Texas Professor Supported By University in Controversial Same-Sex Family Study

In a strong defense of academic freedom, the University of Texas-Austin has issued a report supporting sociology Professor Mark Regnerus who is being attacked for a study (How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?) that found children of same-sex parents have a higher rate of depression and welfare participation than kids raised by heterosexual couples. The support, however, only came after a formal inquiry that appeared triggered by a New York blogger who denounced the study.

The inquiry itself raised academic concerns after a four-member advisory panel of senior university faculty members was impaneled and seized Regnerus’ computers and 42,000 emails. but the university stressed that this was just an inquiry and not a formal investigation. It found that the peer-reviewed study met academic standards for research.

The abstract of the study states:

The New Family Structures Study (NFSS) is a social-science data-collection project that fielded a survey to a large, random sample of American young adults (ages 18–39) who were raised in different types of family arrangements. In this debut article of the NFSS, I compare how the young-adult children of a parent who has had a same-sex romantic relationship fare on 40 different social, emotional, and relational outcome variables when compared with six other family-of-origin types. The results reveal numerous, consistent differences, especially between the children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still-married (heterosexual) biological parents. The results are typically robust in multivariate contexts as well, suggesting far greater diversity in lesbian-parent household experiences than convenience-sample studies of lesbian families have revealed. The NFSS proves to be an illuminating, versatile dataset that can assist family scholars in understanding the long reach of family structure and transitions.

I personally question what can be taken from such a study, even if the underlying data is found to be solid. The study itself reflects the greater diversity in same-sex families and I seriously question the notion that such families have some fundamental and inherent element that produces these statistical differences. Those concerns have been raised by others.

The study is clearly protected by academic freedom and issued a statement that

“The University of Texas at Austin has determined that no formal investigation is warranted into the allegations of scientific misconduct lodged against associate professor Mark Regnerus regarding his July article in the journal Social Science Research,” the school said in a statement. “As with much university research, Regnerus’ New Family Structures Study touches on a controversial and highly personal issue that is currently being debated by society at large. . . . The university expects the scholarly community will continue to evaluate and report on the findings of the Regnerus article and supports such discussion.”

The “inquiry” was triggered by blogger Scott Rose who accused Regnerus of scientific misconduct in two letters to the school, including violating ethical standards and “possible falsification” of research. Rose also noted that as a Catholic funded by a conservative institute, Regnerus was biased. Here is Rose’s letter. While noting that he does not view Regnerus as political active, Rose lists what he considers a damning record leading up to and following the report, including the role of Regnerus’ Church:

To sum up the case: 1) Regnerus admits that the way he carried out his NOM-Robert George-funded study was not in the best long-term interest of science; 2) Regnerus converted from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism; his Church is very aggressively involved worldwide in fighting against gay rights, including in the United States, where in June – July 2012, while making use of Regnerus’s study, NOM and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops are joined in running the “Fortnight of Freedom” event; 3) in his Christian Trinity College biography, Regnerus says that he thinks his anti-gay-rights faith should inform his research and all his work; 4) Regnerus admits in his written study that he cannot claim any causation between having a gay parent and a bad child outcome, but, nonetheless; 4) he appears on ABC television, unambiguously suggesting that his study did show that homosexual parents are dangerous to children, and, his activity in misrepresenting his study that way to the public is 5) totally in line with the manner that NOM and Regnerus’s funder George’s other anti-gay groups are promoting Regnerus’s study. 6) In multiple ways, Regnerus’s study was designed fraudulently to stack the deck against “gay” parents to make them look dangerous to children, which enhances NOM’s anti-gay propaganda by which homosexuals are conflated with pedophiles. 7) Regnerus rushed his study to publication, apparently to meet a deadline set for him by his funders, and certainly against the interest of maintaining scientific integrity in the study. 8) Regnerus took a $35,000 “planning grant” from Witherspoon/Robert George, which obviously implies that had Witherspoon/George not liked the study plan, it would not have funded the study. 9) Sociologists from Brigham Young University were involved in the study design. This might in part explain why the study design was so heavily stacked against gay parents, in favor of “intact biological families.” BYU has an “Honor Code” that forbids members of the university community from doing anything that suggests that homosexuality is morally acceptable. To include BYU personnel in a study of gay human beings, is akin to asking the Ku Klux Klan to design a study about Jews.

