Bad LGBT Parents? Bad UT study, audit finds

Mark Regnerus - COURTESY PHOTO
Courtesy photo
Mark Regnerus

Are kids raised by gay and lesbian couples bound to struggle more in life than those raised by straight parents? Drawing from the small body of research compiled by the American Psychological Association, the general consensus has stood that kids raised in same-sex households turn out pretty much the same as those with heterosexual parents. Then UT Austin sociology professor Mark Regnerus dropped a bomb in June in a study published by the prominent journal Social Science Research, arguing otherwise and saying gay and lesbian parents had too much “household instability.”

Naturally while Regnerus' study, “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships?” enraged the gay-rights crowd, same-sex marriage opponents embraced the work as proof that gay and lesbian couples don't stack up to “traditional marriage.”

Almost immediately after publication social scientists, including a crew of Regnerus' own UT colleagues, surfaced to bash the research for apparent top-to-bottom flaws. The study, many said, was rushed to publication, and some of the reviewers of the paper, closely connected to and even paid as consultants on the Regnerus study, already harbored strong anti-gay marriage views. Perhaps more problematic, some said, was that Regnerus failed to really study what he claimed — Regnerus had in fact labeled parents “gay” and “lesbian” when all he had was data on children of divorced parents that had ever had a single gay or lesbian encounter.

And then there was the study's funding source: The hard-right Witherspoon Foundation, 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,” chipped in some $700,000 for the study — a breathtaking sum for social science research. Witherspoon appears to have connections to the anti-gay marriage group National Organization for Marriage (Witherspoon's president has been a NOM board member since the organization's founding).

Above the din of equality activists and anti-gay marriage opponents trading barbs over the study and its impact, social science researchers had another nagging question: how could such junk get published in something like Social Science Research?
SSR sought to find out with an internal audit slated to appear in the journal's November issue, as first reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education last week. This week SSR editorial board member and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale sociology professor Darren Sherkat, tapped to conduct the audit, sent the Current a draft of his findings.

While mildly critical of SSR editor James D. Wright, who's endured his own steady barrage of angry emails from colleagues and an irate public, Sherkat rips apart Regnerus' work in the audit, citing serious flaws in the paper, particularly with the misidentification of parents labeled “gay” and “lesbian” — only two of those people lumped into that category in the study were in long-term same-sex relationships. “I mean, this is a top, top journal,” Sherkat said in an interview this week. “You don't publish shit in a top journal. And this is shit.”

Charges of “scholarly misconduct” by “The New Civil Rights Movement” writer and activist Scott Rose has sparked a UT inquiry panel scheduled for this Friday (Sherkat, for his part, calls the threat of any administrative reprimand “ridiculous” and says Regnerus has already been well spanked by both his colleagues and in the court of public opinion).

The whole mess has also caused others to look back at Regnerus' body of work. He's been a regular on the op-ed circuit whenever topics of sexuality, the family, and children surface. In 2011, he co-authored the book Premarital Sex in America, notable for touting the “sexual economics” theory that contends all sex between unmarried people, all the way from one-night-stands to long-term relationships, is transactional — oh, and that it's only really satisfying for the men involved. Sherkat said he's known Regnerus since he was a graduate student. He contended Regnerus made a conscious decision to take a right-wing partisan line with his research once he got tenure. He summed up Regnerus' “sexual economics” theory this way: “Women hate sex, and the only reason why women have sex is to get things from men. And so when women have non-marital sex, or have sex with lots of partners, that devalues sex. I guess that's a nice supply-and-demand argument, if you start from the premise that women are whores.”

Ultimately, Sherkat writes in his audit, the peer-review process failed this time around. Regnerus got a “lucky roll of the dice” on reviewers, he writes, “in large part because the SSR die are loaded in favor of conservatives in the area of family, and because scholars who should have known better failed to recuse themselves from the review process.”

Flaws and distortions in the paper were “not simply ignored, but lauded in the reviews.”

Additionally, “There should be reflection about a conservative scholar garnering a very large grant from exceptionally conservative foundations to make incendiary arguments about the worthiness of LGBT parents — and putting this out in time to politicize it before the 2012 United States Presidential Election.”

But Sherkat also hits on a larger, more alarming point. Regardless of what happens to Regnerus and this particular study, he says, the episode has forced social scientists to focus on the elephant in the room. Big, conservative money, he said, has flooded the field. As evidenced by Regnerus' paper, he said, that cash will increasingly shape social science research. “What I've been saying for a very long time now is that we're really in a crisis in the social sciences,” he said.

Below are excerpts from an interview with Sherkat this week
So you told the Chronicle of Higher Education Regnerus's study was “shit.”
I guess that's an unfortunate quotation, because following that I went into a very detailed statement on what are the theoretical, methodological and analytic expectations of a paper published in Social Science Research, which is one of the top journals in the world for social sciences. Most papers that are submitted are not accepted. And so how does a paper like this get into Social Science Research? The Regnerus paper was inadequate, grossly inadequate, in terms of its data, particularly given the small distribution of supposed gays and lesbians – there's only 1.7 percent of them in the overall sample taken. There are some issues and problems with the sample that, in my opinion, should have disqualified any study that used any data related to it. It doesn't matter if it's about gays and lesbians or about whether you own a gun, or whatever you might investigate with that data.

