Editor of “Gay Parenting” paper responds to BTB reader
June 15th, 2012
Andrew, a reader and regular commenter at Box Turtle Bulletin, emailed James Wright, the editor of Social Science Research. Citing his own experience as a published author of scientific articles, Andrew expressed concern about Mark Regnerus’ article, its failure to address its objectives, and the careless way in which it lends itself to political abuse (snippet):
In short, the author ultimately fails to address the question he seeks to any reasonable degree. In the past days, Regnerus himself has publicly acknowledged that acquiring some of the data necessary to arrive at the conclusions he does is a “methodological impossibility” at present, and that there’s a “low ceiling to what’s possible” with this information. Given the critical impact of frankly inadequate work funded by an ultraconservative think tank, I question the ethics of publishing such incomplete (some might argue shoddy) work. This will have significant real-world impact, given the political salience of the issue.
James Wright responded (in full):
The paper to which you refer was vetted, reviewed and revised following exactly the same processes that all SSR submissions go through. None of the three external reviewers of the paper, nor any of the three formal commenters, raised any prohibitive concerns about any aspect of the study. Some suggestions for revisions were made in the first round of reviews and those suggestions were followed in the published version.
For the record, Dr. Regnerus is a well-known, respected, and widely cited member of the social science community. A check this morning of the Publish or Perish data base shows 2,415 scientific citations to his papers, which generally appear in high-quality social science journals.
I am told that Professor Regnerus intends to release the raw data for reanalysis sometime in the fall, and I expect those data to be pored over very carefully by a large number of investigators. Any possibly erroneous conclusions that come to light as a result of this process are certain to be reported. This is what makes science self-correcting.
Since we followed the same procedures that are followed for all submissions (some three-quarters of which are rejected, by the way), I would not call the decision to publish the paper “an editorial oversight,” although I am quick to admit that peer review is not a perfect process. As for seeking publicity, be assured that I much prefer the relative anonymity within which my journal editing normally takes place.
I will indulge myself in one final point. The children studied in this survey were raised in an era when it was legally impossible for their parents to form normal marital unions, when gay people were subjected to hostilities and prejudices of the worst imaginable sort, and where their children would have been stereotyped and vilified by their peers and others. The hypothesis that these children would not suffer lasting effects from this sort of social environment seems implausible in the extreme. I do not see that is damaging either to the parents or the children to call attention to the formidable difficulties gay parents must have faced (and still face) in trying to raise their children, or to the consequences for these children that are still detectable years and even decades later. To the contrary, these strike me as precisely the realities that must be acknowledged and faced if we are ever to progress beyond our current heteronormative bigotries.
With best wishes,
Perhaps Mr. Wright simply doesn’t understand the objections to the article. Hearing complaints about how the conclusions are not supported, it seems that he thinks that it is the conclusions themselves that are causing concern – that if they had been glowing then the report would be accepted. And besides, the conclusions confirm what his presumptions already know.
Wright’s discussion about the likelihood of children of gay parents growing up in the 80’s and 90’s having detectable negative social consequences is not a bad hypothesis. It would not surprise me to find that there were some differences between those children raised by intact same-sex families and intact opposite-sex families, especially in socially hostile locations. But we don’t know that to be true and, despite its pretensions and Regnerus’ media claims, his study tells us nothing whatsoever about that possibility. Besides, difference does not necessitate negative consequences (for example, children of Orthodox Jews tend to have much lower drop-out rates).
While Wright sees logical and predictable results about “the children studied in this survey”, he misses the point that there weren’t any. Of all the children in the survey, only two were raised for their entire childhood by a female same-sex couple and none were raised for their entire childhood by a male same-sex couple.
We do know that Dr. Wright is not unaware of proper sampling techniques or the limitations of inadequate data. In 2010, he co-edited The Handbook of Survey Research, Second Edition, a synopsis of which describes the book thusly:
Detailed chapters include: sampling; measurement; questionnaire construction and question writing; survey implementation and management; survey data analysis; special types of surveys; and integrating surveys with other data collection methods. This handbook is distinguished from other texts by its greater comprehensiveness and depth of coverage including topics such as measurement models, the role of cognitive psychology, surveying networks, and cross-national/cross-cultural surveys. Timely and relevant it includes materials that are only now becoming highly influential topics.
So it’s hard to say at this point exactly why Wright rushed to publish this obviously flawed study. Perhaps he was impressed by the scientific citations that Regnerus has generated (Dr. Wright is not, himself, affiliated with a prestigious social science program and his publication, while carrying the Elsevier name, is not sufficiently important, for example, to be carried by the University of California).
It may be that he was blinded by his presumptions and green-lighted a paper that confirmed what ‘everyone knows’. Or maybe his desire that we progress beyond our heteronormative bigotries doesn’t extend to full social and legal equality and he felt it important that Regnerus’ “findings” be presented with politically expedient timing.
I will resist guessing as to his motives. But I do hope that in his continuing conversation with Andrew he will give serious thought to the matter and will be open to rethinking the wisdom of his decision.