On the Abuse of Social Science

Cross-posted on Queereka.

One of the reoccurring talking points of opponents of marriage equality is that social science research demonstrates that children do better with a heterosexual couple than any other type of parenting situation. For an example, see this exchange between CNN’s Brooke Baldwin and hate-group leader Tony Perkins. Note how she fails to challenge Perkins on his oft-repeated assertion that the social science literature backs up his position? Yeah, me too. Unfortunately, this is not just a problem with Baldwin—most journalists don’t challenge him or any other bigots on this point.

As GLAAD’s Aaron McQuade points out, one problem with Perkins’ claim is that he is referring to studies comparing two-parent heterosexual to single-parent homes, which says nothing of children raised by two homosexual parents. And the research that does compare children raised by two straight parents and two gay or lesbian parents demonstrates that there is no discernable difference in how well adjusted the children are.

The 30+ years of literature that has built consensus on this issue was called into question this week. Mark Regnerus, an Associate Professor of Sociology at UT-Austin, published an article on Slate this week discussing the findings of his New Family Structures Study (NFSS). There have been quite a few criticisms and take-downs of this study (see here, here, here, and here), but there are some things I would like to address.

First, the money trail is extremely troublesome to me. As pointed out in some of the articles linked above, funding to the tune of approximately $800,000 was provided for the NFSS from the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, both right-wing organizations with links to the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage. Regnerus states in the data collection section of the academic paper that this funding played “no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of this manuscript.”

That Regnerus’s previous research is lauded by right-wing bigots for its pro-Christian message should not be lost on us. I simply do not think that right-wing organizations are going to throw that much money at research without some level of confidence that the results produced will be what they want to hear. Of course, I have not seen any proof that there’s any wrongdoing on Regnerus’s part, and I’m not making accusations of wrongdoing. I’m just awfully suspicious.

Another part of Regnerus’s article on Slate that bothered the hell out of me was this little gem:

The rapid pace at which the overall academic discourse surrounding gay and lesbian parents’ comparative competence has swung—from the wide acknowledgement of challenges to “no differences” to more capable than mom and pop families—is notable, and frankly a bit suspect. Scientific truths are seldom reversed in a decade. By comparison, studies of adoption—a common method by which many same-sex couples (but even more heterosexual ones) become parents—have repeatedly and consistently revealed important and wide-ranging differences, on average, between adopted children and biological ones. The differences have been so pervasive and consistent that adoption experts now emphasize that “acknowledgement of difference” is critical for both parents and clinicians when working with adopted children and teens. This ought to give social scientists studying gay-parenting outcomes pause—rather than lockstep unanimity. After all, many children of gay and lesbian couples are adopted.

Oy vey! First of all, the academic discourse surrounding gays and lesbians over the last decade is a result of increased social visibility (as evidenced by things like increases in the amount of people who say they know a gay or lesbian person and how Americans hugely over-estimate how much of the population is LGBT). Increased visibility of gay and lesbian families means an increase in academic research that looks at gay and lesbian families. This is not rocket science (it’s social science! teehee). I’d be shocked by the assertion that there’s a gay agenda behind this research (the shift is “a bit suspect”? really?) except that nothing really shocks me anymore. Let’s not fool ourselves: That assertion is a dog whistle. And it’s one of the statements that leads me to question this researcher’s integrity.

Returning to that passage, the idea that scientific truths are seldom reversed in a decade (a) is a stupid thing to say because even if we granted it were rare it wouldn’t mean it’s not possible and (b) assumes that the place we were at before the research on gay and lesbian parenting was a place of scientific truth. The absence of research is not scientific truth! In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of scientific truth.

And the red herring of adoption is just the cherry on this bullshit sundae. You cannot use studies comparing adopted and biological children and conclude that since there is a difference there that there must be a difference for all gay and lesbian parents because “many children of gay and lesbian couples are adopted.” As a social scientist, Regnerus should know better. The studies he is referencing were not designed to answer that sort of question. You simply cannot be intellectually honest and jump from adoption to same-sex parenting like that.

Perhaps the most damning issue with Regnerus’s study is that he utterly fails to adequately define same-sex parenting. Honestly, I don’t know such a glaring theoretical and methodological omission got past peer review. From his article on Slate (emphasis mine):

Instead of relying on small samples, or the challenges of discerning sexual orientation of household residents using census data, my colleagues and I randomly screened over 15,000 Americans aged 18-39 and asked them if their biological mother or father ever had a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex. I realize that one same-sex relationship does not a lesbian make, necessarily. But our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior.

In other words, “I realize that same-sex behavior does not necessarily define a person’s orientation, but I’m going to define it that way anyway!” The problem is that you cannot adequately separate out the “politics of sexual identity” from “same-sex behavior” when talking about sexual orientation. If people don’t identify as gay or lesbian, then you should not count them as gay or lesbian. It’s really that simple.

