The Magazine

The ‘Science’ of Same-Sex Marriage

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By ANDREW FERGUSON, FOR THE EDITORS
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Oral arguments on gay marriage take place before the Supreme Court the last week of March, and the pile of amicus briefs filed by interested parties long ago passed the point of redundancy. We prefer briefs filed by disinterested parties, such as the one put before the Court earlier in the month by Leon Kass of the University of Chicago and Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University. The Kass-Mansfield brief is silent on the larger question of gay marriage as social policy. The professors instead confine themselves to a shared area of expertise: the relation between social science and cultural and political life, which they have pondered and written about for many years.

Our robed masters

Our robed masters

AP IMAGES / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The brief is an attempt at intellectual hygiene. Among the many annoying tics of contemporary liberalism is its insistence that liberal social policies are always and everywhere determined by the latest findings of social science. Redistribution, affirmative action, tighter economic regulation—name the policy and you’re sure to find some associate professor of some social science or another beavering away with a labful of undergraduates to discover its benefits. Such are the claims made for gay marriage. “More than thirty years of social science,” as one piece of NPR agitprop declared on Morning Edition last week, have demonstrated that children raised by homosexual couples show “no difference” in social outcomes from children reared in heterosexual households. And more recent cutting-edge data show the salubrious effects of gay marriage in general. We are told.

It is the aim of Kass and Mansfield to wave the Supreme Court away from “scientific findings” that are produced by culture warriors, as the findings in the field of “gay studies” nearly always are. “The social and behavioral sciences,” they write, “have a long history of being shaped and driven by politics and ideology.” They note pointedly that two generations ago, the “scientific consensus,” as represented by the American Psychiatric Association, was that homosexuality was a “mental disorder.” The consensus was publicly reversed in 1973, and science, to paraphrase Mae West, had nothing to do with it: Both positions, before and after, were determined by political and cultural considerations. 

Now, of course, the American Psychological Association, which waited until 1975 to “depathologize” homosexuality, tries to lend its shaky intellectual credibility to the cause of gay marriage in general and gay parenting in particular. In 2005, it issued a bull declaring the “no difference” finding a matter of settled science. Kass and Mansfield point to a recent paper by Loren Marks of LSU, who had the temerity (and professional death wish) to go back and actually read the 59 studies the APA cited in its decree. They were shot through with conceptual and methodological flaws: small, nonrandom “convenience” samples, a recurring lack of control groups, shifting and poorly defined outcomes, and a steady pattern of comparing apples to oranges—for example, placing the children of intact, well-to-do lesbian households up against children reared by single heterosexual parents. 

In all aspects of gay marriage, Kass and Mansfield write, the “body of research .  .  . is radically inconclusive.” There’s good reason for this, aside from the suspect motives and methods of the researchers themselves. Same-sex marriage and child rearing by self-defined same-sex couples are recent innovations. Whatever effects may flow from these unprecedented arrangements, good or bad or neutral, they are scientifically unknowable until gay marriage and child rearing are widespread enough to yield large samples that can be studied according to a rigorous methodology. “Large amounts of data collected over decades,” write Kass and Mansfield, “would be required before any responsible researcher could make meaningful scientific estimates of the effects.” And on these issues disinterested researchers are hard to come by.

Kass and Mansfield are well-known conservatives, as well as men practiced in the business of social science, and we may presume that they’re skeptical of gay marriage. This makes their amicus brief a necessary complement to another brief that has received much more publicity, submitted to the Court in favor of gay marriage and signed by a long list of .  .  . of .  .  . well, what are they anyway? Opening their amicus brief with a declaration of interest, they write: “Amici are social and political conservatives, moderates, and libertarians” who have decided that the Supreme Court must intervene to establish gay marriage nationwide. 

The list of amici contains several names that will be familiar to anyone whose has had the bad habit of following American politics. Beyond their political coloration, which in many instances seems quite changeable, they do present a typical Washington motley: underemployed lobbyists, society hostesses, TV gasbags, defenestrated politicians, and political hangers-on, most of them draping themselves in the phony-baloney job titles that only our preposterous political culture can pretend to endow with authority (“adviser,” “consultant,” “commentator,” “advocate”). In other cases there are references to real jobs—former special assistants, speechwriters, undersecretaries—that the amici once held and abandoned several administrations ago, when the world was young—and before their moral and constitutional views had progressed to the state of exquisite sensitivity that now drives them to lay their opinions before the High Court.

Nobody will be surprised to learn that these opinions are not terribly well informed. Indeed the only thing the amici seem informed by is the impress of our country’s most up-to-the-minute intellectual fashion. Inevitably they rely, innocent and wide-eyed, on the same inconclusive social science that Kass and Mansfield warn against. The amici are not a skeptical or penetrating lot. The brief makes the obvious point that science offers no evidence of the harm that gay marriage may do; they do not make the equally obvious and complementary point that science offers no evidence of the good that supporters insist gay marriage will do for its couples, its children, or the larger society. 

Their brief also vigorously invokes the advantages offered by marriage, as currently defined. And these advantages are real and well documented by social scientists of all stripes. The amici attribute such benefits to the stability that state-sanctioned marriage bestows on families, which is also true, as far as it goes. But you can’t help but wonder: If stability between same-sex couples is the issue at hand—the great social good we seek—why not institute civil unions that are as binding as the marriage contract, and avoid the radical social experiment of redefining marriage?

Well, the amici say, marriage is unique. And they’re right again. Marriage is many things, all at once—much more than a simple mechanism for stability between husband and wife. The institution that social science has been studying so exhaustively for so many years is of a singular kind, with singular features. It is an ancient practice grooved by tradition and myth, shaped by social expectations as old as civilization. It arises from the natural sexual complementarity of woman and man, and formalizes the possibility of procreation and the renewal of life. 

There’s no way of knowing what combination of these singular features of marriage confers which of its demonstrated advantages, culturally and psychologically. We do know, however, that if the state suddenly creates the institution of gay marriage by fiat, the result will lack most of the features that make marriage unique—and uniquely beneficial. It will not be the same institution that has won the unanimous endorsement of social scientists. It will be a novel and revolutionary institution owing its existence to the devaluation of an old and settled one. Should we assume that the former will confer the same social and personal benefits as the latter, the two being different in such fundamental ways? The only honest answer—the only intellectually respectable answer—is, Who knows?

Which brings us back to the central point that Mansfield and Kass make in their compelling brief: We don’t know what the consequences of gay marriage will be. (We do suspect that such a thing will be less socially divisive if enacted by popular will than by the say-so of judges.) Social science is all but mute on the subject and will have nothing useful to tell us for decades. Lacking objective evidence, suspicious of a rising political hysteria, wary of hidden motives, and unmoved by social blackmail, we would do well to submit to humility, deference, discretion, modesty—all those virtues that conservatives are said to prize. If nothing else, these should be sufficient to stay the judges’ hand, and to let the people themselves decide, if a decision must be made, when or whether tradition is to be disowned.

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