Saturday, September 1, 2012

Research Worth Reading: the Regnerus Study

OK, I'm probably not going to make a lot of friends with this posting, but I think most people read this blog because they want to hear my contrarian viewpoints, not because they agree with me.

By now pretty much everyone's heard of the "Regnerus Study" or the "Family Structure Study". Praised by the religious right & a scorpion in the boot of the gay movement, the study leaves precious few without a strong opinion. If you have no idea what it's about, a good summary of the study and the controversy surrounding it was written by William Saletan at Slate.

I spend a lot of time listening to broadcasts from the religious right: Bryan Fischer at American Family Radio, Liberty Counsel, Family Research Council, National Organization for Marriage, etc. You may drink coffee to get up & going - I listen to these folks.
I think it's important to understand where they are coming from, to understand what arguments they use, what they assume to be true, what they believe about people like me, etc. Often people seem to think these folks are crazy, stupid, or both. I don't think that they are, for the most part. The major spokespeople are far from crazy or stupid. However, they are strong partisans, and have interpreted the Regnerus study with a very partisan bias. They have claimed that it proves that children do best when raised by their biologic mother and father, and that children raised by gay or lesbian parents do worse in most areas than children of single parents. It proves no such thing, but I think it is a valuable addition to the discussion.

As many others have pointed out before me, the study does not have a sample of children raised by gay or lesbian parents upon which to make these claims. They asked a bunch of adults some questions about their parents, and classified anyone who claimed to know that their parent had had a same-sex experience as having been raised by gay or lesbian parents. The study had less than a handful of respondents who had been raised by same-sex parents from infancy.

Many people who I agree with on the substance of family studies have said that the Regnerus study should be pulled, that it is fraudulent and academically dishonest. I don't think it is. I think he clearly and accurately described what he did, and although I encourage people to vehemently disagree with his interpretations and conclusions, that the methodology of the study is not inherently flawed, and was not dishonestly presented in publication. As a result, I don't think it should be pulled.

The controversy around this piece has got me thinking in a lot of different directions, so I hope you'll forgive the scattered nature of the next few paragraphs.

Reaction A: Lots of crap gets published. I'd say over 98% of the studies I read have major methodologic weaknesses, and/or come to conclusions not supported by the underlying data they report. And don't get me started on plagiarism - that problem is out of control, and can even be found in esteemed academic publications. When I started trying to write a series on 'research worth reading' about gay health, it was a real struggle to find anything worth encouraging others to read. I went through hundreds of abstracts, read dozens of papers, and came down to a small handful of papers I thought were 'worth reading'.
Which is a far cry from saying that there isn't a lot to learn from all the crud that gets published.
But it does make me reticent to say that the Regnerus study, with all its flaws, is out of bounds when compared to the vast majority of academic publications. Is it 'worth reading' from the perspective that it skillfully addresses the underlying research question with precisely targeted methodology and conclusions that are well founded in the work itself? No on all counts. But, it is worth reading because it presents a very different perspective than most of the family structure studies out there currently, and it provides a methodologic contrast to them that makes it worth thinking about how to build from the methodologic weakness of the entire field something that would be more reliable.
So, if the Regnerus study frosts your buns, as it should, get off your duff and do a better study. The gauntlet has been thrown down & there's no way to force them to pick it up again and say 'my bad'.

Reaction B: Religious right commentators have claimed that there is a strong liberal bias in this field, and that any study like Regnerus's that challenges the pro-LGBT bias is unlikely to get a fair chance at publication. I'm afraid that they may be right on the first of these, although I doubt the latter.
The larger field of marriage and family structure studies has been very heteronormative with respect to lesbian and gay families, to the point that even when there is a same-sex household included in these studies it usually gets classified as a mixed-sex household because the researchers don't even consider the possibility that there might be same-sex households. But among the small number of studies that do acknowledge same-sex parents, this small subfield has been conducted and interpreted largely by partisans on our side of the debate.
I don't know how many anti-gay studies have been precluded from publication, but I doubt it is very many, if any. It is more likely that these studies just haven't been done. A couple possible reasons: 1) our adversaries often claim that it is obvious common sense that lesbian or gay parents are harmful, so there is no reason to confirm common sense (I'm not agreeing with that, just trying to explain why I think only one anti-gay study has been done so far). 2) Lots of people on the right say that they are tired of talking about homosexuality - by which they mean they wish we would just go away and not ever be part of their lives - ouch! But that sentiment, that they are tired of talking about us, carries through to why they would be unlikely to do a scientific study of family structure, valid or otherwise. Why would you invest time and effort into such a study if you were tired of thinking about it and just wished it would go away? 3) Putting the time and effort into such a study thus requires a significant investment in a heteronormative worldview, an obsession that is unusual in society in general, and academia in particular. Gay and lesbian researchers have an obvious interest in this sort of work, but it takes a heterosexual with a real bone to pick to become similarly invested.

