regnerus, bellesiles, and duesberg

Three scientific controversies worth comparing:

  1. Mark Regnerus publishes a study in Social Science Research claiming that having gay parents is correlated with worse outcomes for children. This is an example of a conservative attacking a belief held by liberals. The subsequent controversy focuses on the actual findings of his survey and the extremely expedited review process.
  2. Michael Bellesiles published Arming America, a book claiming that colonial Americans owned very few guns. This is a liberal attack on a conservative belief.  The subsequent controversy revealed that Bellesiles had almost certainly made up a lot of data, which lead to his dismissal from his university position.
  3. Peter Duesberg is a microbiologist who does not believe that the AIDS is caused by the HIV virus. He believes it is caused by other factors. This, as far as I can tell, not political on his part. He fervently believes in a different hypothesis. There was a controversy which resulted in Duesberg being ostracized by other microbiologists but otherwise retaining is position at UC Berkeley. Duesberg has not changed his opinion, but most other researchers are convinced he is wrong.

Commentary: In academia, you will get attacked if you puncture a widely held belief, regardless of the politics. Somebody will want the credit of taking you down – and that’s not always a bad thing. However, what happens during the controversy is complex. The Regnerus controversy shows that you can survive charges of favoritism and charges of really, really stretching what the data says. The Duesberg controversy shows that you can survive being wrong.* The Bellesiles incident shows that you can’t survive fraud.

A deeper issue is that Regnerus and Duesberg survived because of tenure. They are able to continue teaching and working despite their hugely unpopular opinions because of privilege we give to our senior faculty. However, tenure will only help you though if you play by academic rules. While we may disagree with what these scholars say, I’d chalk up these three example of tenure living up to its promise.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

* There’s a subtle issue with Duesberg. You may not survive if you are associated with a controversial figure. For example, the editor of Medical Hypotheses quit his job after publishing an opinion piece by Duesberg.

Written by fabiorojas

April 5, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, sociology

31 Responses

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  1. So the whole gripe about the FDA is that, sure, it keeps bad drugs from killing people, sometimes — but it rejects an overwhelming number of drugs because of its conservative incentives — and potentially kills tons of people waiting for these medications.

    Not every patent clerk makes it through the tenure wiggle — while it protects potentially useless and inflammatory research — research which clearly would have market support in a liberal academy, considering it already does in a tenured academy.

    It’s not clear that the United States Government is a disinterested and nonpartisan funder of research (I for instance picked a “social activism sexy” project for my graduate NSF proposal); and a good deal of primary research is already funded by private endowments from top universities. Does anyone think liberalizing the professorate would improve academic product in the same way competition improves consumer products?


    Graham Peterson

    April 5, 2013 at 12:15 am

  2. Graham. Seriously, stop damaging your career. Don’t post online for a year or two, learn something about this discipline you’ve chosen, and come back when everyone’s forgotten how annoying you are. Sometimes it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.



    April 5, 2013 at 4:30 am

  3. Me: respond to the content of the blog after having nice productive conversations with Freese, Rojas, and the faculty and students at Indiana after the scuffle.

    You: call me names.


    Graham Peterson

    April 5, 2013 at 4:51 am

  4. Dear Graham: Ash’s comment might be not gently framed, but the spirit of it is worth seriously considering. Academia is a small world; reputations are created quickly and spread far; and labels are sticky. I’ve watched students have trouble with the transition from undergraduate, where you can get away with the-smartest-guy-in-the-room brashness, to graduate school where you can’t get away with much anymore and aren’t the smartest guy in any room ever. In fact, this was something I had to deal with in graduate school and repeatedly throughout my career given my own predilection for acerbic hyperbole. Seriously, take Ash’s sentiment under advisement as you start your career.

    On a different note, I don’t really understand the point of the tangent in your comment–Fabio rights about controversy, tenure, and fraud and you write about the FDA and funding agency political bias? Please enlighten me.



    April 5, 2013 at 5:40 am

  5. cwalken: Thanks, that’s much appreciated and acknowledged. I’ve heard similar things from McCloskey, Rojas, Rossman, Vaisey, and a number of others — I don’t doubt these people’s (or your) advice — they’re orders of magnitude smarter and better read than me. Calling sociologists hypocrites was a dumb move, and a really awful way to start a conversation about inequality that I’m interested in long-run. I regret it. But I don’t have any illusions about how smart I am. The more I read — the more I find out how little I know. It just doesn’t stop me from wanting to discuss in order to learn.

