Internal Documents Confirm Regnerus Study’s Political Origins, Conflicts of Interest
March 11th, 2013
Last summer’s study in the previously obscure journal Social Science Research by Mark Regnerus claiming to demonstrate that children of gay and lesbian parents fare much worse than children of heterosexual parents raised quite a number of eyebrows, beginning with the bizarre apples-to-elephants comparison he had to contort his data into performing in order to attempt such a claim. While the logical fallacy was, appropriately, the main focus of criticisms of his so-called study, it was noted that the expensive study was paid for largely by $700,000 in grants from the staunchly anti-gay Witherspoon Institute, giving Regnerus a level of funding that few researchers — and, let’s say it, none with his previously unknown stature — would even dare to dream of. This guy was entrusted with a hell of a lot of money, and if it’s not plainly obviously by now, someone managed to grease the skids at the middling-ranked Social Science Research to give the study preferential treatment so that it could be fast tracked to publication. The paper itself was withheld for as long as possible from those whom might give it a critical eye in an attempt to make sure that the first press reports were favorable.
Earlier this month, the University of Texas, Regmerus’s employer, began releasing documents and emails related to the study in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The American Independent. At least some of those documents are now posted online. The American Independent’s Sofia Resnick went through those documents and found that the Witherspoon Institute, which provided three-quarters of the study’s overall funding, communicated its expectations of the study’s results ahead of time, and even provided an analyst to help manipulate the data to generate the foregone conclusion:
Records show that an academic consultant hired by UT to conduct data analysis for the project was a longtime fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, which shelled out about $700,000 for the research. Documentation about University of Virginia associate sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox’s dual roles contradict Regnerus’ assertions that the think tank wasn’t involved with how the study was designed or carried out.
The records also confirm what I noticed last June: the “expediency” with which the study was conducted and published. And what what the driving force for that “expediency”? Why, the Supreme Court, of course:
In the early stages of the New Family Structures Study – before data was collected and long before any results were known – the Witherspoon Institute’s president, Luis Tellez, made it clear to Regnerus that expediency was paramount.
“Naturally we would like to move along as expeditiously as possible but experience suggests we ought not to get hung up with deadlines, do what is right and best, move on it, don’t dilly dolly, etc.,” Tellez wrote in a Sept. 22, 2010 email. “It would be great to have this before major decisions of the Supreme Court but that is secondary to the need to do this and do it well. I would like you to take ownership and think of how would you want it done, rather than someone like me dictating parameters but of course, here to help.”
…“As you know, the future of the institution of marriage at this moment is very uncertain,” Tellez wrote in the letter, dated April 5, 2011. “It is essential that the necessary data be gathered to settle the question in the forum of public debate about what kinds of family arrangement are best for society. That is what the NFSS is designed to do. Our first goal is to seek the truth, whatever that may turn out to be. Nevertheless, we are confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study as long as it is done honestly and well.”
The study’s purpose, as you can see, wasn’t to advance science, but to influence the Supreme Court. Also, those last two sentences can be seen as a classic cover-my-ass statement from Witherspoon, because, of course, we know that the study was certainly not done “honestly and well.” In fact, as I noticed when the study first came out, “If one wanted to intentionally create Lesbian Mothers and Gay Fathers groups which were least likely to look like an intact biological family, I can’t imagine a better way to do so than to take the steps Regnerus has taken here.” And if there is any question about whether Witherspoon was communicating its expectations about the study’s outcomes before it was even conducted, consider this fundraising plea from Witherspoon to the Bradley Foundation, which ended up kicking in $200,000 for the study before it was even launched:
“The [University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research] Center has requested that The Witherspoon Institute work with it in raising the necessary funds, and given the importance of the project, the Institute has committed to doing so, with Dr. Mark Regnerus’ assistance,” Tellez wrote, “We are quite sure that if we do not intervene, the project will not be funded in a timely fashion. And this is a project where time is of the essence.”
Tellez went on to explain that the crux of the New Family Structures Study – whether kids raised by gay parents fare as well as those raised by straight parents – “is the question that must now be answered – in a scientifically serious way – by those who are in favor of traditional marriage.”
On June 15 of last year, I noticed that the Regnerus paper was rushed to print in an unusually expedited manner. In fact, the paper itself, it turns out, was submitted before the study was even completed. And as I noted before, the study’s data was withheld from those who might give the report a critical eye:
Michael Rosenfeld, a social demographer who teaches at Stanford University, said the journal had asked him to write a commentary of the paper but gave him a two-week deadline – a time frame Rosenfeld said is unusually short in the academic world. Rosenfeld told The American Independent that he still doesn’t know why Regnerus’ paper was seemingly rushed.
“One of the things about academic publishing is that it’s not in a hurry,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s more important to get it right than to rush it into print. So, I was sort of perplexed as to what the hurry was about.”
Rosenfeld said he agreed to review the paper on the condition that he could see the data. But Regnerus’ team refused.
“I’m a data-analysis person,” Rosenfeld said. “So, for me I wasn’t going to have anything to say about Regnerus’ paper until I could actually see the data and figure out for myself whether what he had done was reasonable or not. And I didn’t want to have a debate with him about the data when he could see the data and I couldn’t. That didn’t seem like it was going to go very far.”
Regnerus originally invited Rosenfeld to participate in the study, but Rosenfeld declined, citing “he unusual way the project is funded.” The journal’s editor, James D. Wright, continues to deny that Regnerus’s paper received special treatment, despite an independent audit criticizing the journal for overlooking serious flaws and Wright’s own admission that he was enticed, at least partly, by the opportunity to raise his journal’s relatively low Impact Factor.
Resnick’s full report is required reading and provides essential information describing how the study came into being and the alarm bells it raised among those who came to understand its origins long before it was published.