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The Divided Academy

7:09 AM, Aug 16, 2012 • By JON A. SHIELDS and JOSHUA M. DUNN
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Social Science Research editor Jim Wright is fighting to save his professional reputation. Wright is under fire from fellow sociologists and left-wing bloggers for publishing an article in June by sociologist Mark Regnerus, which concluded that children of parents who had engaged in same-sex relationships fared worse than children from intact, heterosexual families. (Andrew Ferguson reported on the controversy in a July cover story for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.)

Conservatives contend that Wright and Regnerus are merely the latest casualties of the left’s hegemony in higher education. In truth, the social sciences and humanities are more tolerant of conservative perspectives than this scandal might suggest. There is, however, a growing divide between academic disciplines willing to tolerate a wide range of political perspectives and those, like sociology, increasingly in the business of punishing heretics and their accomplices. It will shape the future of American academia.

Shortly after Regnerus’s study was published, Wright confronted implacable critics who were convinced that he was at the center of a right-wing conspiracy—though Wright himself supports gay rights. Two hundred scholars signed a letter expressing concern over the very “integrity” of Social Science Research because it published Regnerus’s paper. The University of Texas, where Regnerus is an associate professor, opened an inquiry into his work to evaluate charges of scientific misconduct.

To defuse the controversy, Wright took the extraordinary step of soliciting an internal audit of the peer-review process that led to the paper’s publication. He turned over everything to the special investigator, sociologist and Social Science Research editorial board member Darren Sherkat, including anonymous peer reviews and private correspondence.

Involving Sherkat, however, promised even more controversy. On his blog, he has called academics and administrators who don’t share his views “whores” and “nasty shit-prattled assholes in desperate need of a wipe.” When epithets fail to convey the depth of his animus for those on the right, he accompanies them with pictures of rats (and other mammals) mounting one another.

He was an odd choice to judge the process of publishing Regnerus. In May, Sherkat referred to Regnerus on his blog as “a big mouthpiece for the religious right” and a “conservative Christian fake sociologist.”

Yet the judgment of this supposedly sober social scientist was elevated recently by the Chronicle of Higher Education above that of the ideologically balanced group of peer reviewers—all of whom enthusiastically recommended publication of Regnerus’s paper. The newspaper accepted Sherkat’s finding that the peer-review process failed and that Regnerus’s paper should never have been published. As Sherkat bluntly put it to the Chronicle, Regnerus’s work is “bullshit.”

The Chronicle reported that according to the draft of Sherkat’s audit, he judged there was too much ideological diversity among the peer reviewers—half of them were conservatives. Wright should have selected reviewers that were “more diverse in their perspectives,” he said. Never mind that the liberal reviewers, whom Sherkat described as “social science superstars,” also endorsed Regnerus’s work. Sherkat found that all the reviewers were “obviously” incorrect. 

Further, Sherkat insisted that the standard for data quality should have been raised much higher for Regnerus’s paper because it explored such an “important” issue. This is Sherkat’s quiet admission that the data used in Regnerus’s study was of comparable quality to that of most quantitative sociological studies. In fact, Regnerus’s sample was far better than those found in practically every prior study on gay parenting, almost all of which relied on small, nonrepresentative samples. As sociologist Paul Amato, chair of the family section of the American Sociological Association, noted, the quality of Regnerus’s data was “better situated than virtually all previous studies to detect differences between these [different family] groups in the population.” Likewise, sociologist Christian Smith said that Regnerus’s “sample was a clear improvement over those used by most previous studies on this topic.”

Sherkat did note some genuine and much-publicized methodological limitations to the study that we happen to agree with. But that doesn’t mean it should have never been published. Every prior study of gay parents confronted methodological limitations, largely because the small size of the population makes it difficult to study. “If the Regnerus study is to be thrown out,” explained economist Douglas Allen, “then practically everything else [in the literature] has to go with it.”  

This sociological squabble highlights an important change in the politics of higher education. Though political minorities confronted worse persecution during the McCarthy era, at least those threats to academic freedom came from outside the university. Today’s persecuted apostates in the academy are more likely to find enemies inside the ivory tower. The danger of the Regnerus scandal is that it will only encourage young veiled conservatives to stay right where they are—in the closet. That would be bad for social science as a whole.

But this doesn’t mean that universities are uniformly intolerant of conservatives. Though a number of studies suggest that conservatives have a comparatively tough time making their way in the academy, sociology and literature are special cases. While conservative philosophers, economists, and political scientists engage controversial issues like same-sex marriage without disciplinary sanction, a sociologist such as Regnerus is hammered for publishing a study that merely skirts around the edges of the deeper moral issue. Regnerus even acknowledged that his findings suggest that marriage might help gay parents and their children by conferring so many of the benefits that marriage offers, especially stability.

As some fields continue to tolerate (though not always welcome) conservative scholars while others discipline and punish, the academy has become increasingly divided, though not by party politics. Instead, it is divided into those disciplines that are willing to tolerate and engage unpopular perspectives, and those that are illiberal denizens of groupthink. 

Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Joshua M. Dunn is associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. 

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