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Suspect ‘Science’ – Examining Regnerus’ controversial study of LGBT parents

Wednesday, May 29, 2013
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In July 2012, the journal Social Science Research published a study by University of Texas at Austin sociology professor Mark Regnerus that seemed to indicate that the children of LGBT parents are more likely to get involved with self-destructive behaviors like using drugs and to suffer from depression than those raised by heterosexual parents, despite many studies that have indicated otherwise.

The Regnerus study was immediately trumpeted by anti-gay groups as proof that children are in danger in LGBT households.

An appointed scholarly reviewer says a controversial study of LGBT families by sociology professor Mark Regnerus (above) was deeply flawed and that Regnerus has been “disgraced” as a result.

Just a day after its release, for example, it was cited in an amicus brief by the American College of Pediatricians, a tiny anti-gay breakaway from the main pediatricians’ professional association, that was filed in support of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). At press time, the U.S. Supreme Court was weighing arguments on DOMA’s constitutionality.

But the study also engendered serious criticism. More than 200 other sociologists signed a letter to journal editor James Wright that decried the study’s allegedly faulty methodology, and major medical and psychological associations criticized it for similar reasons.

Regnerus himself subsequently conceded that his study had problems (key reasons are detailed in the interview below), and he also said his analysis did not conclude that “gay or lesbian parents are inherently bad.”

But at the same time, he has continued to defend the study’s results and to push them in anti-LGBT circles. This summer, he is to speak about it to a gathering sponsored by the anti-marriage equality National Organization for Marriage (NOM).

Questions were also raised about Regnerus’ motives, seeing as how he’d accepted almost $700,000 for the study from the Witherspoon Institute, a think tank that opposes same-sex marriage and includes fellows like Robert George, one of the founders of NOM. The Bradley Foundation, another conservative think tank, gave over $60,000.

Most recently, documents obtained by the American Independent suggest that Regnerus’ funders choreographed the timing of the study’s release to influence “major decisions of the Supreme Court.”

The court this spring heard both the DOMA case and another involving an anti-gay marriage California referendum.

Darren Sherkat, professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University and a member of the editorial board of Social Science Research, was tapped by journal editor Wright to conduct an audit of the process of publishing the Regnerus study.

Sherkat was given access to all the peer reviews and correspondence connected with the paper, and was told the identities of the reviewers. What he found, he says, was a study that is deeply methodologically flawed and a peer-review process that failed to identify significant problems.

Sherkat also says that the story of the study’s publication is part of a much larger trend in academia and the social sciences: the rise of conservative ideologues in academia whose tendentious studies are paid for by private sources and think tanks with a specific ideological axe to grind.

The Intelligence Report spoke to Sherkat about the Regnerus study and its flaws:

Dr. Sherkat, we’ve heard criticism that Dr. Regnerus was somehow “bought off” by conservative money. Is there anything to that?

I don’t think this is an ASA [American Sociological Association] ethics issue at all. What this is, is bad scholarship. We don’t have any ASA ethics rules about bad scholarship done for political reasons. It’s up to colleagues in departments as to whether or not people violate their own internal rules.

Regnerus hasn’t done anything not up to snuff with his grant money, and that’s all you’re required to do. You’re not required to accurately report what you did or what you found or interpret appropriately or anything like that. It’s unfortunate if you do that and it gets published. But the study was not bought and paid for. This is Mark Regnerus you’re talking about. He’s believed this since he was a child. He thought that because he was a brilliant young conservative Christian that he could save Christianity from the evil forces of secularism, that he would become a prominent intellectual and slay the homosexual demons.

How did the study come to be published in a respected academic journal? Was the journal’s editor, James Wright, somehow at fault?

The editorial process has changed a lot because of online publishing and pressure from the for-profit presses to increase content. Just two years ago, Social Science Research went from four issues to six issues a year. That’s a 50% increase in content, and it sucked dry a lot of Jim Wright’s backlog. A lot of journals are doing that. It means there’s a lot of paper flying, and it reduces standards.

Talk about the peer review process for the Regnerus paper. There’s been some talk about that process being speeded up as part of some kind of anti-gay conspiracy, particularly because the same issue of the journal included a paper by Loren Marks, an academic who’s testified in court against marriage equality. Marks’ paper was basically an overview of earlier papers on LGBT families that took exception to those papers’ findings that LGBT families don’t hurt children.

That was even more flabbergasting, that the Marks article got published. Wright had accepted the Marks paper by about November 2011, and as a result Marks got held up in the pipeline for Regnerus, which had a “revise and re-submit.” Regnerus got totally lucky. He got reviewers who went back and did their work really quickly. I don’t think some of those reviewers should have been used. But it wasn’t the editor’s fault, I don’t think, for not getting an additional reviewer, given that he had accepts [of Regnerus’ study] in his hand.

Why do you say certain reviewers shouldn’t have been used for Regnerus’ paper?

Potential conflicts of interest based upon prior relationships with the author. Let’s just leave it at that. But there was one prominent reviewer who was a complete outsider, too. So Jim was sitting on three accepts basically — or accept with revisions — and while two of them may have had a sort of conflict of interest, they didn’t think it was a big deal. That’s what they told Jim and that’s what he believed, so he went on to accept the paper.

I did think the reviewers generally did a slipshod job of assessing the data in question. But in this day and age, I hesitate to blame those people. I understand that people like them and people like me are reviewing five or six manuscripts every month. There’s no reward for it. So people get in an airplane, they breeze through a paper, they pull out the laptop and slam out a review real quick.

