comments on regnerus
Finally got around to reading the Regnerus SSR article. A few comments:
1. Up front – my politics: I am against laws that distinguish between people based on sexual orientation. I also believe that people should be tolerant of many sexual orientations, not just heterosexuality.
2. My prior scientific belief: I believe that it may be possible that sexual orientation may be correlated with family outcomes in positive or negative ways, just as there might be differences between other groups (e.g., Latinos may be better or worse parents according to some measure).
3. My prior legal belief: The presence of group differences doesn’t entail policy change unless the differences are extreme. For example, we might discover that alcoholics are worse parents, but I would be against a law that banned alcoholics from having children. In other words, I can believe that some group (e.g., gays) may be better or worse parents than other groups, but that doesn’t mean we should discriminate.
4. What I’ve been told: I am not a family sociologist, but multiple people have told me that prior research tends to find little or no difference between children of straight parents and gay parents. They could be wrong and I’d be willing to update my belief if a sufficiently strong study came out.
5. The actual Regnerus study contains a modest, but interesting result. According to multiple measures, people seem to be worse off if they had a parent who had same gender sexual relations. This isn’t surprising given that most reported two person families were mixed gender. That suggests that same sex contacts were outside the family. In other words, the study measured the “Larry Craigs” of the world. I am not shocked that their children may be worse off in some way.
6. The issue, to me, seems to be the claim that the data provide evidence against same sex marriage. First, even the author admits, there are very few people who reported two parents of the same gender (17, to be exact). Second, there is a severe selection effect. Most of the survey respondents grew up when same sex marriage was illegal, thus preventing what might the equilibrium state in an environment where same gender marriage is legal. To be blunt, the gay people who set up families a decade or more ago are not the same people who might set up families in the current environment.
7. There was petition asking the Social Science Research editor to explain how this paper went through the review process. As an author whose papers have gotten stuck for *years* at a time, I was shocked to learn that it went through in a matter of weeks.
8. Critics claim that the outcry was a “witch hunt” (see the Scatter discussion). That’s a vague and charged term, so I will ignore it. But a few things are safe to say. Science is built on skepticism. If a paper comes out claiming that all previous work in the topic was flawed and produces a controversial result, it would be normal for people to ask questions. The proper response is to provide an explanation of how the research was conducted, not accuse people of a “witch hunt.” No one is asking that anyone be fired or banned from doing sociology. The petitioners are merely asking, “why was this published?”
9. There is some truth to the charge that the outcry is political. Consider a thought experiment, what if a researcher produced a flawed article that supported a liberal policy? Has there been an equivalent level of outcry against bad research that supports liberal points of view? This doesn’t mean that the Regnerus critics should stop. They were right to ask questions. Rather, it means that we should bring the same skepticism to all research, regardless of policy implications. Liberals and conservatives should be equally fearful of sociology’s methodology police.
10. Darren “BMX” Sherkat was asked the the SSR editor to do an audit of the paper and its review process. Personally, I think this is excessive. The editor, James Wright, is an accomplished scholar and likely knew that the paper would be controversial, even used as ammunition in a political dispute. We give editors great leeway. They may agree with reviewers or override them. He chose to publish this paper after getting some feedback, which is normal. Darren found that the reviewers had some connection with the author. This isn’t always bad. I’m sure that the reviewers of some of my rejected papers know me personally, and that I’ve rejected the papers of people who I like and admire. The bottom line is that the James Wright is an adult and sociology is a contact sport.
11. Bottom line: I think this a modest paper that presents an intuitive result. If one of your parents is gay but is with a different gender partner, then kids may be worse off. A family where there a sever mismatch in orientation between parents is likely to be stressful, to say the least. At best, the paper would have to be severely rewritten to match the text and the results. At worse, as Darren notes, the paper should just be rejected along with other papers where the claims don’t match the data. The extremely fast publication process suggests that these options were not seriously considered.