    I was trying here to draw a metaphor between the market for pharmaceuticals and the market for ideas in the academy. I think an under-appreciated argument against tenure is that it potentially works exactly against its stated goal — by keeping out productive ideas which don’t conform to those held by the Keepers of the Temple. That’s a trite and old argument. But I was trying to give it some new life by drawing the parallel to the economic argument against barriers to entry, which in the case of drugs, the FDA erects.

    The examples of when the FDA works are very salient, because it demonstrably saves lives. But “the unseen,” as Bastiat put it, are the people it kills by not allowing new treatments through. An example is this new male contraceptive Vasalgel, which is dirt cheap and has been preventing unwanted pregnancies in India and Germany for a long time now (an electrically charged gel gets injected into the vas deferans, which rips sperm apart on the molecular level as they pass by — it’s totally reversible). I don’t understand why under full disclosure that the risks are unknown consenting adults shouldn’t be allowed to try it out in America.

    And the same goes (potentially — I’m liable to be embarrassingly wrong), for new “experimental stage” ideas which aren’t allowed into the professional discourse because of the tenure process. Market entry and competition generally promote the quality of goods; monopolies demonstrably destroy it. So, like the FDA, examples like those Rojas just pointed out of the tenure system working well are particularly salient — while we’ll never know how many people’s good ideas have been relegated to the toilet because of stochastic mismatches between students and committees, and because tenured professors hold the keys to a small number of journals.

    The issue isn’t so cut and dry — professional organizations offer certifications that promote trust and lower transactional frictions in markets — they are a public good which old neoclassical economists probably under appreciated. And tenure certainly functions the same way.

    The comment about financially interested v. disinterested was meant to address the concerns people would have with the idea of an academy that’s mostly funded by private philanthropy, as against having a kind of in-bed relationship between the NSF and a tenured academy currently.

    Sorry for the long post — hope that clears up my OP. And clearly there are a dump truck full of other details going on in the background of the cutesy argument I’m making.


    Graham Peterson

    April 5, 2013 at 6:05 am

  6. Graham — at this rate you’ll be adding a “Notable Conversations” section to your CV ;)



    April 5, 2013 at 6:11 am

  7. ha ;) Oh yeah — real work. . . .


    Graham Peterson

    April 5, 2013 at 6:44 am

  8. Graham, seriously, take the advice you are getting here and stop. Please, for the love of all that is holy, STOP! Jeremy WILL poke you with the poo stick again.



    April 5, 2013 at 9:17 am

  9. Bruce Charlton didn’t merely “quit”. The very article you link to describes him as “fired”. The publisher, Elsevier, announced it would no longer accept the journal as editor-reviewed (as opposed to peer reviewed).


    Wonks Anonymous

    April 5, 2013 at 2:21 pm

  10. I’m afraid to ask, but what is a “poo stick?”



    April 5, 2013 at 4:01 pm

  11. I like Graham and his mostly-thoughtful perspectives. To me, rather than embarrass himself, he has further revealed the lack of real critical thought in sociology and how sensitive sociologists are to dissenting views. He was treated horribly on that undergrad blogs. Wishing you all the best, man.



    April 5, 2013 at 6:04 pm

  12. Honestly? Yes, the idea of me patrolling the internet and jabbing people through their monitors with some sort of fecal wand made me chuckle. And yet, I suspect this was not the thread Fabio was envisioning here.

    Honestly, too: I certainly have no beef with Graham, and my hopeful presumption is he has none with me. I like when people are forthright with their thoughts under their real name, and when they don’t buy into some of the Downton Abbey-like conceptions other folks can have about how academia works, which have never rung true for me anyway.



    April 5, 2013 at 7:07 pm

  13. Blogging, like volleyball:
    You set up the spike.
    Then you get blocked.



    April 5, 2013 at 7:12 pm

  14. As a longtime blogger who started doing this somewhat naively and fearlessly as a graduate student, I hope future PhD students don’t worry excessively about their reputations and become afraid to say anything online that might be perceived as somewhat controversial. Free roaming conversation grounded in professional norms is what makes blogging great and what distinguishes this medium from our journals. Blogging has its own mechanisms for keeping people in line. If you get out of hand, Jeremy slaps you with his wand and you learn something (hopefully).


    brayden king

    April 5, 2013 at 9:23 pm

  15. Professor Freese and I had a nice exchange after the scuffle; I have a lot of respect for the man. I made a stupid attack on the professional conduct of sociologists – he called me on it. End of story.

    I discussed last weeks thread with another prospective who said she “always wants to comment on orgtheory but is afraid to.” There’s something wrong with an intellectual culture where people are scared enough to be wrong that they don’t say anything at all. It doesn’t look to me like nearly any of the faculty who frequent this blog want that situation.

    That said — me parading around being snide probably doesn’t serve as some kind of leadership for more student contributions. I’ll tone it down.

