In the introduction to a new paper answering his critics, Mark Regnerus writes that his gay-parenting study “raised a variety of questions” among readers. That is a bit of an understatement. The paper started a controversy that has yet to die down, with critics questioning the motives of Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as his research methods.
The new paper, which is a commentary and not a peer-reviewed study, was published online on Monday, a couple of days before the University of Texas released the results of an inquiry into the original study that found no evidence of scientific misconduct. (The university’s report did not rule out the possibility that the study might be “seriously flawed,” finding only that there was no apparent ethical breach.)
It’s worth noting, again, that the audit of Regnerus’s original paper by Social Science Research, the journal that published it, found its presentation of data “extremely misleading,” and that its methodology was criticized in a letter signed by 200 scholars.
Here are highlights from the new paper (which is unfortunately not available free online, though you can find the abstract and some tables here):
- Regnerus calls the audit of his study—by Darren E. Sherkat of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale—a “rather uncommon and disturbing experience in social-science research.” He writes that Sherkat “has long harbored negative sentiment about me.”
- Regnerus writes that the criticism of his decision to label parents “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers,” regardless of whether or for how long their children lived with them, is “the most reasonable criticism” made of the paper. He says that, "[i]n hindsight,” he wishes he had given them different labels. “I recognize that the acronyms LM and GF are prone to conflate sexual orientation ... with same-sex relationship behavior.”
- Regnerus cites a study of same-sex marriages in Norway and Sweden that found that “the divorce risk is higher in same-sex marriages” to bolster his case that same-sex relationships are less stable.
- He writes that the “science here remains young” and contends that previous studies that have shown “no difference” between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples ought to have a “stronger burden of proof.”
- Regnerus concludes the paper with the following sentence:
Until much larger random samples can be drawn and evaluated, the probability-based evidence that exists—including additional NFSS [the New Family Structures Study, Regnerus’s project to study same-sex families] analyses herein—suggests that the biologically intact two-parent household remains an optimal setting for the long-term flourishing of children.
“Biologically intact” means the mother and father to whom a child was born. What’s a little odd is that Regnerus writes that this remains “an” optimal setting. There really isn’t disagreement that the biological parents of a child can provide an optimal setting for the raising of that child. The controversy is over whether gay or lesbian parents can also be an optimal setting.
No doubt this latest paper will spark more discussion. The university’s finding that Regnerus did not commit scientific misconduct has been seen by some as proof that his conclusions are valid. For instance, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which opposes gay marriage, Tweeted the following: “Good news: U of Texas has vindicated sociologist Mark Regnerus methodology/finding.”
But that’s not true. In fact, the university’s report goes out of its way to say that the narrow finding that Regnerus did not commit misconduct does not mean his methodology is sound and conclusions are valid. It means only that Regnerus is not guilty of an ethical breach like fabricating data.