Mark Regnerus: How Not to Interview Someone about Family Policy

December 21, 2014 in General

Mercatornet has a rather shallow interview with the tiresome Mark Regnerus.  Remember him? Family First slavishly recycled his feeble, futile hatchet job against same-sex parenting at the time that the marriage equality debate was wending its way through New Zealand’s Parliament. It predictably popped up in numerous conservative Christian anti-marriage parliamentary submissions to the Government Administration select committee and faced reciprocal rebuttal and deconstruction from corresponding submissions from LGBT groups and individuals and our straight allies.  It didn’t work- the bill passed 77-44, with its inclusive adoption reform clauses intact, without even a Supplementary Order Paper against them to try to scissor them out.

As for Regnerus, Mercatornet’s Carolyn Moynihan describes him as follows: Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, a research associate of the university’s Population Research Center, and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. 

[Craig: Mark Regnerus has also received funding for his controversial 'research' hatchet job on same-sex parenting from the conservative Witherspoon Institute. The standard of his relevant  submission to Social Science Research Review was critically panned. It has been condemned as subpar by numerous mainstream social science and mental health organisations in the United States]

[Craig: Gushy tribute excised]. Controversy is not necessarily a mark of heroism, but we have decided that in the case of Mark Regnerus it is; the comments merely illustrate the point that, unlike the other nominees, his professional reputation, livelihood and even his character are in question for as long as he dares to investigate social phenomena associated with changing attitudes to homosexuality.

[Craig: Yeah, especially if the social phenomena are misreported by a politically motivated and unsafe 'peer review' process and the methodological design is utterly shoddy and poorly organised. And the sociologist in question has little specific relevant competence in this area. Regnerus is a sociologist of religion, not family policy]

Just to recap the essential points: Mark Regnerus is a tenured associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2012 the first findings from his New Family Structures Study were published in the respected, peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research under the heading, “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships?” Unlike the small studies based on self-selected samples that were being used to influence legal and political decisions about marriage and children, his was based on a large random sample of the general population.

[Craig: This is an utter  distortion. Organisations that have criticised Regnerus' study include the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, US National Association of Social Workers, American Psychoanalytic Association, California Association of Social Workers, American Academy of Pediatrics and California Psychological Association have all contributed an amicus curiae detailing the defects in Regnerus’ research project and design. See below for details.]

The NFSS study found “numerous consistent differences, especially between the children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still married (heterosexual) biological parents” and the differences were, on the whole, negative.

[Craig: It did not. Its methodology was hopelessly flawed.]

This was not what gay rights activists and their academic and professional supporters wanted to hear. Professor Regnerus came under instant attack (well before any fair academic appraisal of his study) and that has continued to the present.

Regnerus has not responded in kind. He has conducted himself with dignity and responded calmly to reasonable criticisms, but stuck to his guns over the validity of his work and his right to do it. Academic freedom and intellectual honesty on this subject is most important to the welfare of children and the future of the family, the first school of human dignity.

[Craig: Here's some reasonable criticism.  Regnerus himself is a conservative Catholic. The Witherspoon Institute provided him with research assistance toward this study, which was deliberately timed to coincide with US Supreme Court hearings on Proposition 8 and the Defence of Marriage Act.  Clyde Wilcox, editor of Social Science Research Review, is also involved with the antigay "National Organisation for Marriage."  Moreover, see also the criticisms about the poor research methodology in that paper in the link cited below. Objective, neutral and balanced? Uh, nope.]

[More gushy silliness excised-Craig]

MercatorNet: It seems to us that you are still under attack for your 2012 NFSS study. Is that the case? Does it affect your professional work?

Regnerus: Yes, and yes. I’ll leave it at that.

[Craig: That's because of its poor research methodology. It's called professional critique. See the amicus curiae below]

Your data has been made available online. Has anyone attempted to replicate your study yet? Would you like them to?

Yes, the data are public. And yes, replication has already been done. There are studies working their way toward publication that analyze the data differently, namely by dealing with prevalent relational instability as a “control variable,” meaning it’ll take the focus off the fact that upheaval is more common in same-sex households. So this may well return “findings” that suggest fewer differences than my study displayed. And I will be accused of having hidden “the truth.” It’s all very predictable. I didn’t coin this phrase, but it’s apropos here: torture the data long enough, and it’ll confess anything. Indeed, there are studies that declare that two women are better at raising children than a married mother and father—in other words, stepfamilies are preferable to enduring biological ones. It’s pretty unlikely, don’t you think?

[Craig: And are these studies objective and  funded from neutral sources, or are they also in receipt of preliminary funding from organisations like the Witherspoon Institute?]

All population-based data on same-sex households with children tend to reveal similar things: greater poverty (especially among female-headed households), more substance use, and more significant upheaval. The scholars who work with such data all know this. It’s how scholars analyze and report that data that differs considerably. I chose not to paper over it but to lay out the basic associations first before adding control variables, and to spend time describing what the sampled populations are like.

That’s why it’s important for scholars to build models, starting from simple associations and working their way up—in full view of the reader—toward greater complexity. I have long preferred to build knowledge in that manner rather than in the manner in which so many are trained, which is by cutting straight to complexity and lots of control variables in the hopes of looking complicated enough to merit publication.