In the reviewers’ defense, Mark [Regnerus] did not disclose the specific technical aspects of this study. I believe two of those reviewers, though, knew damn good and well what it was, if they had been paying attention.

Peer review is not perfect. The majority of people don’t do a bad job out of any kind of malicious intent. Having said that, Mark Regnerus is not alone. There are a large number of conservative Christian scholars in sociology, in political science, in family studies, and it’s surprising how many now are rising up into the top ranks. I’ve watched Mark throughout his career rise up through those structures that help to elevate conservative idea creators who are committed to the ideology of the Christian right and who are bright enough and hard-working enough to establish themselves in secular education. Regnerus has contemporaries who came up with him who today are also at prominent universities throughout the country.

Let’s get down to the details. What’s wrong with the Regnerus paper?

Regnerus and other right-wing activists have been fond of claiming that the study is “population-based” or a “national probability study.” As a scientist, I don’t even know what “population-based” means, and the data used in this study are by no means a probability sample. Regnerus’ data are from a large number of people recruited through convenience by a marketing firm — they are not a random, representative sample of the American population. Science requires random samples of the population, and that is not how this marketing firm collected their data.

Several scholars also have pointed to incongruities and outlandish values in the Regnerus study, such as people claiming hundreds of sex partners in the prior week. The online collection of data makes the veracity of responses even more problematic. The state of the art in family research would use a random sample of households and follow up with parents and children to see whether or not parental couplings impacted child outcomes — controlling for other potential influences like income, education, ethnicity, relationship stability, and the like.

Isn’t a key criticism also that the study doesn’t actually address children growing up in households of self-identified LGBT parents?

The key measure of gay and lesbian parenting is simply a farce. The study includes a retrospective question asking if people knew if their mother or father had a “romantic” relationship with someone of the same sex when the respondent was under age 18. This measure is problematic on many levels.

Regnerus admits that just two of his respondents were actually raised by a same-sex couple, though I doubt that he can even know that, given his limited data. Since only two respondents were actually raised in gay or lesbian households, this study has absolutely nothing to say about gay parenting outcomes. Indeed, because it is a non-random sample, this study has nothing to say about anything.

Were there other technical problems with the study?

It failed to take into account normal family effects on wellbeing, to control for known sources of positive or negative outcomes. Indeed, since he only had two stable lesbian “couples” (or at least a young adult who said that, retrospectively, in a non-random, convenience sample), he instead just constructed differences from a group of people who were raised in unstable environments. Sexuality has nothing to do with that.

Additionally, Regnerus’ perfunctory analyses often take a very small number of “gay” or “lesbian” parents and compare them with other groups on the basis of events that are quite rare, like child molestation. This is simply bogus given the non-randomly collected data and the extremely small size of the target groups — supposed children of gay or lesbian parents.

You mentioned what you see as a trend in academia, the rise of conservative ideologies in science and in funding for research. How widespread is that?

There is in fact a movement to change the intellectual and cultural climate of academics. This has been going on for over 30 years. Look at things like James Davidson Hunter’s Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, where he talks about the growth of these more intellectual conservative evangelical types in Christian colleges like Wheaton and Gordon and Calvin, which is Regnerus’ alma mater. They’ve actively courted the young, successful people in these colleges to become professors, to become intellectuals, and they support their careers.

One thing that’s disturbing to me about the Regnerus study is that Regnerus received a large amount of money from these foundations and this creates a very different scholarly and intellectual atmosphere. It creates a playing field that’s not level. Someone like Regnerus is now able to go out and buy his own data, if we’re to accept data of this quality.

Even if we were to say it’s high-quality data, he is able to get a million dollars’ worth of influence — he was able to generate that kind of funding from these conservative foundations in a way that other intellectuals are not able to do. All of the traditional sources of social scientific funding have dried up over the last 20 years and there’s nowhere to go to get money, but these guys have it. There are talks in Congress about cutting the entire social science budget at the National Science Foundation. That is chilling, because then we’ll be completely reliant on people like Mark Regnerus and Brad Wilcox [of the University of Virginia] and Christian Smith [of Notre Dame University] and people like that for our information about potentially crucial or controversial issues.

Wouldn’t questions come up about the amounts of money and whether a researcher is beholden to that money?

I think that it’s beyond that. With this group of intellectuals, this is their reward for intellectual fealty, and for adhering to what they had set out to do as conservative organizations in concert. Beginning in the 1980s, there was a movement to really re-forge intellectual culture by taking young evangelicals and turning them into idea producers, intellectuals. The intellectual foundation of the movement was back then. And they’ve successfully brought people like Regnerus and Wilcox through prestigious programs. They’re really the third generation of that project.

So it’s less about science and more about fighting a culture war?

Absolutely. It’s a real coordinated effort to create a kind of separate culture, to change contemporary culture in broader society. What’s different now is that they are beginning to move into the world, as they call it, and they are adamant about having an impact in the public square. That’s a real change for some of those groups. And they’re enabled in that in a lot of different ways, with the deregulation of education and their ability to create their own educational institutions, to provide home-schooling and all kinds of other alternative educational institutions.

What does all this ultimately mean for Mark Regnerus?

When we talk about Regnerus, I completely dismiss the study. It’s over. He has been disgraced. All of the prominent people in the field know what he did and why he did it. And most of them know that he knew better. Some of them think that he’s also stupid and an ideologue. I know better. I know that he’s a smart guy and that he did this on purpose, and that it was bad, and that it was substandard.

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