Two of the greatest problems in social research are confirmation bias and the attribution of causal relations among concepts. The first refers to the tendency to find results that confirm our preconceived ideas. This may be more or less conscious: since researchers “know” that diversity contributes to educational achievement, they will look for evidence that demonstrates a relationship that is, to their minds, self-evident. It may be unconscious: our values and perspectives may shape how we decide to define issues. I see examples of confirmation bias every day in published and unpublished research, and in the casual statements of researchers.
The first problem is one of the sources of the second, since conscious and unconscious predispositions affect how we define concepts and the information we gather. But causation is also a fundamental epistemological difficulty. In a world of complex multiple causation, in which so many social qualities are tangled together, defining concepts in a way that enables us to represent causal relations accurately always poses a huge challenge. Again, I constantly see work in journals and books and in manuscripts that I review for publication that defines and measures ideas in ways that confuse causal relations.
Professor Mark D. Regnerus
These two great problems are methodological issues that face every researcher. They are definitely not ethical issues. They have nothing in common with the intentional falsification of data or plagiarism, or other acts of dishonesty. If we are going to claim that dealing inadequately with them are ethical violations, then we should be dragging professors in the social sciences across the country before institutional tribunals. So why is University of Texas sociologist Mark D. Regnerus facing ethical accusations on precisely those two grounds? The answer is that vociferous activists don’t like his findings.
Regnerus published an article this summer in the journal Social Science Research that concluded that the children of same-sex parents tend to fare worse than the children of parents in stable heterosexual marriages. He presented his findings as probabilistic and did not dismiss variations within all types of families. He openly and honestly acknowledged receiving funding from the conservative Witherspoon Institute. He also explicitly recognized that his was only an initial attempt to look at a controversial issue using a large dataset, while also pointing out the small number of same-sex families and their changing nature over time. Ironically, his very honesty and forthrightness about the sources of his funding and the limitations of his data made it easy for witch-hunters to attack him
Gay-rights activist Scott Rose has been at the forefront of a vicious campaign to denounce and discredit Regnerus. Rose filed a complaint against Regnerus, accusing the sociologist of violating the Academic Dishonesty Policy of the university. In an open letter to the president of UT Austin, Rose accused the professor of accepting funds from politically active organizations and furthering the goals of those organizations. I am at a loss to understand how this could be “dishonesty,” since Regnerus made the sources of his funding clear to the university from the time he applied for university approval of the study and to everyone else. I have no way of knowing whether his research was intentionally or unintentionally directed toward furthering political goals. But using research to pursue political goals is a mainstream activity within contemporary sociology, as long as those goals are popular in academic circles.
Rose misrepresents questions of causation and measurement in the Regnerus study as strategies for defamation. For example, Rose says that “Regnerus fraudulently classed as a present-day young adult raised by a ‘gay’ parent up until the 1990s anybody from Knowledge Networks list who said their parent ever had a ‘romantic relationship’ with a same-sex partner.” This decision about how to define parents with same-sex partners is certainly open to criticism. But it is most definitely not “fraudulent,” since the definition is honestly presented and there for anyone to see and judge.
A look at the internet discussions generated by the persecution of Regnerus will show hysterical denunciations of this researcher and everyone associated with him as “homophobic bigots” who seek to “demonize” gays. I was heartened to see a defense of Regnerus signed by a number of prominent social scientists and an excellent analysis of the affair by Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith. But the attacks on Regnerus don’t just threaten to damage the career of a single researcher. They send a message to all researchers: if you don’t follow the prescribed line on every controversial issue, the activists will get out the tar and feathers.