In the 1980s, anthropologist Derek Freeman invited a firestorm of vituperation for challenging the conclusions of Coming of Age in Samoa, iconic Margaret Mead’s account of how teen promiscuity was widely accepted in Samoa and never hurt anyone much. (The skinny: her account of Samoan life did not turn out to be true but it met a perceived need for greater acceptance of non-marital sex.)
Something very similar, at least in outline, happened to University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, whose 2012 “New Family Structures Study,” showed different outcomes in the lives of children raised by a parent who has same-sex relationships and those raised by their married, biological parents [IBFs].
As Ana Samuel explained at The Public Discourse at the time, his study
… surveyed 2,988 young adults for the specific purpose of collecting more reliable, nationally representative data about children from various family origins. (The Witherspoon Institute provided funding for this study.) Already, the NFSS has been acknowledged by critics to be “better situated than virtually all previous studies to detect differences between these groups in the population.”
But such findings as these as these, however accurate, are simply not culturally acceptable :
On criminal outcomes, the children of GFs [gay fathers] showed the greatest propensity to be involved in crime. They were, on average, more frequently arrested and pled guilty to more non-minor offenses than the young-adult children in any other category. The children of LMs [lesbian mothers] reported the second highest frequency of involvement in crimes and arrests, and in both categories the young-adult children of intact biological families reported the lowest frequency of involvement in crimes or arrests.
The children raised in lesbian mother households were more often sexually victimized, rather than less, as often claimed:
In percentages, 31% of LMs said they had been forced to have sex, compared with 25% of GFs and 8% of IBFs. These results are generally consistent with research on heterosexual families. For instance, a recent federal report showed that children in heterosexual families are least likely to be sexually, physically, or emotionally abused in an intact, biological, married family.
The statistical conclusion:
In 25 out of 40 outcomes evaluated by Regnerus, there were statistically significant differences between children from IBFs and those of LMs in many areas that are unambiguously suboptimal. On 11 out of 40 outcomes, there were statistically significant differences between children from IBFs and those who reported having a GF in many areas that are suboptimal.
In the 20th century, most social scientists had assumed that an intact biological family was usually best for children. Around the turn of the century, however, many had begun claiming that there were no important differences between gay parenting and traditional intact biological families. Some even argued for an advantage in gay parenting. But Regnerus’s careful study, including interviews with 3000 adult children among the 15,000 screened, could not support the needed claims, the way smaller, less careful studies did.
Despite hostility to the findings, a journal, Social Science Research, published the study in June 2012. As Matthew J. Franck commented at First Thoughts,
The peer-reviewed social science journal that published the study, along with commentary alongside it, commissions a member of its own editorial board (who has an openly hostile view of the study) to “audit” the peer-review process. He concludes that, as much as he dislikes the article, the journal did everything by the book in publishing it. The journal’s editor, who is likewise friendly to the cause of same-sex marriage, stands by its publication, and in a subsequent issue publishes a follow-up article by its author, who cogently defends and restates his findings.
These people were hardly likely to publish a flawed study hostile to their views! Editor James Wright admitted that he published a sound study to spark discussion. For the same reason, he also published, in the same edition, a study critiquing the flawed methods of 59 previous studies that found no important difference, possibly to encourage researchers to clean up their act with a view to refuting Regnerus honestly.
Nonetheless, Regnerus was charged with misconduct by a colleague at his university, although he was cleared of any wrongdoing after his methods and correspondence were thoroughly reviewed.
The fact that Regnerus could not be debunked only increased the general hostility and, as with Freeman decades earlier, the roof soon fell in. A UCLA demographer organized about 200 academics to denounce him.
What were the criticisms offered? Some took issue with his terminology, but those complaints didn’t really amount to much. A more fruitful area for attack was the issue around the stability of relationships.
It was hard to find children of same-sex parents who had been together for long. Ironically, that fact—instead of pointing clearly to a problem for children in same-sex households—provided an opportunity to attack Regnerus’s findings.
A “re-analysis” of the data published over two years later in the same journal, Social Science Research, dropped from consideration the same-sex households that did not last long, keeping only the few that did. The result was a greatly reduced difference, loudly proclaimed.
That practice is called “data laundering.” The resulting sample of same-sex households was not only small but unrepresentative, whereas the other groups remained large and representative.
Media, however, had found what they needed in the newly cooked statistics. They jumped in to declare Regnerus debunked. Some of the takedowns were unusually dishonest. At the New York Times, Jesse Wegman dismissed Regnerus’s careful but deeply unpopular work alongside a study whose data turned out not to exist.
Regnerus, like Freeman, will probably be allowed to sink quietly into the oblivion of those who produce culturally unacceptable findings. Who would dare discourage raising children in same-sex households today, even if the study were replicated 50 times by researchers who handle the data honestly?
And who would try to replicate it honestly? By now, researchers risk career oblivion for “bigotry,” if not investigation for “hate speech.” Generations of students will be told simply that Regnerus was debunked, if they hear about him at all.
Social science is now so driven by political correctness that facts do not matter. That is not a formula for science success: There is concern across the spectrum about its standing as a science at all. Students who must take such courses in order to qualify in professions should understand the extent of the data manipulating and scrubbing, and learn how to get hold of reliable facts.
Next: Part III: How bad is the political correctness and how can we get past it?
See also: Part I: What’s wrong with social science today? Did it all begin with Margaret Mead’s giddy portrait of guilt-free promiscuity in the 1920s?
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger, and co-author of The Spiritual Brain.