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Why Mark Regnerus’ study shouldn’t matter, even if it were the most scientifically robust study in the world

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Mark Regnerus is not the most popular guy right now. Last Sunday, the journal Social Science Research made available his paper claiming that children raised by same-sex couples turn out to have more problems as adults than those raised by heterosexual parents. Readers reacted swiftly, his work inspiring legions of formal and informal peer reviews. A key concern that many identified, correctly, was that what Regnerus’ paper really compared were stable versus unstable households, regardless of the sexual orientation of the parents (for a clear and concise version of this argument, I’d recommend this piece in Discovery News.)

Over the past week, conversations about the political fallout of Regnerus’ article abounded. The Daily Beast reported that the study provoked a “political war,” with socially conservative pundits using it to affirm their beliefs that gay and lesbian couples should not be parents, while those on the left condemned it as an attempt to undermine same-sex rights. Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin went on record saying, “Because of the serious flaws, this so-called study doesn’t match 30 years of scientific research that shows overwhelmingly that children raised by parents who are LGBT do equally as well as their counterparts raised by heterosexual parents.” Many of the reviews, in favor or against Regnerus’ piece, operated in a similar framework of evaluating what the study means for gay marriage and same-sex parenting.

Maybe we should take a step back.

In medicine, we learn that it is valuable to order a test only if it would change our decision-making in terms of care. Otherwise, the test is considered a waste. While the same litmus test doesn’t apply to science research across the board, I think it comes a bit closer in the realm of social science work, which is what Regnerus’ study was. Suppose for a moment that all the critiques of his methodology did not apply, and that his was a robust study. Would its conclusions change your opinion on gay and lesbian couples having children?

If your answer is yes, I’m afraid you have your work cut out for you. By saying empirical data on who rears more stable children is a factor in deciding who should be able to have children, you would be scientifically remiss in stopping at gay and lesbian couples. Rather, you would have to study all groups who want to have children, and compare and contrast outcomes. By race. By religion. By age. By political affiliation. By socioeconomic background. And the list goes on and on. This task becomes even more difficult when you consider that drawing lines between groups can be an arbitrary thing in the first place, and how you decide to draw those lines can impact your results. I have absolutely no doubt you would find data revealing differences between other groups – ones that have no restrictions whatsoever on having children, and who are not under political scrutiny for wanting to.

So now you face a dilemma. If you want to say that differences between groups constitute a legitimate argument for limiting parenthood rights, you don’t have a leg to stand on if you want limit gay and lesbians’ rights, but no one else’s.

What we have to remember is that there is a big difference between an empirical finding and a policy recommendation. Data can be used to show many things we might not like, including differences between groups. But would we, or should we, legislate based on that? Infringe on anyone’s rights? To do so would be to reduce an individual and his/her potential to the group he/she happened to be born into. To place limits on a person’s rights based on incidental factors beyond his/her control should be recognized as bigotry. We don’t need to reject data to make that political point.

In fact, to feel we need to refute unlikeable data buys into a dangerous premise. The impulse to reject findings we don’t agree with is tacitly conceding that this kind of data can legislate rights, so to make sure we maintain the ones we want, it’s best to hide the findings that might undercut them. That admission is deeply problematic – for science because it leads us down a road of stifling findings that don’t resonate with our moral preferences, and for politics because it says our nation’s values on who should be able to have children are not founded in basic rights, but instead subject to the results of a single social science study. Neither is a road we should feel comfortable treading on.

Regnerus’ study had major flaws, and that fact should be known. But his findings shouldn’t have mattered that much, anyway. I for one don’t like the idea of using group outcomes data to determine basic rights. I don’t need to reject his paper to affirm that I support same-sex couples having children, and neither should you.

