In a conservative movement seized by extremists, George Will is one of the sane ones. But his recent rejection of social science as having any role to play in the gay marriage debate is wildly off the mark. It’s intellectually dishonest, scientifically ignorant, and—I’ll say it—anti-gay.
Will claims that reasonable people disagree about gay marriage “because so little is known about its consequences.” He quotes a legal brief by conservative scholars affiliated with a famously anti-gay think tank that calls research about gay marriage and parenting “radically inconclusive.” He then warns the Supreme Court—which will hear oral arguments on two gay marriage cases next week—to be wary “about social science that purports to prove propositions … for which there cannot yet be decisive evidence.” In other words, he suggests the value of research on gay marriage is currently zero.
Suppose a group of people claim that redheads can’t enter the town square because they’ll drive away commerce, badly harming the economy—and then this group gets a law passed barring redheads from public spaces. To reverse the discriminatory law, they then argue, redheads must spend however long it takes to amass definitive proof that entering the town square won’t cause harm (which is impossible since you can’t conduct research on scenarios you won’t permit). When redheads nevertheless begin to produce a growing body of research that points conclusively to the fact that their presence does not harm commerce, the law’s defenders consistently reply, “It still might; more research is needed.”
That is the position Will is defending in the gay marriage debate. The very idea that gay equality would cause serious harm is the kind of belief you hold if you’re already inclined to think, usually for moral reasons, that homosexuality is harmful, that is, if you’re anti-gay. Otherwise, there’d be no better reason to assume gay marriage is harmful than there is from letting redheads go to market.
Although the real basis of most opposition to same-sex marriage is moral, conservatives have found that arguments alleging harm to society are more powerful than ones that simply declare what they don’t like to be morally wrong. So they have spent a generation making the case that gay equality would cause all kinds of social disruptions. It’s exactly the same tactic that was recently proven profoundly wrong when the Pentagon lifted its ban on openly gay service despite continuous claims that doing so could destroy the military.
Advocates of equality have responded by conducting research on gay families that has consistently shown such fears to be ungrounded. George Will calls this body of work “spurious social science by supporters of same-sex marriage” and complains that it “purports to prove” something that can’t yet be proven. But serious scholars don’t claim that social science proves gay marriage is OK. It’s the other way around: Anti-gay activists dream up harms that gay equality would cause and claim social science proves it—even though they’ve never supplied such proof. What the most responsible advocates of gay equality claim is that social science helps dismantle conservative claims of harm and strongly suggests the kids are OK. We use the research defensively, out of necessity, because anti-gay advocates make baseless empirical predictions that we’re obligated to refute.
Will also gets the scientific method wrong, offering an impossibly high—and wholly incorrect—bar for what constitutes scientific proof, leaving no way for the pro-gay side to ever convince him that the bogus harms conservatives have dreamed up are unlikely to happen. He suggests that the “scientific standard” requires “large random samples with appropriate control samples” and concludes, quoting the conservative legal brief, that “there neither are nor could possibly be any scientifically valid studies from which to predict the effects of a family structure that is so new and so rare.”