Don’t Let Criticism of the New Gay Parents Study Become a War on Science

Science, technology, and life.
June 14 2012 10:49 AM

A Liberal War on Science?

Don’t bury Mark Regnerus’ study of gay parents. Learn what it can teach the left and right.

A rally in defense of gay marriage, 2008
A rally in defense of gay marriage, 2008

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Mark Regnerus is a hateful bigot. He’s an ultra-conservative with links to Opus Dei. His new research paper on same-sex parenting is “intentionally misleading” and “seeks to disparage lesbian and gay parents.” His “so-called study doesn’t match 30 years of scientific research that shows overwhelmingly that children raised by parents who are LGBT do equally as well.” His “junk science” and “pseudo-scientific misinformation,” pitted against statements from the American Psychological Association and “every major child welfare organization,” deserve no coverage or credence.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

That’s what four of the nation’s leading gay-rights groups—the Human Rights Campaign, the Family Equality Council, Freedom to Marry, and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation —declared in a joint statement this week. Flanked by a mob of bloggers, they’re out to attack Regnerus’ motives, destroy his credibility, and banish his study from the scientific record. Even Slate contributor E.J. Graff says “Slate's editors should be ashamed” for publishing Regnerus’ “dangerous propaganda.”

Wow. Regnerus’ paper certainly has flaws. But before we all go get our stones, pitchforks, and kerosene, may I suggest an alternative? Trust science. Don’t bury this study. Embrace it. The evidence Regnerus collected can help all of us rethink our ideas about sexuality and marriage. It can enlighten the right as well as the left. In fact, it’s already doing that.

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Yes, Regnerus is socially conservative. But he’s reflective, open-minded, and reality-based. The two exhibits cited in the indictment of him are a Slate piece against promiscuity and a Christianity Today piece promoting early marriage. But if you read the articles, you’ll find that his case for early marriage focuses on the implausibility of prolonged abstinence. His case against promiscuity is grounded in a critique of the power imbalance between men and women. He’s a more complicated guy than his critics let on.

Yes, two right-wing outfits funded his study. But what did they get for it? A detailed, nationally representative survey of 15,000 people, yielding a data set that can test hypotheses about family structure. There’s nothing evil about the data set. From a lefty point of view, it’s the best $800,000 these two funders ever spent.

Yes, the analysis was flawed. But the errors can be deconstructed, and the data can be re-examined. Regnerus used a broad behavioral question—“Did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?”—to define which parents were gay. Then he used a calendar—“Please select the ages when you lived with the following persons”—to clarify how long each respondent had lived with the gay parent and that parent’s same-sex partner. The calendar, unlike the behavioral question, measured family structure. Regnerus says he thought “we’d comfortably get enough cases wherein the respondent reported living with mom and her partner for many consecutive years. But few did.”

If the structural question had yielded more kids raised by gay couples, Regnerus could have compared their outcomes to the outcomes of kids raised by straight couples. But it didn’t. And here’s where he made his first mistake: He substituted the behavioral question for the structural question. He compared children of intact mom-and-dad families not to the tiny subset of kids raised by same-sex couples (which was statistically nonviable) but to the much bigger sample of kids with a parent who had at some point engaged in a gay relationship.

Regnerus thinks the same-sex-behavior and opposite-sex-household categories are comparable. In his paper, he lumps them together as “family structures/experiences.” In Slate, he frames the behavior in structural terms, reporting that the study examined “households in which mothers or fathers have had same-sex relationships.” But that isn’t true. What the calendar data show is that the same-sex relationship and the household in which the child grew up were two different things.

Don’t take it from me. Take it from David Blankenhorn, the most widely respected scholarly critic of same-sex marriage:

Particularly confusing is the attempt to compare outcomes of children whose parents had a same-sex relationship (which is not an issue of family structure) with outcomes of children who grew up in bio[logical] two-parent married homes (which is an issue of family structure). Tangentially, if this study can’t tell us much of anything about family structure, it CERTAINLY can tell us nothing at all about the issue of marriage, gay or otherwise.

What happens if we fix Regnerus’ mistake? What happens if we scrap the structure-behavior comparison and compare structure to structure? What do the calendar data tell us?