Mark Regnerus

Why I Don't Always Trust Scientists: Exhibit B-- That Gay Parenting Study

Earlier this summer,  Social Science Research published a paper by Mark Regnerus that claimed to answer this question: How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?  The paper ignited a political war in some parts of the scientific and religious communities that still continues, with calls to retract the paper and claims that criticism of Regnerus and his methods constitute a liberal war on science.

This farce tells us a lot about what happens when scientists approach a controversial, highly visible, disenfranchised minority population about which people hold strong and highly divergent opinions.  Let's use it as a parable for what happens when neurotypical social scientists study autistics.

1)  There is a presumption that different is less.  Regnerus was motivated to begin his research because his religious beliefs made it impossible for him to accept the conclusion seen in previous studies-- that same-sex couples were equal or superior to heterosexual couples as parents.  Most NT researchers similarly begin from a point of believing that, to the extent the autistic brain and behavior are different from their own, they are inherently inferior.

2)  Scientists eagerly over-generalize from miniscule samples.  Regnerus says his study proves his study proves all sorts of bad things about the children of same-sex couples:

The basic results call into question simplistic notions of “no differences,” at least with the generation that is out of the house. On 25 of 40 different outcomes evaluated, the children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships fare quite differently than those in stable, biologically-intact mom-and-pop families, displaying numbers more comparable to those from heterosexual stepfamilies and single parents. Even after including controls for age, race, gender, and things like being bullied as a youth, or the gay-friendliness of the state in which they live, such respondents were more apt to report being unemployed, less healthy, more depressed, more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner, smoke more pot, had trouble with the law, report more male and female sex partners, more sexual victimization, and were more likely to reflect negatively on their childhood family life, among other things.

He is making those claims based on a sample that included only two people who were raised by a lesbian couple for their entire childhood.  None of his subjects were raised by a gay male couple for longer than three years:

It isn’t Regnerus’s fault that so few gay and lesbian -couples were raising children in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. He tried to boost the numbers by expanding his definitions. He divided respondents into eight family types, including stepfamilies and single-parent families, along with LMs and GFs and IBFs. If a respondent said his mother had a same-sex relationship at some point in his childhood, he was counted as an LM—even if he was also the product of a divorce or raised in a single-parent family. That’s how Regnerus got the number of LMs up to 175 and the GFs up to 73. 

To the extent that the dispute over Regnerus’s study is scientifically serious and not brute cultural warfare, it largely turns on whether this way of boosting the sample is legitimate. Many reputable social scientists, including the three commenters recruited by the editor of Social Science Research, say it is. His critics say Regnerus was stacking the deck. Social science is unanimous that children raised in unstable families—divorced parents, for example, or stepfamilies—have worse outcomes later in life than children from stable families. By counting these people as LMs or GFs (assuming their parents had a same-sex relationship), Regnerus ensured that those categories would show less favorable outcomes. With so many children of gays also being children of divorced or single parents it could hardly have turned out otherwise.

One of the biggest troubles with autism research is that huge conclusions are often drawn from samples nearly as small.

3)  Scientists create their own definitions to match their findings. John Corvino asks:

What do the following all have in common?

  • A heterosexually married female prostitute who on rare occasion services women
  • A long-term gay couple who adopt special-needs children
  • A never-married straight male prison inmate who sometimes seeks sexual release with other male inmates
  • A woman who comes out of the closet, divorces her husband, and has a same-sex relationship at age 55, after her children are grown
  • Ted Haggard, the disgraced evangelical pastor who was caught having drug fueled-trysts with a male prostitute over a period of several years
  • A lesbian who conceives via donor insemination and raises several children with her long-term female partner

Give up? The answer—assuming that they all have biological or adopted adult children between the ages of 18 and 39—is that they would all be counted as “Lesbian Mothers” or “Gay Fathers” in Mark Regnerus’s new study, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study” (NFSS).

