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Revenge of the Sociologists

The perils of politically incorrect academic research

Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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On the phone, Mark Regnerus sounds a little shellshocked. Professional sociologists hardly ever sound shellshocked.

“I knew it would be controversial,” he says. “But this is worse than I ever could have imagined.”

It refers to a scholarly paper Regnerus published last month. This is the hell that broke loose as a result.

Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas. His paper, appearing in the journal Social Science Research, carried the title “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study,” which is not a lapel-grabber. The subject was “gay parenting.” (One of the unpleasant aspects of social science is that you fall into the habit of using “parent” as a verb and silly participles like “parenting” instead of “child-rearing.”) For more than a decade now the unchallenged view among social scientists has been that there is no difference between children brought up—I mean parented—by lesbian and gay couples and those brought up in households where Ma and Pa are married. The “no difference” view has been certified by judges in gay-marriage decisions and repeated as received wisdom in the popular press, where you’re likely to see references to 

a relatively small but conclusive body of research .  .  . looking at children of gay parents and compiled by the American Psychological Association. In study after study, children in same-sex parent families turned out the same, for better or for worse, as children in heterosexual families.

In fact, this passage, from a news story not long ago in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is more responsible and hedged than most on the subject. The reporter admitted that the body of research is small, and the “for better or for worse” is a nice touch. And she didn’t bother to mention the most recent stage in the evolution of the “no difference” view. Some researchers have begun saying there may be differences after all: By some measures, they maintain, children brought up by lesbian couples fare better than children from traditional families. 

And now here comes Mark Regnerus. As a researcher, he says, “I’ve dabbled around.” He’s written well-received articles and books on religion, sex, and marriage. He has no particular expertise in the study of gay and lesbian relations, but the conventional view about the children of same-sex parents struck him as odd on its face. For starters, it’s widely known that children of divorce are more likely to show negative results on a number of “outcomes” in later life, such as depression, drug use, alcoholism, and so on. It’s also known that a high percentage of children being brought up by lesbians and gays are simultaneously the children of divorce. Logic suggests that some negative outcomes would show up in a study of those children too, placing them at a disadvantage next to children raised by heterosexuals in intact families.

Regnerus went through the literature—that often-cited “relatively small but conclusive body of research.” If a social scientist hopes to produce a statistical finding that applies to the larger population, probability theory requires that he study a relatively large number of people who are chosen at random. Most of the researchers in the literature on same-sex parenting used samples that were too small to produce generalizable results. All but a handful of them drew “convenience samples” from gay activist organizations or by word of mouth. These methods came up with samples of lesbian and gay parents who were whiter, richer, and more likely to be city dwellers than the national population. There were few control groups against which the results could be compared. Regnerus found the same methodological weaknesses in study after study.

Regnerus is a controversialist, though not a crude one—as a bull in the china shop of mainstream sociology, he’s more likely to pirouette than rampage. He decided to test the “no difference” consensus with a study of his own. With the approval of his university, Regnerus received funding from the deep-pocketed Witherspoon Foundation, a group dedicated to “scholarly research and teaching that enhance understanding of the crucial function that marriage and family serve in fostering a society capable of democratic self-governance.” Which is a long way of saying it’s conservative. Regnerus himself is a Catholic convert who says he’s never voted for a Republican presidential candidate.

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