One year ago in NR, Maggie Gallagher described how sociologist Mark Regnerus had been unable to replicate a study popular with LGBT activists. Published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, the study claimed that living in “high-prejudice communities” shortens life expectancy for sexual minorities by a remarkable 12 years. Now, as the website Retraction Watch reported earlier this month, it turns out there is a good reason that Regnerus could not reach the same result. The original authors have posted a correction that acknowledges a critical coding error. After fixing it, there is ”no longer a significant association between structural stigma and mortality risk among the sample of 914 sexual minorities.”
Great — so the system works, science is self-correcting, and the search for truth goes on, right? Not quite. This episode is a glimpse into academia’s activist culture. Even leaving aside the coding error, the original study’s methods – correlating survey responses with mortality data, using just a handful of basic controls — could not possibly isolate the effect of prejudice on life expectancy. What the methods do allow for is what Andrew Gelman calls “researcher degrees of freedom” – opportunities for the authors to make a series of subjective choices that help them reach their desired result. Indeed, Retraction Watch says that the authors have merely corrected (not retracted) their paper because they are preparing a new data analysis that will restore their original finding. Of course!
The proliferation of “structural stigma” research betrays an activist mindset. It teaches that people who disapprove of homosexuality are not just old-fashioned or misguided — they are indirect killers. Although the authors would probably loathe the comparison, their paper is functionally the same as a cable news show, in which viewers eagerly imbibe the message that their political opponents are evil. Two could play this game. Imagine a parallel line of research that finds conservative Christians have shorter lifespans in places where homosexuality is celebrated. I don’t think gay-rights supporters would accept that they have Christian blood on their hands — nor should they. Political conflict is unpleasant enough without each side accusing the other of manslaughter.
Given how liberal activism permeates research on social issues, open-minded academics should appreciate and encourage the entry of contrary voices into their fields. Which brings us back to Mark Regnerus, the critic who prompted the correction. Regnerus has been in the Left’s crosshairs before for questioning orthodoxy on gay rights. But regardless of what one thinks of his previous work, he is the unambiguous hero of this story. Unfortunately, the coverage makes that far from clear. The Retraction Watch article introduces him as “polarizing researcher Mark Regnerus.” It warns he “has been accused of harboring anti-gay bias.” The writer apparently even asked whether his failed replication ”was an attempt to influence the battle over attitudes towards gay people” – as if that would be unprecedented in the field! When interviewed by Retraction Watch, a Columbia professor called Regnerus “not a trustworthy critic of this research.” If this is the treatment a scholar receives for correctly identifying a problem with a published study, it’s no wonder academia often feels like an echo chamber.