The Corner

Science Lies Bleeding

Thanks, David, for your mention of my syndicated column on the Mark Regnerus matter. As Ed Whelan — who has done his own instructive writing on the subject on our Bench Memos blog — points out, Andy Ferguson has a comprehensive piece on the “professional intimidation” of Regnerus, one I would urge everyone to read. This, in particular, is a key to understanding what’s going on:

Regnerus’s study has unique strengths, even beyond the size and randomness of its sample, that his critics ignore altogether. His commendable attempt to include a diversity of views among his advisers is rare within the guild, where the leftism is unrelieved. So too were his willingness to immediately publish his research materials online and his pledge to make all his data digitally available this fall. Rather than a study of monochromatic and well-to-do lesbians or gay men, he managed to capture the full ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic range of gay America. And his study is one of the first to systematically measure outcomes from the children themselves, rather than simply through the reports of their parents.

The limitations of Regnerus’s study compare favorably with the shortcomings found routinely in the same-sex literature. It does no credit to the guild that researchers have choked on Regnerus’s paper while happily swallowing dozens of faulty studies over the last 20 years — because, you can’t help but think, those studies were taken as confirming the “no difference” dogma. “If the Regnerus study is to be thrown out,” wrote the Canadian family economist Douglas Allen in a statement supporting Regnerus, “then practically everything else [in the literature] has to go with it.” 

What has been encouraging to me is how some folks — who are not one-issue people — have come to the aid of Regnerus, making sure that people know what his study is and isn’t, and that he is not left out in the cold as unjust charges are made against him. Among them is Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation, who I quote in my piece and who I talked to a bit more about the frenzy:#more#

Kathryn Jean lopez: What does the study actually say and why is that important?

Jennifer Marshall: The New Family Structures Study (NFSS) is a large, nationally representative sample of nearly 3,000 young adults, ages 18–39, under the direction of Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas-Austin. It compared these young people across eight different family-structure experiences and 40 outcome areas, where prior studies of children of same-sex parents evaluated only a few outcomes. As demographer Cynthia Osborne said in her critical review published in the same social-science journal, “the Regnerus study is more scientifically rigorous than most of the other studies in this area.”

Regnerus found significant differences on 24 outcomes between children whose mother had a lesbian relationship and their peers from intact families, and on 19 outcomes for those whose fathers had a same-sex relationship. Some of the most striking included significantly higher rates of sexual victimization, sexually transmitted infection, and depression.

NFSS also shows that stable same-sex households with children are extremely rare. Data collectors screened 15,000 young adults to get a representative sample of 3,000, of which 1.7 percent said a parent had one or more same-sex relationships. Only two respondents said they had lived from birth to age 18 with same-sex parents. By comparison, 58 percent of the 15,000 reported spending their entire childhood with their biological mother and father.

One argument propelling the judicial activism to redefine marriage is that it makes no difference whether a child is raised by same-sex parents instead of a traditional, married mother and father. In the Proposition 8 case, for example, District Court Judge Vaughn Walker wrote: “The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology.” And in 2005, a report by the American Psychological Association said “not a single study” found any significant disadvantage for children of same-sex parents. On the basis of that premature assertion it would be easy to conclude — as some courts have — that the majority of Americans who continue to affirm that marriage is the union of one man and one woman have no reasonable basis for that conclusion.

Lopez: What’s the most alarming aspect of the reaction to it?

Marshall: What’s astonishing about the reaction to the study is the wave of irresponsible charges completely disconnected from the reality of a well-credentialed researcher’s rigorous study, carefully designed with input from a diverse group of experts, published in a peer-reviewed journal alongside positive responses from three critical respondents. (For example, Penn State sociologist Paul Amato writes that the NFSS “is probably the best that we can hope for, at least in the near future.”)

Despite the quality of the sample and the wide range of findings, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) called it a “flawed, misleading, and scientifically unsound paper that seeks to disparage lesbian and gay parents.” A writer at The American Prospect said it was “appalling and irresponsible.” And these are the folks who urge us to be tolerant of differences and respect scientific research.

Social-science inquiry has standards and so should social-science discourse; Regnerus met the former and deserves the latter. We should be having a substantive conversation on the future of children. Instead, once again, the issue seems to be more about adults’ desires than children’s needs.

lopez: As someone who relies on serious social-science data in her work, what do you think this means for the future? Who the heck wants to be doing research on family life?

marshall: Civil society depends on reasoned debate. When activists deem some reasoning or research illegitimate without engaging its merits, civil discourse screeches to a halt.

Regnerus’s research has significantly advanced the analysis and set a new standard of quality for evaluating children’s outcomes in new family structures.

American civic life depends on the academic freedom that allows inquiry in all empirical areas, but especially in those that are controversial and therefore most in need of the sober light of serious social science.

It is worth pointing out that for the the University of Texas at Austin’s part, they emphasize, as Gary Susswein, director of media relations there, writes in an e-mail, that: “Any allegation of scientific misconduct against a faculty member automatically triggers an inquiry, which is a preliminary fact finding exercise led by the Vice President for Research’s office. This is standard operating procedure. The purpose of the inquiry is to determine whether the allegations have merit and warrant a full investigation.” So one hopes there is an end to the nonsense, at least at the university, soon. But the firestorm is of wider and deeper concern to anyone who has an interest in honest family research — which I would think would be all of us. 

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