As someone who researches issues concerning sexual orientation, one of the major theoretical and methodological hurdles I’ve had to jump is how to define my population. According to Randal Sell, operationalizing sexual orientation as a demographic category is extremely problematic, often because “the methods used to measure sexual orientation in these studies do not always correspond with the most common conceptualizations of sexual orientation.” In other words, how the researcher conceptualizes sexual orientation should (as closely as possible) match how the subjects or informants conceptualize sexual orientation.

The wrong way to approach research on sexual orientation is to dismiss the aspects of sexual orientation (“the complicated politics of sexual identity” according to Regnerus) that you don’t like and go with the most simplistic concept that fits your prejudices. Put another way, if Regnerus had provided a robust and theoretically sound definition of sexual orientation for this study, he would not have gotten the results that he did. The results here depend on his shitty definition.

Regnerus is being disingenuous. When you frame your discussion with the question “Does it really make no difference if your parents are straight or gay?” and you propose that shifts in scientific understandings are a result of political posturing, and conclude that a heteronormative couple is best, you do not get to turn around and say “I’m not claiming that sexual orientation is at fault here…” Excuse me, but that’s exactly what you’re saying. The entire point of this article is to challenge the scientific consensus that children of gay and lesbian parents are at least as well adjusted as children of heterosexual parents. And you’re doing it with piss-poor theoretical positioning and equally problematic methodologies.

Regnerus admits in the article that this is all speculation because “the data are not poised to pinpoint causes.” Yes, folks, you read that right. He acknowledges that his research is limited and cannot be used to derive causes while simultaneously talking about his data as if it demonstrates causality. And you know how skeptics feel about correlation and causation!

Image from xkcd:

This is just bad research. That in and of itself isn’t that surprising—there are lots of bad researchers. What’s really troublesome is that his horrible research is being published in a peer-reviewed journal, and right-wing bigots will latch onto it as proof that gay and lesbian parents are bad for children. The abuse of social science research by the Religious Right cannot be allowed to continue. We social scientists need to do a better job of speaking out and educating people about social science research. Education is the key for being able to spot theoretical and methodological issues in research. Without this scientific literacy, people with power and an agenda will continue to attempt to cloak their research in the authority of science and hope that no one has the knowledge to critically analyze it.

And considering the way education is going in this country, they just might succeed.

Featured image from


Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at

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  1. I think the best argument here is the “it’s not the government’s business” argument.

    There is no prohibition of single parentage in this country, and if they attempted to make a law that said that a woman had to be married to have children, based on the government’s interest in ensuring that the children are raised in the better quality two parent homes, then there would be outrage.

    It isn’t the government’s business which family units are better. Are Amish family units better? Is raising a child in an urban area worse than in a rural area? Do children do better with involved grandparents? If so would that justify requiring people not to move away from the grandparents?

    This is no proper place for government intervention.

  2. Slate’s article is an excellent take-down of the study. Just the fact that they included broken families in the gay numbers but not in the straight numbers means the whole study is worthless for what they’re trying to claim. Especially since kids of gay people during that time period are much more likely to be products of hetero couples that split when one of them came out.

  3. I’m looking forward to reading the linked article. As for comparing parenting birth children with adopted children all I can say is only a completely ignorant, uninformed, or dishonest researcher could say they are similar enough to draw a reasonable comparison. Many children are adopted through state systems, such as the one I work for, and more often than not these children, even when placed in care at birth, often have significant hurdles to overcome just to have a somewhat normal life. And I’ve seen adoptive parents with amazing skills and endless patience struggle with significant behavior and mental health problems that are related to inherited neurodevelopment and mental health disorders as well as impacts from in-utero drug use or poor diet/health bby the birth mother. And I’ve had the pleasure of placing a number of infants and young children with foster/adoptive same sex couples who knew full well that they could have a number of these issues come up down the road for the child they were caring for. These acts of selflessness should be applauded and understood for what they are and not used as fodder for shoddy and harmful studies.

    1. I just wanted to say I always really enjoy when you comment on these sorts of things… I always learn something. :)

  4. As a social scientist in training, I am appalled by his painfully obvious bias and intellectual dishonesty. I guess $800,000 will do that to you, though.

  5. Will, you are right, full of holes and bias.

    Are you in a position to perform a study of your own along the lines you have suggested? I mean, smaller of course but well designed to

    (1) Replicate their results and
    (2) Show that with correct methodology (e.g. as you have said, correct self identification of sexual orientation), the results are very different.

    Perhaps you could collaborate with a few like minded colleagues, do a small pilot study, and then follow up with a more thorough and larger study when interest is aroused?

    Maybe this is a pipe dream, but I think you are onto something important there.

  6. Will, I see from Queereka that you are fully occupied with your thesis project now. Best wishes for that, very interesting work in itself.

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