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More Bad Faith Pseudo Scholarship
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 06/11/12
Last updated on: 06/13/12
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Mark Regnerus in an interview at Calvin College.

Sociologist Mark Regnerus's new study entitled "How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-sex Relationships? Findings from the New Families Structure Study," published in Social Science Research purports to prove that children of gay and lesbian parents have adverse outcomes. But the study is so flawed as to prove nothing. Moreover, given the fact that the study was funded by ideologically-driven anti-gay foundations, the real question raised by the study has to do with whether this bad faith pseudo-scholarship violates academic ethics.

The study claims to find "numerous, consistent differences, especially between children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still-married (heterosexual) biological parents." It thus attempts to debunk established scientific research that has consistently shown that gay and lesbian parents exhibit parenting skills equal to heterosexual parents.

However, as John Corvino points out in The New Republic, Regnerus does not compare "same-sex families" and "opposite-sex families," he compares broken families to intact families and pretends that he has discovered something significant when he announces that children of intact families do better on a number of measures than children of broken families.

Regnerus asked adults between ages 18 and 39 whether their mothers or fathers had ever had a same-sex relationship, regardless of the duration of the relationship and "regardless of any other household transitions." Regnerus' "Lesbian Mother" and "Gay Father" categories (unlike the "Intact Biological Family" category) included children of adoptive parents, step-parents, single parents, and, notably, a large number of divorced parents.

Regnerus's study may tell us something about the damages wrought by mixed-orientation marriages entered into as a ploy to escape the stigma of homosexuality. It may tell us something about the price paid by children when parents divorce.

It certainly tells us something about how unscrupulous scholars are able to rig "studies" to yield foreordained results.

But it tells us nothing about the parenting skills of same-sex parents. Indeed, the huge majority of the children of parents who had a same-sex relationship at some time in their lives studied here never actually lived in a same-sex headed household.

As Jim Burroway explains in his trenchant analysis at Box Turtle Bulletin, Regnerus "undertakes a manipulation which I believe represents the fatal flaw of this study. If one wanted to intentionally create Lesbian Mothers and Gay Fathers groups which were least likely to look like an intact biological family, I can't imagine a better way to do so than to take the steps Regnerus has taken here."

At Slate, William Saletan observes that "The study, which found inferior economic, educational, social, and psychological outcomes among children of gay parents, comes across as evidence that homosexuals are unfit to raise kids. But the study doesn't document the failure of same-sex marriage. It documents the failure of the closeted, broken, and unstable households that preceded same-sex marriage."

Although it has already been embraced by the opponents of same-sex marriage, the study is so flawed methodologically that it will not be taken seriously by scholars who actually read it.

But I suspect that this article, dressed up in the accoutrement of scholarship, was never intended to be real scholarship. It is, rather, just another desperate attempt to smear gay and lesbian parents and thereby provide a "rational" justification to deny equal marriage rights.

The manufacture of junk scholarship is a prominent feature in the anti-gay movement. Hacks associated with the North American Reparative Therapy Association and the Institute for American Values routinely publish through vanity presses pseudo scholarship in their quest to discredit gay people.

As I observed in an earlier blog on Elizabeth Marquardt's dubious report, One Parent or Five?, no reputable scholar takes seriously the junk science churned out by David Blankenhorn's Institute for American Values. But as much as they whine about not being taken seriously by scholars, their real target is not the scholarly community but naive readers who want some quasi-respectable justification for their reservations about marriage equality and gay and lesbian parenting.

In addition, however, their junk science also serves the purpose of providing other purveyors of junk science something to quote and cite as they also participate in the game of producing a facsimile of scholarship. "Experts" at such designated hate groups as the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, and Family Research Council, to say nothing of bloggers at the National Organization for Marriage and National Review Online, eagerly cite the pseudo scholarship from Marquardt and Blankenhorn, and they will certainly greet with delight Regnerus's pseudo scholarship.

Regnerus has, however, achieved something of a breakthrough in his pseudo scholarship. He has managed to place his work in a supposedly peer-reviewed journal. That, along with a Ph.D. and academic credentials, will give his work a certain amount of credence that the publications of the Institute of American Values lack.

Indeed, Regnerus's article will certainly be cited in the briefs submitted to the Supreme Court when it reviews the Defense of Marriage Act or Proposition 8, which may be the real goal of this enterprise that was funded so generously by anti-gay groups.

Regnerus's study was funded by the same right-wing foundations that fund other junk science, including that emanating from Blankenhorn's Institute for American Values.

Most of the money to finance the study--almost $800,000--came from the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, both organizations actively opposed to marriage equality and the boards of both include the notorious Princeton Professor Robert P. George, who drafted the Manhattan Declaration and is a founder of the National Organization for Marriage. The Institute has close associations with such organizations as the National Organization for Marriage, the Family Research Council, and the secretive Catholic order Opus Dei. The Bradley Foundation finances a number of right-wing causes, from the promotion of creationism to supporting the Institute for American Values.

Their involvement in funding this study should set off all sorts of warning signals. It places this study on the same footing as the studies financed by tobacco companies in the 1960s that "proved" that smoking was not injurious to one's health.

Regnerus has respectable academic credentials. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas. However, it is likely not coincidental that he is a Catholic convert affiliated with the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Church Life who "wants to be a bridge builder; not just between sociology and the public but also between evangelicals and Catholics."

In other words, it is plausible to believe that Regnerus is less motivated by the search for truth than by a desire to disseminate propaganda. He is too knowledgable a sociologist not to be fully aware of the flaws in the study. His choices in constructing the study indicate an attempt to deliberately skew the results to verify his foreordained conclusion. That is, all evidence points to the fact that this study was conducted in bad faith.

The publication of the paper at Social Science Research appears to have been so hurried as to cause one to wonder whether it in fact was subject to rigorous peer review. Moreover, while the journal simultaneously published three commentaries on the paper, which discussed some of the methodological problems, two of the commentaries were by people associated with the study. That seems to me to raise questions about the scholarly integrity of the journal.

The problem is not simply that Regnerus's study is poor scholarship, but, more dangerous, it is also fundamentally dishonest. It is designed to perpetuate a lie.

The buying of pseudo scholarship by right-wing foundations is a symptom of increasing pressure on the academy. Corporations and superpacs now routinely attempt to buy influence in the hiring of university faculty and in shaping research agendas by funding pet projects and preventing research in areas like climate change or industrial pollution. It is sad to see anti-gay foundations enter the competition to further academic corruption.

Unfortunately, this latest attempt to smear gay and lesbian families is just one more chapter in the increasingly common attack by the right wing on academic integrity.

Regnerus's paper may be found here.

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