Here is a summary of the study’s findings in Slate. He states that past studies tend to replicate assumptions of no differences in these families:

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.

While I am gladdened by the support of the University, I remain concerned over the degree to which this researcher was subject to such an intrusive search and inquiry due to the controversy caused by his paper. This type of inquiry and the seizure of a computer has an obvious chilling effect on academics who may reach conclusions that are unpopular. The privilege of being an academic at a major university comes with the obligation to reach supportable, well-documented conclusions regardless of any personal preference. The fact that this professor may have conservative religious or political views should not alone qualify for a formal investigation — whatever it may be called.

The article raises an interesting question of the potential for a defamation lawsuit. However, just as I tend to favor academics in such disputes on the question of academic freedom, I tend to support writers like Rose on matters of opinion. The letter linked above includes some details that are legitimately grounds to raise in questioning the study, even though I find most of points as rather removed from the merits of the study itself. The question of me is the basis for the intense inquiry. What makes for legitimate opinions in opposition to a study are not necessarily a valid basis for a formal inquiry and panel review of a study. Such concerns generally go to a dean who makes a decision on whatever true academic misconduct or falsification has been raised with sufficient support to warrant an investigation. I do not see that basis here. The general inclination must remain with the support of academics to engage in debate over controversial questions without being called to account by the respective departments.

What do you think?

Here are the underlying Texas letters and report:


Source: Chronicle of Higher Education

24 thoughts on “Texas Professor Supported By University in Controversial Same-Sex Family Study”

  1. Even assuming that Regnerus’ premise (that children of homosexual couples tend to be unhappier than those of heterosexual couples) is correct, how much of that would be due to societal disapproval? What child would grow up as happy as he/she possibly could knowing that his/her parents, no matter how kind or productive, are considered third-class human beings by a substantial portion of society?

  2. All of 20th Century history teaches us strongly to beware of the Politically Correct because they immediately behave as a Fascist mob who go after and punish people who do not immediately agree with them.

    See – http://www.flickr.com/photos/scleroplex/7930059298/

    The University, afraid of this Fascist mob, put on a full, complete total Investigation of this researcher, which is an undeniably total capitulation to the Fascist mob in itself, just as pulling the Lyme Disease vaccine off the market was an undeniably total capitulation to the unscientific autism-shouting mob.

    There should not have been this type of Investigation at all in the first place. That in itself was a total violation of the researcher’s academic freedom. And it was meant to have a chilling effect, exactly as the Fascist mob intended.

  3. The way Regnerus manipulated the data is what has caused most of the outcry — he wound up equating “children of same-sex parents” with “children of a parent who may have had a same-sex liaison at some point.” Not the same thing at all — in fact, if I remember correctly, his population contained exactly two persons raised by lesbian mothers for a significant portion of their childhoods. That’s not a significant sample.

    Also, as Rose notes, in spite of Regnerus’ disclaimers that the study is not to be taken as a study of “gay parenting” — which is correct, since the two study populations wound up being “children of stable heterosexual marriages” and “everyone else” — he and the anti-gay right wing have indeed acted as though it is.

    As for the “fast-tracking,” the journal’s own internal auditor found conflicts of interest in the review and comment process — two of the commenters were paid consultants on the study — and came to the conclusion that the study should not have been published.

    I think the question here is not “Is academic freedom under assault?” but rather, “Has academic freedom in this case been seriously abused?”

  4. Quite a few of the comments essentially state that, for one reason or another, the findings are likely erroneous–failing to do this or that, or take into account this or that. When studies are published, that’s precisely the kind of give and take they often generate and should, in fact, generate. No study is perfect, and critical, professional debate over the relative strengths and weaknesses of a given study help to put the results in the proper context and hopefully inform better studies. That debate is essential to academic freedom and provides no justification whatsoever to the “investigation” that was undertaken against the study’s author.