Ilana Yurkiewicz About the Author: Ilana Yurkiewicz is a fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School who graduated from Yale University with a B.S. in biology. She was an AAAS Mass Media Fellow, and her work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, Aeon Magazine, Science Progress, The News & Observer, and The Best Science Writing Online 2013. She has an academic interest in bioethics, currently conducting ethics research at Harvard after previously interning at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She is also interested in general internal medicine and quality and systems improvement. Follow on Twitter @ilanayurkiewicz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. TaurusLondono 12:44 am 06/17/2012

    As clear-headed and rational an interpretation of this study as I’ve yet seen! Thanks for the much-needed wake-up call.

    Link to this
  2. 2. IncredibleMouse 6:55 am 06/17/2012

    Great points. Well Written.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Scott Rose 3:37 pm 06/17/2012

    In a video interview he gave to a UT publication, Regnerus admitted he was unprofessional in carrying out his hack job. He said he didn’t want instead to work with the Naitonal Health Institute, because he thought this work would not make it through their peer review system, and because they require lots of revisions. But never mind Regnerus, a theocratic anti-gay hack, whose Trinity Christian College bio says that he thinks his “faith,” (i.e., his anti-gay bigotry) should impact his research. The person who above all should be criticized here, is NOM’s Robert George, who arranged for the $785,000 in funding through two of his maliciously anti-gay groups. Yet another of George’s anti-gay groups, the so-called “National Organization for Marriage,” got Romney to sign their pledge, organizes anti-gay hate rallies where its speakers say that homosexuals are “worthy to death,” and in bogus academic settings, say that gays are not human. You read that right; at Liberty University, NOM’s William Duncan held a symposium session titled “Homosexuals or Homo Sapiens; Who Deserves Protected Class Status?” How original, to say that the minority you are scapegoating is not human. I find striking, that one of the organizations through which Robert George arranged Regnerus’s political prostitution payment — The Witherspoon Institute — wrote about this hack job “study” by alleging that it shows the “reality” of same-sex parenting, because it does not focus, like many past studies, on an affluent gay demographic. Well guess what? If you bother to look at the study, 1) Regnerus himself does NOT conclude that there is any causality between same-sex parenting, and bad outcomes (though he has alleged in some TV interviews that the report *does* show that; he’s a lying hypocrite); 2) the study has a disproportionate number of HIspanic and African-American broken heterosexual marriages, in which one spouse apparently turned out to be bi-sexual. Robert George is not interested in examining how money and class differences are main drivers of child-rearing outcomes; (many people who get accused of bad parenting really care about good outcomes for their children, but lack resources). That George had access to big Republican money, to pay a small fry academic off to produce this shabby and fraudulently presented study, proves that he is losing his argument. Boehner has spent a similar amount on attempting to defend the constitutionality of DOMA ($742,000) but so far, his star attorney Paul Clement is 0-4, with some Republican-appointed judges finding DOMA unconstitutional. So, like the Regnerus study, the Boehner DOMA defense fund depends on Republican-mandated big bucks to beat down on a minority in an election year; it’s right out of the Rove playbook — and by coincidence, Rove has high praise for Robert George and vice-versa. Regnerus is too dumb to understand how he got used; money now, ruined reputation for life. In that same video interview I mentioned above, he said that he knows going through NIH would be better for science in the long-term “but some scholars don’t want to go that route.”

    Link to this
  4. 4. way2ec 9:32 pm 06/17/2012

    Thanks for such a brilliant analysis. I hope it is enough to do some good against the evils (lies, hate) that seem to be so blatant.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Joel454 11:57 pm 06/17/2012

    This article is politically correct hogwash. She shows Liberalism is a religion as much as Christianity and Islam. Throw away the study because it doesn’t read well with the agenda. Sound like a creationist. And like they Gay Rights movement hijacked the rainbow from the “Rainbow collation” they are hijacking SA.

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  6. 6. Ilana_Yurkiewicz 12:08 am 06/18/2012

    @Joel454: “We don’t need to reject data to make that political point.”

