atop a house of cards: Left-leaning scientists often employ tricks to skew their results, such as using self-selected samples of wealthy, highly educated lesbian parents. And as Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, Regnerus’s study broke new ground in several ways, especially by relying on a large, random sample of families that vary in their parenting configurations and outcomes. Even some commentators and scholars who support gay marriage, such as Slate’s William Saletan and Penn State sociologist Paul Amato, have praised elements of Regnerus’s work. And in the study, Regnerus doesn’t actually claim to have proven that gay parents, in and of themselves, cause bad outcomes.
So why is Regnerus’s employer, the University of Texas at Austin, conducting an inquiry into an ethics complaint against him?
The complaint, summarized in a breathless open letter to the university’s president, was filed by Scott Rose, a New York City–based novelist and freelance writer. Rose does not allege serious ethical misconduct, such as plagiarism or falsifying data. Rather, the letter’s only concrete allegation that Regnerus violated an official policy is a contention that Regnerus used “misinformation in an attempt to hurt others.”
But does the university even have a policy against that? The link Rose provides as evidence refers readers to Chapter 11 of the university rulebook, which does forbid “providing false or misleading information in an effort to injure another student academically or ﬁnancially” — but contains no injunction against offensive empirical results, and at any rate pertains to students’ work rather than professors’ research. Further, it is hard to see how such a rule — with “misinformation” defined to include the presentation of debatable social-science findings and “hurt others” defined to include assertions that certain parenting configurations produce certain results — could be consistent with academic freedom.
When I pressed him on this point via e-mail, Rose asked whether the university had specifically told me that their student handbook doesn’t apply to professors. (Nope.)
The rest of the letter points out some legitimate problems with the study, including the ones mentioned above. But it fails to produce any evidence of actual ethical misconduct.
For example, Rose makes much of the fact that the research was funded by conservative groups. Surely this is one thing to bear in mind when evaluating the study. But it is not at all uncommon or unethical for political organizations to fund research. And if Rose thinks gay parenting should not be studied with financial support from interested parties, perhaps he would like to file complaints against researchers who’ve accepted money from the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, the Lesbian Health Fund, the Gill Foundation, and the Horizons Foundation as well.