Sound public policy requires knowledge of the facts. But recent events show that disagreements about the evidence on hot button issues are often resolved in state capitols, not the ivory tower.
In the debate over same-sex marriage and parenting, one of the key empirical questions is whether same-sex relationships harm children. The July issue of Social Science Research published a study by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus that found that adult children of parents who had same-sex relationships reported more emotional problems than did those who were raised by parents in heterosexual marriages.
Political activists on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate jumped on the article. Opponents of same-sex marriage cited the research as evidence of the problems of same-sex parenthood. Social conservatives jumped on the results as scientific confirmation of their beliefs and intuition.
Proponents of gay rights and same-sex marriage, however, said the study was bogus. Writers in The New Yorker,The New Republic, and other news outlets faulted everything from the research's sponsorship to the minutiae of the study's methodology to resulting policy implications. Over 200 academics signed a letter to the editors of Social Science Research. Some even questioned Regnerus's academic integrity. Some, however, saw the research as evidence in favor of same-sex marriages because they would provide a stability to children that was unavailable to the adult children interviewed in Regnerus's study.
While most articles in sociology are read by few outside academia (in fact, most are lucky to be read by more than a handful of other scholars), this study struck a political chord. This week's cover of The Weekly Standard features Regnerus being tortured by medieval inquisitors (albeit ones wearing both hoods and Birkenstock sandals). The cover story: "Revenge of the Sociologists."
Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, defended Regnerus in an op-ed published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Monday.
Smith said that Regnerus is being "smeared in the media and subjected to an inquiry by his university over allegations of scientific misconduct" because he published unpopular research.
"In today's political climate, and particularly in the discipline of sociology—dominated as it is by a progressive orthodoxy—what Regnerus did is unacceptable. It makes him a heretic, a traitor—and so he must be thrown under the bus," Smith said.
In November, Social Science Research will publish an internal audit of the paper and the review process. The auditor concluded that while the editor was not at fault, the review process was flawed. According to the audit, several reviewers should have excluded themselves because of their connections to Regnerus and his project. Better reviews would have caught some problems with the paper that would have normally excluded it from publication. Most notably, Regnerus submitted the paper before his data were completely collected. Also, his measure and labels of his measure were deemed deceptive; few in “lesbian mother” or “gay father” categories were actually raised in a same-sex households.
While the fight over the validity of the Regnerus study continues, a federal court ruled on another hot button social issue that also relies on science. In this case, however, it was social conservatives who were suspicious of the academy's conclusions and liberals who were defending the integrity of peer-reviewed social science.