    Last note: I use my real name because the last half century of social psychological and behavioral economic experiments have gone to show that the quickest way to get people to act like knaves is to make them anonymous. If I’m going to say something stupid on the internet, I’m at least going to have some spine while I do it, own it, and correct it.


    Graham Peterson

    April 6, 2013 at 12:51 am

  16. I am not sure saying Regnerus represents “an example of a conservative attacking a belief held by liberals” is the best characterization of the Regnerus study, especially in relation to the strong backlash. Methods and data analysis, not politics or “unpopular opinions,” have been the fields of criticism (as evidenced by sociologists writing on the internet). Which is why Smith’s defense of Regnerus was weak; he reflexively thought the debate was about politics, when it wasn’t.



    April 6, 2013 at 1:43 am

  17. Austen,

    It’s both.

    I could pretty easily find you dozens of examples of studies published in journals w a 1.0 impact factor with methods that are as bad or worse than the Regnerus study but that nobody cares about. The reason people care is that it (allegedly*) directly addresses a contentious culture wars issue that is subject to active political debate and litigation. However the reason so many family demographers** vociferously critique the study rather than reluctantly conceding the empirical point is because the methods have a big gaping hole by (at least in the headline / talking points version of the findings) conflating household disruption of prior heterosexual unions with the direct effects of LGBT parenting.

    * I put allegedly because I’ve never understood how, even if we accept the simplest version of the findings as “gays are bad parents,” this would be relevant to the actual policy counterfactual, which is married gay parents vs unmarried gay parents, not gay parents vs straight parents. That said, the courts for reasons that escape me have viewed this as relevant and so it’s relevant in a subjective sense.

    ** I’m thinking here of the academic critics with relevant expertise, not a certain litigious and vituperative blogger who shall not be named, lest he be summoned to this thread, Candyman-like.



    April 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm

  18. It’s not merely relative just because the courts think it is. P(gay parents | gay marriage legal) > P(gay parents | gay marriage illegal).

    There’s defintely several dissertations in this natural experiment though – whether or not the number of homosexuals in society increases because of the structural shock from an influx of gay parents after their marriages are legitimated will tell us a lot about whether homosexuality is nurture or not.

    Regardless the social science, it’s pretty clear these are battles American social conservatives are inevitably going to lose. Thank God.


    Graham Peterson

    April 6, 2013 at 4:50 pm

  19. Graham,

    True, LGBT fertility (including adoption) could well go up as a result of SSM so that’s a fair point as to how the findings could be relevant (at least if we trusted the findings and thought the micro-mechanisms were prospectively relevant). Also note that the causation could actually go the other way. In a high stigma environment you’re going to have a lot of gay folks in the closet long enough to have fertility through heterosexual unions. (This is basically what the Regnerus study found). Conversely in a low stigma and institutionally supportive environment you’re going to see most people coming out of the closet much younger and this should depress their fertility since mixed sex couples can have kids even by accident whereas same sex couples require an active effort of adoption or (for women) artificial insemination.

    If I had to bet, I’d expect that the net effect of greater tolerance of gays (including SSM) will be to suppress fertility of people with same sex attractions, especially men. (I’m deliberately avoiding using the term “LGBT” in the second clause of that sentence to avoid conflating self-identifcation with attraction as this is a meaningful distinction in a high stigma environment).

    In any case, I still see this research question as only marginally relevant, even for a purely utilitarian approach to this legal/policy question.



    April 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm

  20. @Gabriel – I never understood the relevance of the “gays are good/bad parents” claim to the policy counterfactual either. But, according to more law-minded colleagues, the argument is relevant to the current legal disputes. Specifically, if it were scientifically established that the children of gay parents had worse outcomes, then it could be argued that voters in California had a rational basis for banning gay marriage – even if this was not actually the basis they voted on – and this would help Prop 8 pass constitutional muster. And that’s exactly what the Regnerus paper was mobilized for in the oral arguments – and why the ASA brief was so important for this particular legal dispute. Perhaps someone else can add more of the details in and check that my summary is reasonably accurate?


    Dan Hirschman

    April 7, 2013 at 4:43 am

  21. And here’s a good example of the (immediate) conservative legal mobilization of the Regnerus findings to make the rational basis argument (via the Witherspoon Institute, of course), Supreme Court Take Notice: Two Sociologists Shift the Ground of the Marriage Debate.

    “Same-sex marriage advocates have argued in state and federal courts that traditional marriage laws have no “rational basis,” or that they fail some other more stringent form of “scrutiny” under constitutional provisions guaranteeing due process and the equal protection of the laws. Defenders of marriage have responded that one prominent basis for the conjugal definition of marriage is that the optimal form of family for raising children is the stable union of a married man and woman bringing up their own biological children.