    “In fact, to feel we need to refute unlikeable data buys into a dangerous premise.”

    “I don’t need to reject his paper to affirm that I support same-sex couples having children…”

    The whole point of the article was that we don’t and shouldn’t feel the need to reject data, because the findings *wouldn’t change our policy opinions no matter what.* The question of same-sex couples having children is a basic rights one, not a data-driven one.

    Thanks to all the other commenters for your thoughts!

    Link to this
  7. 7. sjn 2:01 am 06/18/2012

    Excellently argued. THe same analysis needs to be extended to the perpetual desire to “explain” homosexuality through genetic determinism, including many articles in Sci Am.
    The urgent need to link homosexuality to a genetic basis again only makes sense if for some reason we feel an individuals right to a sexual identity out of the “norm” needs to be justified based on something (genes) beyond their control or responsibility.
    We don’t look for genes to determine taste in food or music (though I’ve seen recent articles in Sci Am trying to link political identities to genetics). But some behaviors that are deemed outside a “norm” require an explanation (justification).

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  8. 8. jctyler 4:35 am 06/18/2012

    I understand that some same-sex couples adopt children.

    Where can I find information about what agency is entitled to manage adoptions and the parameters by which adoptions are decided?

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  9. 9. jbairddo 7:57 am 06/18/2012

    The fact is there are lots of demographics that have bad outcomes, do they all deserve bigotry and lack of rights. First, this is a science magazine (with an obvious bias to anthropomorphic climate change) so the whole thrust of this should be-if the science stinks, it isn’t science, as such there can’t be conclusions to discuss. END OF STORY. As soon as you add your own opinions, you’ve given more credibility to these idiots than they need.

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  10. 10. SuperString 8:27 am 06/18/2012

    As far as I’m concerned the author could have used Race, religion, politics instead of sexual orientation to make her point.
    It’s Eugenics, pure and simple, to decide whom can breed, live or die. Taken to its logical conclusion it means enforced sterilization, euthanasia, population isolation, resource allocation. It’s evil.
    It’s evil if you implement it because you hate gays, republicans or anyone different than you.
    As a budding Bio-ethicist you are on the right track, young lady. Keep up the good work.

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  11. 11. jctyler 3:45 pm 06/18/2012

    So nobody dared go near the adoption question? Funny how adoption is excluded from this “debate” when an unusually high percentage of same-sex couples adopts or does the similar thing of hiring surrogate mothers. Socio-cultural tunnel-vision? Or as they say here, a typical US liberal is still very often quite close to the wave-length of a tolerant European reactionary.

    What children need most is loving and caring parents, everything else comes second. Bar the insignificant opinion of a “la del Barrio”, would you rather be the child of an alcoholic junkie single mother prostitute or the child of Ricky Martin and his husband?

    Adoption – best item found on the subject is:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoption_in_the_United_States

    Link to this
  12. 12. jtrouch 3:58 pm 06/18/2012

    Astounding to read an author comment/response. I love it! Thank you for being proactive and patient with our uninformed and often close-minded respondents herein.

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  13. 13. Ilana_Yurkiewicz 4:30 pm 06/18/2012

    @jctyler: In the US, there are tens of thousands of adopted children living with same-sex parents. But states retain the right to restrict which families are able to adopt, based on characteristics like sexual orientation. A few states had notable court cases over the past few years surrounding this issue.

    I completely agree with you that what children need most is loving and caring parents. As a result, adoption agencies rightly may refuse matching a child with a home because they don’t feel it’s a suitable environment. But the question is: what should that assessment be based on? In other words, how do you determine suitable parents?

    I would argue that making that judgment based on the group parents belong to (by sexual orientation, race, or anything else), rather than assessing the parents themselves, is wrongheaded. First because it reeks of bigotry, and second because like I said in the post, I guarantee you I would be able to find data showing differences between other groups — ones that do not face similar scrutiny as same-sex couples in expressing the desire to be parents. If we want to use data, we can’t be hypocritical with it.

