John M. Becker

Chief Auditor Eviscerates Regnerus Study, But Questions Remain

Filed By John M. Becker | May 30, 2013 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: junk science, Mark Regnerus, New Family Structures Study, parenting, Regnerus study, same-sex parenting

In an explosive interview published yesterday by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Darren Sherkat -- a member of the editorial board of the journal Social Science Research, which published Mark Regnerus's disgraced "study" claiming that gays and lesbians make inferior parents -- once again eviscerated the study as "deeply flawed" and its author as "disgraced." Sherkat, who is also a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, was appointed by Social Science Research editor James Wright to conduct an audit of the process by which Regnerus's study was reviewed and approved for publication.

Speaking to the SPLC's Evelyn Schlatter, he remarked,

When we talk about Regnerus, I completely dismiss the study. It's over. He has been disgraced. All of the prominent people in the field know what he did and why he did it. And most of them know that he knew better. Some of them think that he's also stupid and an ideologue. I know better. I know that he's a smart guy and that he did this on purpose, and that it was bad, and that it was substandard.

Additionally, Sherkat said that Regnerus's "study" is part of a much larger and very alarming trend: the infiltration of mainstream academia, science, and research by conservative evangelicals, who then conduct and publish dubious studies bought and paid for by private foundations and think tanks with specific ideological agendas. In short, the right wing is hijacking science in a long-term effort to win the culture wars:

There is in fact a movement to change the intellectual and cultural climate of academics. This has been going on for over 30 years. Look at things like James Davidson Hunter's Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, where he talks about the growth of these more intellectual conservative evangelical types in Christian colleges like Wheaton and Gordon and Calvin, which is Regnerus' alma mater. They've actively courted the young, successful people in these colleges to become professors, to become intellectuals, and they support their careers.

mark_regnerus (2).jpgOne thing that's disturbing to me about the Regnerus study is that Regnerus (right) received a large amount of money from these foundations and this creates a very different scholarly and intellectual atmosphere. It creates a playing field that's not level. Someone like Regnerus is now able to go out and buy his own data, if we're to accept data of this quality.

Even if we were to say it's high-quality data, he is able to get a million dollars' worth of influence -- he was able to generate that kind of funding from these conservative foundations in a way that other intellectuals are not able to do. All of the traditional sources of social scientific funding have dried up over the last 20 years and there's nowhere to go to get money, but these guys have it. There are talks in Congress about cutting the entire social science budget at the National Science Foundation. That is chilling, because then we'll be completely reliant on people like Mark Regnerus and Brad Wilcox [of the University of Virginia] and Christian Smith [of Notre Dame University] and people like that for our information about potentially crucial or controversial issues.

Some background: Mark Regnerus's New Family Structures Study, published in June 2012, purported to study same-sex parenting and claimed to show that children of same-sex couples do worse than children of opposite-sex couples. In fact, the study had deep methodological flaws, because Regnerus's sample was not asked whether their parents were gay or lesbian, but whether respondents thought their parents had ever engaged in a sexual relationship of any kind with someone of the same sex. In short, it didn't compare stable same-sex relationships with stable opposite-sex relationships, so it didn't actually study same-sex parenting at all.

Regnerus claimed to be "impartial" in his research, but when he was announced as a speaker at a "protect marriage" conference in San Diego this summer sponsored by an arm of the very anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, that illusion was permanently shattered. Documents obtained by the American Independent also revealed that the study was rigged from the start -- Regnerus's funders bankrolled his research expecting to find results that would be harmful to the marriage equality movement, in time to influence "major decisions of the Supreme Court."

In March, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the University of Central Florida, which houses Social Science Research, seeking public records relating to the peer review and publication of Regnerus's "study." My goal was to discover whether everything was above board, or if the peer review and publication processes were as compromised as the design and data collection processes were. The university denied my request last month, so I filed suit seeking the release of the documents under Florida's public records laws.

The lawsuit, which is still in process, is an important part of uncovering the full truth about the Regnerus "study." While Schlatter's interview with Sherkat is certainly revealing, many unanswered questions remain. For example, he states that Regnerus "got totally lucky" with an expedited review process. But "totally lucky" doesn't explain away the incongruities in the timeline, nor does it account for the "potential conflicts of interest" that Sherkat claims (without further elaboration) at least two of the study's reviewers had "based on prior relationships with [Regnerus]." Also unknown is why Wright chose to so quickly publish Regnerus's paper despite such questionable circumstances. How much of this did Wright know when he approved the NFSS for publication?

It's incredibly important to learn the full truth about this sham "study" because it's being used to harm LGBT families. The NFSS was repeatedly cited in briefs filed with the Supreme Court by proponents of marriage discrimination, including Catholic, Mormon, and evangelical groups, in the run-up to the Prop 8 and DOMA arguments in March. The American College of Pediatricians, a religious-right fringe group which masquerades as a legitimate medical association, referenced the NFSS in its brief in another DOMA case, Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management; equality opponents have also cited it in a state-level marriage case in Nevada. And just this month, anti-gay activists in Croatia have cited what they call the "Texas Study" in their signature-gathering effort to force a referendum on banning marriage, and possibly adoption, for same-sex couples.

Mark Regnerus's bogus study is still causing real harm to LGBT people and families, not just in the United States but around the world. We can't rest until it is thoroughly and exhaustively debunked.

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