    For the plainly rational basis of traditional marriage laws is strongly supported by the studies of Professors Marks and Regnerus. As the Perry case on Prop 8, and related litigation on the Defense of Marriage Act, reach the Supreme Court, the counsels of good social science can be added to the standard norms of constitutionalism to counsel against the willful judicial invention of a right to same-sex marriage.”


    Dan Hirschman

    April 7, 2013 at 4:49 am

  22. Erg. I just realized I read Gabriel’s footnote a bit too quickly – Gabriel in fact make the same point (that the courts have deemed it relevant for somewhat arcane reasons). So, just read the above two comments as filling in some of the details about why the courts have deemed it relevant.


    Dan Hirschman

    April 7, 2013 at 4:52 am

  23. Gabrieal says, “The reason people care is that it (allegedly*) directly addresses a contentious culture wars issue that is subject to active political debate and litigation.”

    But I don’t think that is fair. The Regnerus paper inserted itself immediately and repeatedly into prominent media outlets and addressed the upcoming supreme court case. It forced a reaction. Gabriel may be able to find other papers equally bad that aren’t commented on because they don’t do this.

    I think Austen is right that it is wrong to characterize this as a reaction to a politically unpopular finding.



    April 8, 2013 at 4:26 am

  24. Jablonowitz,

    Read the footnote, this is a claim about the policy merits, not how the litigation unfolded.

    In any case, your last sentence contradicts the rest. Either criticism of Regnerus was in part a reaction to an argument for his paper’s likely political/legal consequences or it wasn’t. You seem to be saying it was, but this was justified/self-inflicted. Fair enough, but this is consistent with my argument, not a contradiction of it.

    BTW, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with people allocating their critical efforts by “broader impacts” logic, so long as the substance of their critiques is focused on a good faith review of the methods.



    April 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm

  25. FYI, some really interesting comments on the news wire by the Supreme Court as they deliberate:


    Graham Peterson

    April 8, 2013 at 7:24 pm

  26. Anyone who does not think that politics was not part of the reaction towards Regenerus simply does not know about the dynanics of research into sexuality. From what anyone in the know acknowledges as the political effort to remove homosexuality as a psychological dysfunction to the poorly constructed studies on the potential effects of same-sex parenting, politics has been a major force in doing work in this area. After what was done to Regnerus we can expect no more research in this area that is not politically correct. So much for meeting the requriment of science being disinterested.



    April 9, 2013 at 1:57 pm

  27. Vistor says: “Anyone who does not think that politics was not[sic] part of the reaction towards Regenerus simply does not know about the dynanics of research into sexuality.”

    Do you not think Regnerus’ study was political? When you conduct a study using intentionally misleading methodology and then hype it in the media, pushing claims that your data cannot support, all for the purpose of influencing a Supreme Court decision, you can hardly complain that your critics are being political.



    April 9, 2013 at 4:41 pm

  28. A much more likely explanation of Regnerus’ motives is social scientific confirmation bias, which is ubiquitous. There has been a lot of imputation of the man’s nefarious motives, but I think it’s a lot more likely that his religious faith that gay parenting is blasphemy is sufficiently strong to convince him that abysmal evidence was sufficient to prove his faith correct. Researchers much more often fool and lie to themselves, than they do set out to fool and deliberately lie to others. This isn’t a defense of Regnerus’ work, but rather a reminder that his critics may have more in common with him (if with opposite politics) than they’d like to believe about themselves.


    Graham Peterson

    April 9, 2013 at 5:20 pm

  29. “After what was done to Regnerus we can expect no more research in this area that is not politically correct.”

    Actually, I think what we can expect no more of is research that is misleading and poorly done. And that may perhaps lead to no more research that stigmatizes gay and lesbian parents, as Phil Cohen has noted.



    April 9, 2013 at 5:47 pm

  30. After all, Regnerus study just “proved” correct the assumptions of Joseph Ratzinger (future pope) about same-sex unions:

    “As experience has shown, the absence of sexual
    complementarity in these unions creates
    obstacles in the normal development of children
    who would be placed in the care of such persons.
    They would be deprived of the experience of
    either fatherhood or motherhood.
    Allowing children to be adopted by persons
    living in such unions would actually mean doing
    violence to these children, in the sense that
    their condition of dependency would be used to
    place them in an environment that is not
    conducive to their full human development.”



    Hina san

    April 12, 2013 at 3:39 pm

  31. […] And, even once I secured a job, things had grown to a level that I felt it was best to let those protected by tenure to chime in.  But, this case is likely the example of the concern that skeptics have […]


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