    @jtrouch: Why thank you! I really enjoy seeing what people have to say.

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  14. 14. RRJUSA 12:12 am 06/19/2012

    This issue is not about people’s rights to adopt children or who is qualified to provide love and care. Rather, it is about what will be best for children. Perhaps one day a study will be made about the optimum conditions to raise a child. And that study will reveal the following: a married man and woman with strong love for each other and who practice their religious beliefs.

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  15. 15. jctyler 5:15 am 06/19/2012

    Ilana:

    Exactly. And IMO there need to be priorities. Can society refuse adoption to people who can offer a loving and caring environment? Such an environment is, as we know from experience, independent of the parents’ sexual orientation. Therefore, IF sexual orientation was to be a parameter at all, it should come way behind love and care.

    Is what I said. We agree unless I’ve not been clear enough.

    It’s all in the assessment procedure. Very tricky at the present stage. There was a long-term Swedish study on possible differences between children raised by parents compared to single mothers where in the light of what we know today same-sex couples would be at least as good at raising children as single mothers.

    Try this:

    https://www.google.co.uk/search?sourceid=navclient&hl=en-GB&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4GGHP_en-GBLU423LU423&q=swedish+study+on+single+mothers

    OTOH even people too dumb to pass a driver’s test can make children.

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  16. 16. jctyler 8:57 am 06/19/2012

    RRJUSA:
    “This issue is not about people’s rights to adopt children”
    It isn’t? How do many gay couples get children?

    “it is about what will be best for children”
    Exactly. So who is to say or prove that same-sex couples make worse parents?

    “Perhaps one day a study will be made about the optimum conditions to raise a child”
    Yes.

    “And that study will reveal the following:”
    How do you already know what a future study will show?

    “a married man and woman with strong love for each other”
    even a married couple who is not that strongly bound by love but perhaps mutual respect and appreciation might still be better parents than a married, strongly in love couple who doesn’t know right from wrong. Who are you to say?

    “and who practice their religious beliefs.”
    Ah, that’s where the wind blows from! And what religious beliefs would that be?

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  17. 17. ironjustice 11:27 am 06/19/2012

    First we start with the author , a Biologist , who believes homosexuality is evolution as opposed to what it really is , which is hormone misadventure. It is a medical condition , Kallmann’s syndrome as a ‘human model ‘ , hypogonadism. Equal rights based on ‘sexual orientation’ is equivalent to giving equal rights to someone who has pica or myopia.

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  18. 18. jctyler 11:36 am 06/20/2012

    ironjustice:

    “homosexuality is … hormone misadventure… a medical condition… hypogonadism”

    Wow
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    lao

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  19. 19. ironjustice 1:59 pm 06/21/2012

    You disagree ? This is another example of hormone misadventure.

    “My body changed itself from boy to girl”
    “Hormone imbalance not surgery, turns Ryan McKenna female”
    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4300191/My-body-changed-itself-from-boy-to-girl.html

    Link to this
  20. 20. Scott Rose 11:34 pm 06/24/2012

    In Re: Mark Regnerus’s anti-gay parenting study:
    In this letter to his university president, I accuse Regnerus of SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT
    Please read and re-post
    http://tinyurl.com/7hmyxye

    Link to this
  21. 21. WSJblog 6:44 pm 06/25/2012

    My response:

    http://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/about-that-regnerus-study/

    Link to this
  22. 22. emt22 10:32 pm 06/25/2012

    while i welcome your analysis, you are on somewhat dangerous methodological ground if you say no matter what the data says- the matter is above scientific inquiry due to your personal preferences. indeed, it invalidates the entire point of why you wrote the article and exposes your analysis to the accusations of bias, albeit explicit in your case,

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  23. 23. anotherjenny 8:16 am 06/26/2012

    I would love to see someone re-analyze this data and use it to support marriage (and other rights and supports) for same sex couples. Because what this data actually shows, even as Regnerus analyzed it, is that instability is hard on kids. Supporting same sex families with legal rights and so on will only have the effect of helping stabilize those families. This is good for kids. And yes, I am biased and I know it, but the thing is that same sex couples are raising children, and are going to continue to do so regardless of these studies – so don’t we, as a society have an obiligation to do right by those kids and support their families? I think we do.