Next is the issue of his measures, measurement being another big thing in the social sciences. How did you measure, how did you conceptualize gays and lesbians? And there Mark was completely disingenuous. It was very disturbing and deceptive in how he labeled his tables, how he contracted some kind of measure of what he called “gay” or what he called “lesbian.” That measurement issue, even if he had perfect data, would have completely disqualified this paper. I mean, this is a top, top journal. You don't publish shit in a top journal. And this was shit.”

Your main question is an important one: how does something like this get past the peer-review process in a journal like SSR. You say the peer-review process here failed. Should we worry about peer-reviewed studies?
This is a problem with all of the sciences. And another caveat on that is that normatively in sociology we don't retract papers. I've had exchanges with people in biology and some of the other hard sciences where retraction is normative. But usually in those disciplines it's being retracted because someone deliberately made something up. Here, not that the study wasn't bad, but he didn't really make anything up. It's just not high enough quality to be published.

So a lot of people are like, “Well, why wouldn't this be retracted?” Well, that's not the way we do things in sociology. The process will weigh it out. People will respond – and they have.

This is not what usually happens. Peer review is not perfect, but peer review is good. And so, yeah. You can usually trust things. But let's not act like just because something's peer reviewed that it's somehow unassailable. And that's especially true in the social sciences.
On one hand, you don't want to say, “Oh, it's peer reviewed, so it's perfect.” On the other, you don't want to say peer-review is shit because Regnerus' paper got in. It's somewhere in between and it really has to be judged case by case. And in this case, peer-review didn't work well.

What were some of the major conflicts that should have been identified or avoided when you went through the history of this study?
I can't exactly explain everything because that would kind of identify the reviewers. I'd rather consider it in terms of generalities. Two of the reviewers did say they were paid consultants on the study. One of them is a creep. But that's his prerogative to be a creep. And as I say in the audit, many of the reviewers on this paper were very conservative. And that's not abnormal. A lot of the sociologists that are freaking out about this have had their head in the sand. The area where I work in sociology, in religion, is just full of these people. So it's not surprising at all that you write a paper on a family topic, you send it to a journal that has a conservative editorial board, at least a relatively conservative editorial board, and low and behold that sucker slips in. That's part of the game. Social science research doesn't have a bevy of reviewers that have strong gay and lesbian family-type people.

What do you know about Regnerus, your background with him?
I've known Mark since he was a graduate student.

What's your impression of his work?
Mark made a conscious decision as soon as he got tenure to politicize his work and you can see it in everything he's done since 2007, beginning with his studies on sexuality where he promotes this kind of model gender and sexuality that argues against all forms of non-marital sexuality. He deliberately argues that young people should be encouraged to get married early – of course, heterosexually married. That people need to be virgins upon marriage. It's set up to try to criminalize sexuality, and especially female sexuality. And to limit access to birth control, if not make birth control illegal again. And this is definitely a theme in his work Just look at his study before this – when people started sending me nasty notes, saying, “Did you see what the hell Regnerus did?” I thought they were talking about that. He has this theory: Women hate sex, and the only reason why women have sex is to get things from men. And so when women have non-marital sex, or have sex with lots of partners, that devalues sex. I guess that's a nice supply and demand argument, if you start from the premise that women are whores. That's the line that Mark has chosen because it fits his politicized perspective on human sexuality. And that's what he's pushing.

What I've been saying for a very long time now is that we're really in a crisis in the social sciences, because far right wing social scientists are now advantaged. Mark got almost a million dollars in grant money to do this study. That's more money than I've received in my entire career for research. Lisa Keister at Duke and I are doing a conference and a book in September, and we jumped up and down when we got $10,000 from the Russell Sage Foundation.

Unlike some are saying, both sides aren't spending that kind of money. There's nobody throwing a million dollars at me to show that Americans all love gay marriage or something. It ain't gonna happen. And in fact with the collapse of federal funding for social sciences, there's less and less grant money to do anything with.

Is there the danger any research over sexuality and the family is going to be politicized?
Well, that would be unfortunate. Because ideally social scientists are looking at these things kind of objectively. They're motivated by particular scholarly questions more than political motivations. And they're trying to see what's going on in the family. How are family forms changing? What does this mean inter-generationally?

What about UT's inquiry this week into Regnerus?
I want to make it very clear about my own motivations and my own perspective regarding Regnerus and what he's done here. On one hand, I think this is a bad study. Obviously, it shouldn't have been published and I also believe that it is political research – I'm certain of that. But that does not mean that somehow Regnerus has committed some kind of ethical offense. There doesn't need to be any investigation of Regnerus.

The issue of somehow making this an administrative reprimand is ridiculous. He did political research. So can other people from other political persuasions. There's no reason for an investigation. He is being smacked by his peers really hard. And that's punishment enough. So a lot of this discussion about what should or shouldn't be done – I mean, what? What do you want done? You want to fire him? You can't fire people for doing something political. You gonna fire left-wingers for working for Planned Parenthood.

What needed to be done is what has been done, I think. People said look, you're gonna have to put a heavy asterisk next to that social science research paper there. There's a self-correcting mechanism, I think.