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.

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.

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?

Here’s Regnerus in Slate:

One notable theme among the adult children of same-sex parents, however, is household instability, and plenty of it. … While we know that good things tend to happen—both in the short-term and over the long run—when people provide households that last, parents in the [study] who had same-sex relationships were the least likely to exhibit such stability.

And here he is in Patheos:

[O]nly two respondents total said they lived with their mother and her [lesbian] partner nonstop from birth to age 18. Two more said they did so for 15 years, and two more for 13 years. To be sure, these 10 fared better on more outcomes than did their less-stable peers. They’re just uncommon, and too small a group to detect statistically-significant differences, for sure.

The numbers don’t add up, and the subset is too small to generalize, but you get the picture: Kids of gay parents, like kids of straight parents, did better in stabler families. And this fits the pattern of all those studies the gay-rights groups are citing against Regnerus: Children raised by committed, financially secure gay couples turn out fine.

This is where Regnerus made his second mistake: He pitted his study against prior studies that found happier outcomes in gay families. He attributes his findings to “better methods.” But there’s no contradiction between his study and the others. The prior studies simply targeted and featured the stablest, most educated gay couples. They were too narrow. Regnerus, by using the “did your parent ever have a gay relationship” question, captured all the messed-up families that had been left out. But his net was too broad: It yielded a sample dominated by kids who had scarcely lived in a same-sex household.

Arguing over whether to believe Regnerus’ data or the other studies is like arguing over whether to examine your neighbor through a microscope or a space-based telescope. Each view captures what the other can’t see. But ultimately, you’re looking at the same thing. The telescopic view shows gay parents in unstable households failing. The microscopic view shows gay parents in stable households succeeding. Stability, not orientation, is the story.

That’s where this debate is going, scientifically and politically. You can see it in Regnerus’ comment to CBS News: "People gay or straight should stick with their partners. I think the study provides evidence of that." You can see it in a candid assessment by National Review editorial associate Charles C. W. Cooke: “Given the way the study is set up, one could fairly ask whether this is not so much an analysis of homosexual parenting versus heterosexual parenting, but of childhood stability versus instability.” You can see it in the concession of Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center: “It might well be that the children who would otherwise be raised by unmarried same-sex couples would fare better if those couples could and would marry.”

Shifting the conversation from orientation to stability doesn’t end the debate. But it does break the logjam. It frees us from dissent-silencing appeals to authority, such as the Bible or policy statements from the American Psychological Association. It opens social conservatives to the possibility of accepting gay marriage, since, as Regnerus points out, “whether some relationship arrangements are more systematically prone to disorganization than others” is an “empirically testable question.” By the same token, it challenges homosexuals to deliver. The Regnerus study shows how wretchedly unstable the households of most gay parents were in the years when gay sex and gay marriage were illegal. We have a chance now to do better. Don’t let the experiment fail.

That’s why we should take this study seriously. It tells both sides, including its author and its funders, difficult truths they need to hear. Family stability matters. And when same-sex couples are permitted, encouraged, and determined to provide that stability, kids do better. The left’s enlightenment about sexual orientation can be married to the right’s wisdom about family values. It won’t be easy. But it’s worth the effort.

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