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  24. 24. Rebecca 123 9:42 am 07/11/2012

    If your argument were valid, it would mean we shouldn’t have done any studies which show that children have worse outcomes in divorced families or when being raised by single moms.

    Identifying which family structures give the best outcomes for children is beneficial.

    According to the study, children of gay parents had worse outcomes than children of other unstable households.

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  25. 25. Rebecca 123 10:00 am 07/11/2012

    Dr. Regnerus’ response:
    “One of the key methodological criticisms circulating is that–basically–in a population-based sample, I haven’t really evaluated how the adult children of stably-intact coupled self-identified lesbians have fared. Right? Right. And I’m telling you that it cannot be feasibly accomplished. It is a methodological (practical) impossibility at present, for reasons I describe: they really didn’t exist in numbers that could be amply obtained *randomly*. It may well be a flaw–a limitation, I think–but it is unavoidable. We maxxed Knowledge Networks’ ability, and no firm is positioned to do better. It would have cost untold millions of dollars, and still may not generate the number of cases needed for statistical analyses. If randomness wasn’t the key priority, then we could’ve done it. And we’d have had a nonrandom sample that was no better than anything before it. So, while critics are taking potshots, they should remember that there’s a (low) ceiling to what’s possible here. My team of consultants elected to go with the screener questions (including the one about same-sex relationships) that we did, anticipating–accurately, too–that there would be no way of generating ample sample size if we narrowed the criteria (for who counts as a lesbian parent) to the sort that critics are calling for. We figured that, with the household roster/calendar offering the opportunity to identify who you lived with, we’d comfortably get enough cases wherein the respondent reported living with mom and her partner for many consecutive years. But few did.”

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  26. 26. billeh 11:17 am 07/28/2012

    Great points Ilana. Because when it comes to adoption what could possibly be less important than the welfare of the child?

    Link to this
  27. 27. Ilana_Yurkiewicz 11:57 am 07/28/2012

    @billeh: Well, yes. Which is why it’s a far safer idea to assess couples and their characteristics individually, rather than by what group(s) you associate them with.

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  28. 28. JessicaNaomi 3:15 am 08/11/2012

    The only relevant scientific study that needs to be done is to find out why Mark Regenerus and his gay bashing blood money funder Robert George are so homo-hot-&-bothered that they beg for gay bashing blood money, and create tyrannical theocRAT corporate cults to incite violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual and intersex parents and families?

    Link to this
  29. 29. AlexHarper 1:37 am 08/16/2012

    I am frankly stunned by all this hysteria and pure hatred triggered by the completely benign article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. You guys sound much like religious fanatics.

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  30. 30. JonHe 10:15 pm 08/31/2012

    Any comments now that the case is closed following a lengthy review? I’m not going to provide opinion on the controversial basis of the research because that’s not really important. What is important—concerning but important—is that a community so “supportive” of finding the truth by means of unbiased scientific research would, armed with assumptions, denounce the researcher as a bigot without first Exploring the data.

    P.s.

    @Ilana_Yurkiewicz: “I for one don’t like the idea of using group outcomes data to determine basic rights. I don’t need to reject his paper to affirm that I support same-sex couples having children, and neither should you.”

    To be clear, I am not leveling the following argument at any specific group, but at all groups as it applies.