[Craig: And as any social scientist can tell you, there's a major difference between correlation and causation. Moreover, note the presupposition involved here, which is that stepfamilies are 'dysfunctional', which also plays into conservative Christian a priori 'natural law' assumptions that same-sex identities and relationships are 'inferior' and an 'objective moral disorder,'  which is not what mainstream pediatrics and developmental psychology says at all.  I spy with my little eye something beginning with r-  researcher bias]

Complexity need not be wrong, but it masks a process. What we ought to be after is to understand how some pattern has come to be, not to “explain it away” in order to impress your friends. This is why sociology is fast becoming discounted—it’s a parochial exercise.

Could you clear up for us exactly what the nature and chief aim of the study was? Does it tell us anything about same-sex parenting or not?

The chief aim of the study was academic, to look into the claim that there were “no differences” between those children—in my case, adult children—who grew up in same-sex households with those who grew up with a married mother and father. The detailed household calendar data I collected revealed that it’s not so easy to identify the meaning of “grew up with,” since the households of many children are a patchwork quilt of comings and goings. The study was not about parenting per se, which is more about the evaluation of processes—what parents actually do—than what I did, which was more basic, to look at the association between household structures, parents’ relationships, and adult children’s self-reports about their lives.

How difficult is it to get good data on same-sex parenting outcomes?

It’s not simple at all. And it’s expensive. And when it comes to evaluating a very small population—that of same-sex households with children—a small minority becomes a tiny minority becomes a challenge to locate randomly in numbers ample enough to generate statistical power to even capably detect differences, which was the point of the study in the first place.

[Craig: How odd. More representative researchers don't seem to have that problem. Could it have anything to do with the study's notoriously broad definition of what constituted a 'same-sex parent?'  ]

Many people think I purposefully avoided surveying adult children who experienced long-term stability in a household with two mothers. Hardly. I wanted as many cases of these as the best data collection firm could possibly locate (randomly). It just wasn’t very many—a handful, really—which didn’t comport with contemporary sensibilities and assumptions. I warned people in the text of the study that the data may be a generation “old” in that sense. Some hold that the greater instability I documented in same-sex households is temporary, or a simple function of historic stigma to be improved when marriage rights are granted. I don’t think so, because stigma is diminishing rapidly but the patterns (discerned in other data) remain.

We all know narratives to the contrary—gay couples together for decades and straight ones who break apart in a matter of months or years, but those are anecdotes. I want to know what the population patterns are. Anecdotes reveal what’s possible. A random sample of a population will tell us what’s probable.

How does this issue fit into your wider field of work?

It was a “cousin” of sorts, an extension of my work on the development of heterosexual relationships, which I had been studying and writing about for several years. My own research on sexual economics and mating markets (among heterosexual relationships) can actually help here, given longstanding gendered preferences and behavior in intimate unions. Whether we call it marriage or not, unions of sexual difference will function in ways unique from unions of similarity, and children in or of those unions are not exempt from its effects. It’s not about sexual orientation but about the interpersonal dynamics of sex (that is, being male and female). There is a cultural, social, sexual, and psychological complementarity rooted in biology. Sex distinctions reach into our cellular DNA. That’s pretty elemental.

This is the reason why I eventually threw my hat into legal questions around marriage—not because my study can solve and clarify everything (it can’t) but because it and other data suggest we’re talking about a genuinely distinctive type of union. This is not to say that same-sex unions cannot last or cannot raise children. They can, and that’s why I don’t legally object to such unions and haven’t taken a strong position on gay adoption, because of human freedom and because adoption by definition is a concession—an accommodation to circumstances in which a child is unable to remain in the custody of his or her biological parents.

Most people and states wisely hold that the biological union of mother, father, and child is optimal, ideal. But altering the very structure of marriage uproots that notion and renders biology moot—irrelevant. It’s a staggering notion. It’s a fiction. We’re making it up. We owe it to children to strengthen the marital union of man and woman, not give up on it due to social pressure from peers or friends. Social justice and human dignity demand we seek what’s optimal for children, not to accommodate adults’ wishes. This is about seeking the best for the most vulnerable.

[Craig: And finally, let's close by having a look at this thinktank that Regnerus is now involved with, the Austin Institute for Study into Family and Culture. It's a conservative Christian "family policy" pressure group staffed by conservative Catholics and Mormons. There's one article on the subject of same-sex parenting, which turns out to have been published on the Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse online journal back in 2013. Oh, what a coincidence. Not.]

 Recommended:

Karen Golinski versus US Parent Office of Personnel Management, John Berry and Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the US House of Representatives: Amicus Curiae Criticism of Same-Sex Parenting and Regnerus Study: http://tinyurl.com/7g55hzt

Not Recommended:

Carolyn Moynihan: “Mark Regnerus: ‘Dignitarian’ of the Year” Mercatornet 19.12.2014: http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/mark_regnerus_dignitarian_of_the_year: http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/mark_regnerus_dignitarian_of_the_year#sthash.Eg7mQ2wM.dpuf

David Gordon: “Same Sex Parenting: Reading Past the Headlines” Public Discourse: 31.10.2013: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2013/10/11115/

Austin Institute for Study of Family and Culture: http://www.austin-institute.org