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.
On Tuesday, a federal court ruled that state legislatures, not the courts, are the best places to sort through science. In the case before the court, the issue was the scientific evidence on the risks associated with having an abortion. The Eighth Circuit upheld a 2005 South Dakota law requiring that doctors tell women seeking an abortion that they have an "increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide."
Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota (PPMNS) argued that there was no causal link between having an abortion and later risk of suicide. It presented evidence from the American Psychological Association (APA) that concluded that the statistical relationship between abortion and suicide was coincidental. Abortions do not cause suicide. Rather, women who are at risk of suicide happen to be those who are more likely to have unplanned pregnancies.
South Dakota and others defending the law argued that the APA report was biased; they gave greater scrutiny to studies that found a link between abortion and suicide and less rigorous examination to studies that concluded there was no causal relationship.
While the court seemed persuaded by arguments against the APA report and other research, the court turned the causation argument on its head. It ruled that something does not have to be a cause per se to be an "increased risk factor." So long as there is not evidence that abortion does not cause suicide, women must be told that they have an increased risk of suicide.
The court acknowledged that there were competing and contradictory findings in the scientific literature. The court said that it was ultimately the job of the legislature, not the court, to sort through medical science.
"We express no opinion as to whether some of the studies are more reliable than others," the court said. "Instead, we hold only that the state legislature, rather than a federal court, is in the best position to weigh the divergent results and come to a conclusion about the best way to protect its populace. So long as the means chosen by the state does not impose an unconstitutional burden on women seeking abortions or their physicians, we have no basis to interfere."
PPMNS president Sarah Stoesz said that her organization was disappointed by the ruling. "Every reputable researcher and medical organization has determined that there is no sound scientific evidence that shows a cause and effect relationship between abortion and suicide," Stoesz said. "The bottom line is that women don't turn to politicians for advice about mammograms, prenatal care, or cancer treatments. Politicians should not be involved in a woman's personal medical decisions about her pregnancy."
Harold Cassidy, an attorney who represented Leslee Unruh, president of the Alpha Center of Sioux Falls, told LifeNews that the ruling adds increased risk of suicide to the list of information given to women receiving an abortion.
"Any decision that a pregnant mother makes in the context of her considering an abortion that will deprive her of the joy and fulfillment of a life long relationship with her child, must be totally voluntary and well informed. The victory today is a step towards achieving that goal for the women of South Dakota," Cassidy said.
Curiosities or Information?
Given the political flip-flopping over social science, it is little wonder that some politicians are ready to jettison the whole social scientific enterprise.
The House of Representatives recently voted to defund all National Science Foundation funding of political science. The House also approved cutting the American Community Survey and the Economic Census, which together provide key economic data such as quarterly estimates of gross domestic product. Senate Democrats oppose the cuts, which are not expected to become law.
In congressional debate, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) criticized the NSF for funding studies on international climate change analysis, representation, gender and political ambition among high school and college students, and why political candidates make vague statements.
"These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them. How can we justify this outcome?" Flake said. "The work of political scientists advances the knowledge and understanding of citizenship and government, politics, and this shouldn't be minimized. But they shouldn't be subsidized by the National Science Foundation."
By law, the NSF evaluates projects based on both their scientific merit and their benefit to society.
Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank called the cuts a slippery slope of politics interfering with science. Ornstein said that the cuts are based on "ideology run rampant," with Republicans looking to cut any discretionary funding in order to protect defense spending and tax cuts.
"The key question here is an intrusive government, via a set of politicians, throwing grenades into a carefully designed and balanced peer-review process for scientists, physical and social, to determine what research benefits society enough to use some taxpayer funds," Ornstein said. "This truly is a slippery slope—political science one day, climate research the next, biological research after that and so on, depending on the ideology and demagogic capacity of the majorities in Congress at any given time."
The vote over political science funding highlights the balancing act between politics and science. Society needs a "politics free" science to have the information it needs to craft wise policy. Science needs the support of politicians for funding. But as the debates over same-sex parenting and abortion health risks show, it is difficult (if not impossible) to find a perfect balance concerning how much influence politics should have on science and how much scientific evidence should impact public policy.
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