    Ilana, If I understand your position correctly I would have to respectfully dissagree with your conclusion that having children is a basic right. I express this not to be callous to those that are naturally unable to have children—my wife and i have struggled for many years—what i mean is that, once the natural means is exhausted, an individual or couple must apply to adopt (regardless of race, creed, gender, orientation, etc). During that horribly long and expensive process the adoptee is reviewed, their home is inspected, and it is determined whether or not the parent(s) are fit to raise a child. It is the child’s well being that is important first an foremost, not the pseudo rights of the adoptees to have a child. It is for this reason that I cannot agree with your assertion that having a child is a basic right. If I have misunderstood your position please correct me and forgive my mistake. Good evening to you. :-)

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  31. 31. a 1:29 am 09/7/2012

    anotherjenny has the most relevant reaction, imo.
    This study points to raising children in stable couples. I’ve found this article months “late”, yet I should have seen NOM, et al clamoring for legalizing ‘gay’ marriage. Apparently those ‘marriage advocacy’ groups don’t like the study results.
    Or perhaps NOM, et al preferred not excusing the fragile low and loose sampling of this study?
    The author should have included hetero couples in his “unstable” couples group, so that he could have had a much larger sample size.

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  32. 32. a 1:30 am 09/7/2012

    ironjustice:
    equivalent to giving equal rights to someone who has pica

    why would anyone restrict the rights of somebody with a certain kind of typewriter?
    or myopia
    and who is making a lot of noise to ban marriage for people with poor eyesight?

    Link to this
  33. 33. Ilana_Yurkiewicz 10:37 pm 09/22/2012

    At Scientific American, we use a “three strikes and you’re out” rule when it comes to commenters behaving badly. OrgPa, this is to you. Commenters are welcome and encouraged to disagree with me. But this is not a forum for personal attacks. It is for this reason that from now on you will be censored.

    To everyone else, I appreciate the debate.

    Link to this
  34. 34. bob_saccamanno 8:28 am 08/10/2013

    First, I don’t know enough about the study in question to assess its validity. I only know that its main critic, Dr. Sherkat, in spite of excellent credentials has demonstrated himself to be at best anachronistic and at worst ideologically blinded when it comes to survey research. Frankly, he is not someone I trust to evaluate social science research. Here is a sample critique that is quite damning:
    http://scatter.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/is-nate-silvers-win-sociologys-loss/#comment-14192
    So I am addressing this blog’s central argument that we should ignore studies in making decisions. And specifically I refer to the author’s point in paragraph 5 that “Rather, you would have to study all groups who want to have children, and compare and contrast outcomes.” In social science we have a famous distinction between lumpers and splitters and of course anything can be endlessly divided (see: “race”). But as Aristotle taught us: if everything is important then nothing is important. So at some point we have to agree there are meaningful categories. What is problematic here is that the categories she goes on to identify: race, religion, age, political affiliation, socioeconomic background are not at the same level of analysis on this issue. These categories each contain within them the groups we’re addressing: couples of varying sexual orientation. Within this category gay couples cannot have children together (yes, in the future at great expense lesbian couples will be able to and then the argument will turn) on their own and so of necessity have to adopt. That makes them distinct on a relevant factor that is not true of the other categories the author names. Accordingly, research on whether they are fit or not to raise children should impact our decision and to pretend otherwise is obfuscation. I don’t think the study puts us there even if it were the most scientifically perfect study to end all studies. And that’s simply because I deduce from first principals based on my ontological experience of the world that whereas it’s probably better for children to be exposed to parents of both genders (all other things being equal) it’s also probably better for a child to have parents of any gender and orientation rather than none and be brought up in the public system. So I would have a high bar for exclusion but would probably give preference to heterosexual couples if both were available. But we know that there are plenty of children who are not adopted. So let’s not decide that we can to throw out research in making this decisions. I doubt the author would conclude the same if said research were pointing in her preferred direction and so my suspicion is that she’s smuggling in her own ideological preferences under the guise of “I’m just a medical researcher being objective.”

    Link to this

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