Auditor of “Gay Parenting” Study Warns of Christian Right’s Corruption of Social Science
May 29th, 2013
Last June, the journal Social Science Research published a controversial study by Mark Regnerus which claimed that children of gay and lesbian parents fared worse than children from other family configurations. BTB was the first to publish a review which demonstrated that the study was seriously flawed and the data was intentionally manipulated in order to draw conclusions that the data itself simply could not support. While Regnerus acknowledged a few of the studies flaws, he defended it on the whole and quickly became something of a spokesperson for anti-gay activists who were battling marriage equality in Federal court.
The massive controversy over the study’s flaws and its questionable rush to publication led Social Science Research editor Kames D. Wright to assign a member of the journal’s editorial board, Dr. Darren E. Sherkat of Southern Illinois University, to review how the paper and how its publication was handled. In that audit, Sherkat found problems with the study’s conclusions, its funding sources (nearly $700,000 from the Witherspoon Institute), conflicts of interests with the study’s reviewers, and the auspicious timing of the study’s publication, just ahead of the 2012 elections when marriage equality ballot initiatives were to be voted on in three states and a marriage ban in a fourth. Additional documents release last March revealed that Witherspoon Institute was more heavily involved with the contorted data analysis which led to the study’s false conclusions. Those documents also revealed that Witherspoon Institute president Luis Tellez exerted pressure get the study published before the marriage cases reached the Supreme Court.
This morning, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report published an interview with Dr. Sherkat, who explained further what he found when he examined how the journal handled the Regnerus paper. Sherkat described the pressures that editors face in filling their journals’ pages with content, and the slipshod way that many reviewers approach their work. Those factors are just a few which contribute to a general lack of rigor in social science journals, says Sherkat, and he warns that “conservative Christian scholars” are taking advantage of that opening:
Peer review is not perfect. The majority of people don’t do a bad job out of any kind of malicious intent. Having said that, Mark Regnerus is not alone. There are a large number of conservative Christian scholars in sociology, in political science, in family studies, and it’s surprising how many now are rising up into the top ranks. I’ve watched Mark throughout his career rise up through those structures that help to elevate conservative idea creators who are committed to the ideology of the Christian right and who are bright enough and hard-working enough to establish themselves in secular education. Regnerus has contemporaries who came up with him who today are also at prominent universities throughout the country.
Sherkat describes Regnerus’s method for identifying “gay and lesbian parents” as “simply a farce.” He also says that Regnerus “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.” But Sherkat worries that the funding of studies like Regnerus’s by conservative think tanks is creating an unlevel playing field:
One thing that’s disturbing to me about the Regnerus study is that Regnerus 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.