Politics & Policy

The Gay-Parenting Witch Hunt

An activist files a frivolous ethics complaint.

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.

There’s also a fair amount of guilt by association. Rose emphasizes the study’s ties to Robert P. George, a Princeton professor who supposedly has “a long history of telling dehumanizing lies about gay people” and who is involved with the National Organization for Marriage, a prominent anti-gay-marriage group. (Both George and Maggie Gallagher, NOM’s co-founder, have written for National Review.) Rose also claims it was unethical to allow Brigham Young University scholars to help design the study, because the school’s honor code forbids the promotion of homosexuality. The complaint even cites Regnerus’s conversion to Catholicism against him: “His Church is very aggressively involved worldwide in fighting against gay rights.”

Further, the letter takes out of context a statement that Regnerus made in an interview with the Daily Texan. When asked why he accepted funding from conservative groups rather than seeking money from the National Institutes of Health, Regnerus replied that the NIH is politically biased and might have killed the study in the peer-review process. He went on to concede that, for the most part, the NIH’s intense peer-review process works “to the long-term benefit of science.” Rose, ludicrously, takes this as an admission by Regnerus that his decision was not “to the long-term benefit of science.”

The open letter also calls out Regnerus over an appearance he made on ABC; Rose says that Regnerus mischaracterized his own study, claiming to have proven that gay parents are dangerous to their children. I see no such claim in the video. When I asked him about his claim, Rose drew attention to Regnerus’s statement that children of gay parents are more likely to experience sexual victimization — a statement that is consistent with Regnerus’s data.

When I contacted him, Rose also made several allegations that are not included in the letter, including that Regnerus violated the American Sociological Association’s code of ethics, that the school could violate civil-rights laws by failing to discipline Regnerus, and that the study violated a university policy against “practices that seriously deviate from ethical standards for proposing, conducting, or reporting research.” Rose further details his code-of-ethics allegation in a new article; in his view, Regnerus should have known that accepting money from conservative groups was “likely to require” him to commit ethics violations, and he claims that the study violates a vague guideline that researchers should not do work outside their areas of “competence.” The study’s protocol was approved by the university’s review board beforehand, but Rose demands to know who, exactly, did the approving.

One might wonder why the complaint wasn’t dismissed out of hand. But according to university spokesman Gary Susswein, standard operating procedure allows for no discretion at this point: A 60-day inquiry is “automatically triggered by any allegation of scientific misconduct against any faculty member.” If the inquiry reveals that the complaint might have merit, a full investigation will take place. The university has conducted 28 such inquiries since 1996, Susswein says.

One of Regnerus’s leading scholarly critics, Gary J. Gates — the demographer at the UCLA law school’s Williams Institute who organized a letter by about 200 academics criticizing the study — is hesitant to use the word “unethical” as opposed to “inappropriate.” “Obviously, I have disagreements with Regnerus in terms of how he wrote the paper, but my bigger issue — I would not direct that toward him, but toward the journal,” he says. In the letter, he and the other signers say that Social Science Research rushed to publication and chose academics who had been involved with the study to respond to it. Gates says his biggest criticism of Regnerus himself is that he has not shared his data yet and doesn’t plan to release them until later this year.

Regnerus isn’t saying much at this point, but he e-mailed this statement to NRO:

America’s universities should always serve as truth-seeking, free marketplaces of ideas. In that quest, obtaining outside support for research is standard operating procedure. The research protocol development team for this scholarly, comprehensive, peer-reviewed research study consisted of leading scholars and researchers across disciplines and ideological lines who met in a spirit of civility and reasoned inquiry. Significantly, the University of Texas’s Institutional Review Board approved the protocol. The published study’s conclusions suggest that there are differences in outcomes for young adults raised in various environments with different family experiences. No claims about causation were made. The research data is intended to be made available later this year. At that point, I hope that those who are unnecessarily critical of this study’s methodology will make constructive use of the data.

Every study deserves rigorous and passionate criticism. Regnerus’s work is no exception. But the ethics complaint against him is frivolous, and the university should dismiss it.

— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review. Follow him on Twitter here.


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