    Nor should the “subject” of this study be off-limits, even if it falls into an area in which no “definitive” answer is possible or it crosses paths with a political or civil rights issue. The sciences — hard or soft — should not shy away from questions because they are provocative, uncomfortable (for some), or fly in the face of conventional or unconventional wisdom. Indeed, provocative studies are especially important to pursue because they can force a reevaluation of assumptions. In science, there ought be no forbidden knowledge.

    Where this particularly study leads will be fascinating to observe. Hopefully, it will provoke intense, legitimate scholarship and analysis which can help us understand the impact of a rapidly changing social institution, something that there are few opportunities to study. One might wonder whether any demonstrable increase in dysfunction in children raised by gay parents is, at least in part, the result of the children of such couples being placed in the social and political line of fire in a society that struggling in the face of a significant change to views about “acceptable” and “unacceptable” sexuality. But, that’s best left to competent investigators whose work ought to be presented without fear and tested in the crucible of academic debate.

  5. The right will trump your rights if they have issues with your rights…

    The University used to allow academic freedom….not so much anymore….

  6. My question is about the children. Did the researcher determine if the children involved were biological (and therefore possibly had experienced a disfunctional heterosexual home life before being a child of same sex parents. possibly experiencing divorce of their biological parents) or were they conceived in another way by the gay parent or were they adopted. It seems to me that this would be a large determinant in the outcome of their experience with same sex parents.

  7. itchinbaydog, I have 2 nieces who graduated from UT. It is a very good school.

  8. id, You’re forgetting about the 800lb. gorilla. I submit that if a researcher came up w/ the politically correct answer then there would have been no investigation. Remember universities are the ones who came up w/ speech codes. I have seen, in my lifetime when I was a liberal in college in the early 70’s, universities go 180 degrees as far as free speech. Universities have decided, we’re in power and the majority so we’ll decide what speech is admissable, what thoughts and outcomes are acceptable. Should a researcher be required to produce documents and data to back up their report..absolutely. I find it depressing that anyone would think seizing a computer to be anywhere near acceptable.

  9. If I worked for that university my computer would self destruct if “seized”. In fact it would seize up. In fact the buttons or keys on the key pad would be covered in bacteria. In fact the person who opened my computer, even if it was owned by the so called university, would get an eye opener. Perhaps the bigger story here is that thoughtful people will think twice about hiring on with that so called university.

  10. I’m interested in whether a similar letter from a blogger would have triggered a similar inquiry if this had been about some bland, non-politically charged research. Because I agree with Darren that it’s a form of punishment itself. I know I would not want my computers and emails searched and reviewed. What if the university had found evidence of wrongdoing totally unrelated to its inquiry (for example, Dr. Regnerus liked to surf porn sites on the job) or Dr. Regnerus had made derogatory remarks/had low opinions of his bosses or colleagues? It certainly seems like an inquiry could have a chilling effect and risk adverse professors may be much more likely to write anything that could trigger an inquiry. Thus, back to the question of what’s the standard for triggering an inquiry and is it consistently applied regardless of the academic topic written about.

    As to the study itself, my understanding suggests to me it’s not very useful. As I understand it, Dr. Regnerus labeled anyone who had a homosexual experience as gay and compared children of those parents to children of married, heterosexual couples. Two major problems: 1) labeling everyone who had even a single homosexual experience as gay and 2) comparing children of single parents to children of couples. The relevant comparison would be children of committed homosexual couples (preferably married) to children of married heterosexual couples. Or, alternatively, children of single homosexual parents to children of single, heterosexual parents. The problem then comes when the study is used to say children do better with heterosexual parents than with homosexual parents.

  11. Are you right Nick?
    Scaring the research whores (and their funders) with a little blue-light drive-by might be good. Drives up the price of research and academic salaries

  12. Emphatically what Lotta says.

    Or more crudely: Researchers are whores looking for tricks/johns. Any fund will do, and looking for it from where your heart lies is no hinder, rather a help.