Most of the criticism of Regnerus has focused on the way that he defined gay and lesbian parents:

Regnerus did not ask respondents to give their parents’ sexual orientation; merely whether they knew if their parents had at some point engaged in a homosexual relationship, for however long. The parents may or may not have considered themselves gay, then or now. And many of these children were not raised by a homosexual parent: There were GFs who never lived with their father at all. As a close reading of its title suggests, this is a study of adult children of parents who had same-sex relationships. And the Family Research Council’s use of the present tense is jumping the gun. The study is retrospective—a picture of the nation during the last 40 years, much of it before the gay rights movement and the widespread social acceptance of homosexuality. For all we know, and as Regnerus readily admits, the instability, and hence the bad outcomes, could be largely traced to trauma caused by the antihomosexual prejudice of an earlier time.

Regnerus’s handling of the data led to the further objection that he was comparing apples and oranges: children raised by a biological mother and father in stable families, on the one hand, and on the other, children raised in families that were by definition unstable. If Regnerus had wanted to isolate the effect of sexual orientation on child-rearing, he would have had to compare like with like: stable heterosexual families with stable homosexual families, one-parent heterosexual families with one-parent homosexual families, and so on. That he didn’t do so is taken by his pitiless critics as a sign of either incompetence or bad faith. 

“Here’s the way I put it,” said Gary Gates, the demographer. “It’s like he took a group of men who never smoked and compared them with a group of women who smoked three packs a day. Then he checked lung cancer rates. And he concluded that being a woman puts you at greater risk for lung cancer. But of course the cancer rate has nothing to do with being a woman.” In the same way, he says, we can’t tell from Regnerus’s data what role homosexuality—as opposed to divorce, welfare, single-parenthood—played in the bad outcomes.

Autism researchers play a similar game when they take respondents from a general pool, give them a test Simon Baron-Cohen made up, ask them some questions about God, and claim that the results prove that autistic people aren't religious.

4)  Hot topics distort the peer review process.  After he was attacked for his decision to publish the paper, Social Science Research editor James Wright asked board member Darren Sherkat to conduct an audit of the process.  Citing the problems described above with how Regnerus defined gay and lesbian parents, he concluded that it should not have been published.  Sherkat also found that the scientists who conducted the peer review were biased and sloppy:

In his audit, he writes that the peer-review system failed because of “both ideology and inattention” on the part of the reviewers (three of the six reviewers, according to Sherkat, are on record as opposing same-sex marriage). What’s more, he writes that the reviewers were “not without some connection to Regnerus,” and suggests that those ties influenced their reviews.

He declined to be more specific in an interview, saying that he was obligated to protect their identities. “Obviously,” he concluded, “the reviewers did not do a good job.”

Editor Wright admits that he may have been influenced by the high profile nature of the subject:

In his audit, Sherkat reveals that all the reviewers declared that the paper would generate “enormous interest.” Enormous interest leads to citations and downloads, which is how a journal’s relevance is judged. The higher the impact of its papers, the greater its prestige. Wright acknowledges that he was excited about the interest the paper would no doubt inspire, and he wonders in retrospect if “perhaps this prospect caused me to be inattentive to things I should have kept a keener eye on.”

Take a moment and ask yourself who is doing peer review for social science on autistic people.  Who is even asking them to disclose and examine bias?  And how many things are getting rushed to press because autism is a topic of popular interest and urgency?

5) Science cannot answer questions of human worth.  Thomas Jefferson loved science and was ambivalent about God.  But when he wrote the Declaration of Independence he said that our equality was self-evident.  He extended it in language only to men, and he extended it in practice only to white men like himself, and he was wrong in both those things, but Jefferson was right not to base his argument on experiment or rationality:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

We don't base our belief that gay people should or shouldn't have the right to get married and have kids on science.  We base it on what is self-evident to us.

Autistic people are people.  Allowing us to be defined all the time as research subjects can keep others from seeing our self-evident equality.


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