Reaction C: I've been perplexed by the widely-held beliefs among the religious right that they are being persecuted by homosexual activists, and that our gains in society have come at their expense. I know that there's no conspiracy to reign in the religious right because I've seen first-hand how LGBT folks organize. We are way too fractious to pull something like that off intentionally. By the same token, I'm deeply suspicious of claims that "the church" or "the Mormons" are acting in concert as often as we think they are.
In the 90's I tried to do a lot of activism around victimization, and I really think that is a self-defeating way to go. It makes you more paranoid and can become self-fulfilling. So my word to both sides - leave the persecution stuff off the table - it doesn't help anyone.

Reaction D: I wonder how a study on family structure could be done in a methodologically convincing way. It's not easy. Regnerus tried (and failed) to get something close to a random sampling of the general population. That's a tough approach to use because children of lesbian and gay parents are still pretty uncommon, and that's the main reason his method failed. The approach mainly used by our side is to find families headed by same-sex parents and try to find a comparable comparison group of mixed-sex-headed families. That's a tough approach because it is very hard to be sure that the comparison group really is comparable. I think the best approach that might be feasible in the short-term would be to piggy-back on some other very large random sample of Americans and do a follow-up survey with all the same-sex-headed households and a matched sample of mixed-sex-headed households. The Current Population Survey would be, I think, an ideal vehicle for such a call-back survey. They interview about 50,000 Americans every month, so there might just be enough same-sex-headed households contacted through that survey to make it feasible. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System might work too, but it would be a huge logistic challenge to get permission from each state to call people back. The American Community Survey could work too, but because that is done by the Census, we would first need to get Congress to admit that same-sex marriages do in fact exist, and are worth studying.

Reaction E: Why is it important to compare the children of same-sex to mixed-sex households? I'll admit that it is interesting from an academic perspective, but I think most of the interest is generated by the desire to use evidence in policy debates. But should it matter?
A lot of the debate so far has centered on whether the children of same-sex couples are more likely to "turn" lesbian or gay themselves. Most of the studies on 'our' side have claimed that the answer to that question was no -- because our opponents were so fiercely complaining about gay contagion. But I think it's safe to say that the evidence is that kids of lesbian and gay parents are in fact more likely to realize that they are gay, lesbian, and especially bisexual. In 2009, I heard a great talk by Clifford Rosky which really pushed the audience to ask, "So what?". So what if gay, lesbian, and bisexual kids are more comfortable, more self-realized, after growing up in our households? Isn't that a good thing? (The Regnerus study counts being openly GLB as a 'negative' outcome, by the way!)
And that leads me to wonder what possible relevance the Regnerus study, or the studies on our side, should have in regards to public policy. Of course it would be easy and convenient if the children of same-sex parents were equal in all regards to the parents of mixed-sex parents. But would it really matter if that weren't the case? Shouldn't we expect that the children of same-sex parents would be worse off in some ways and better off in others? And even if the impossible were true: that children of same-sex parents were, on average, worse off in every possible measure, should that preclude every same-sex couple from having children or being able to marry? I'm struggling to see the relevance. The children of wealthy parents are much more likely to be diagnosed with autism - should we sterilize the rich?

No easy way I can see to wrap this all up. Thanks for listening, and feel free to chime in!


  1. Nothing in Regnerus's reported results can be trusted. He asked "Have you ever masturbated?" According to his codebook, out of 2,988 respondents between 18 and 39-years-old, 620 have never once in their lives masturbated. And, Regnerus claims that his "findings" are statistically accurate for the whole country, i.e., that out of every 2,988 Americans between 18 and 39, 620 have never once masturbated. Then, Regnerus in his published study states that none of his funders participated in his data analyses. Yet, his funder W. Bradford Wilcox of The Witherspoon Institute was issued and signed a Regnerus study consulting contract that says he is assisting Regnerus with data analysis. Between the "620" who have never masturbated, and Regnerus lying by saying that his funders did not help with data analysis, when we know that they did, on what grounds can anything about this ridiculous study be trusted?

    1. I'd certainly include the Regnerus study among the 98% of studies with major methodologic flaws. I hope you are this critcal of every study you read, not just the ones whose conclusions you disagree with.

  2. Do you feel as confident now as you did then in defending this POS? You sound just like the right wingers complaining about liberal bias, including your blase reply about 98% of studies being junk. Your politics are incredibly naive, similar to the faux radicalism of "queer" critical theorists like Rosky.