    He ight even end of doing some time in a Catholic think tank, before a return to academia, washed clean or dirtied, depending on your POV.

    PS Researching this issue is ridiculous. This is not the biology or quantum mechanics. It is in the field effecting moving multiple object orbiting around the needs of humans for love. And in a changing field of societal influences.

    Scratching your heads? Yes, heads.

  13. The PC Gestapo will seize your computers w/ no due process. Much of the stuff that some folks here term as “scary” pale in comparison to this. This truly is black helicopter!

  14. The value of a study and its conclusions can be influenced in the mind of the reader by following the money and supporters of the study. We see that with climate change studies as well as studies of the effects of the BP oil spill and Fukushima. Studies are not pristine things that can’t or shouldn’t be questioned just because they are studies by some academic or scientist/researcher done at a university or think-tank of generally good repute.

    Big money has infiltrated science and academia and it is probably incumbent on every organization, school, think-tank, and research institute to verify that work by its employees is scientifically accurate (done according to best practices for inquiry), even if that means some inconvenience for the institution and the researcher.

    This is just the way science is going to be done in an atmosphere where examples exist that science and politics/money have merged to serve agenda’s that have less to do with pure inquiry and more to do with economic or cultural influence. I don’t consider it a bad thing in the face of “follow the money” being good advice regarding hot topic science as well as politics. I want to know who is paying for the tea-party buses as well as funding research these days.

  15. Bron,
    Academics research all kinds of things, many of them totally irrelevant to real life, but that is the nature of research. The whole point of this discussion is not so much the nature of the study, but the fallout from it. I have not yet read this “study” so cannot legitimately criticize just yet; however, my guess is the researcher is wrong in his findings, having made one of the worst types of logical fallacy errors a researcher can make. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. “A before B, therefore B is caused by A.”

  16. So, because the guy went on TV and said something, and his study says something else (specifically that you can’t prove any causation), the guy’s study is bad? Is that what this idiot is saying?

  17. Otteray Scribe:

    Does a study like this even have any merit? What does it matter if gay couples can or cannot raise children properly? Heterosexual couples screw up child rearing on a regular basis as well.

    Seems to me that child raising is about loving your children, guiding them and ultimately facilitating their becoming who they are and not using them as an ego prop. Gay couples can do this or not do this as well as heterosexual couples.

  18. I take the samve view as Otteray on this. I might add that find it rather suspicious the University had taken such action as to seize the computers and email of this associate professor based upon one blogger’s comments. I believe had the subject of the study been something rather uninteresting politically such as a study of shifts in the Magnetic North Pole due to seismic events the uni would not have bothered demanding an investigation in the least.

    I have maintained for two decades that putting an investigation on a person is a form of punishment in itself; especially when done for nefarious purposes. I don’t believe this was the case with the university, I think it was more likely they wanted to find a way to make the controversy go away or damage control.

    I do worry about the effect this might have on casting a pall on future research projects because of the fear of drumming up controversy that can lead to employment trouble with the professors.

  19. I agree that the amount of controversy in the study is no reason for an investigation. These kind of scientific studies will be shown for what they really are by the scientific community and follow up studies and discussions. If the research was funded by ethically challenged organizations, that should be highlighted, but an investigation is too heavy handed. I think OS had it right.

  20. As a researcher, I am well aware of the fact that dozens of studies are done that are later found to be wrongly interpreted, based on a poor sampling set, or even some with math errors. One study does not a trend make. Both Type I and Type II errors are made all the time, and the way the truth is teased out is by doing more studies of the question at hand.

    What should NOT be done is attempt to suppress the work of a researcher. If the research is later found to be in error, that is the purpose of vigorous scientific discourse, and let them battle it out in peer reviewed journals. Where a study such as the one cited here risks going off the rails is the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc in making a final causation interpretation of data.

    Political correctness is never a good reason to suppress research, and by the same token, findings should never be spun in some specific direction in order to please a funding agency or interest group.

    I think Galileo would agree with me if he were still around.

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