I was pleased to see that the University of Texas has recognized that there is no basis for investigating charges of scientific misconduct brought against Professor Mark Regnerus. I think the university would have been justified in rejecting the charges as absurd without going through the process of an inquiry by a panel of senior faculty members. However, the university took the position that it had to launch an inquiry of any allegations of misconduct, regardless of the merit or plausibility of those allegations.
UT’s news release regarding the decision struck exactly the right note: “ordinary errors, good faith differences in interpretations or judgments of data, scholarly or political disagreements, good faith personal or professional opinions, or private moral or ethical behavior or views are not misconduct. As with much university research, Regnerus’ New Family Structures Study touches on a controversial and highly personal issue that is currently being debated by society at large. The university expects the scholarly community will continue to evaluate and report on the findings of the Regnerus article and supports such discussion.” I hope that both critics and supporters of the Regnerus study will applaud this statement.
To reiterate my own perspective on the controversy, the difference between “good science” and “bad science” is frequently debatable in the social sciences, given the difficulty of defining and measuring complex social phenomena and the fact that social scientists are not just students of society but participants in it. That doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as truth in social science, but it does mean that truth is hard to determine and that it is open to dispute. We can see this in the review process. As a researcher who has published a great deal, I have had articles zip through the research process to quick publication. I have had other articles that took long periods of time and several revisions before finally appearing in print. I have had articles that I thought were some of my best pieces of work rejected by all three reviewers. I have had other articles that the reviewers uniformly praised. I have also received on a few occasions one peer review that said my article was brilliant and should be published immediately, one that said it showed promise but needed work, and one that said it should be immediately rejected. Clearly, what constitutes “junk science” or a “flawed study” can be a matter of some disagreement among well-informed experts.
As a reviewer of countless articles, I have also frequently seen methodological decisions no less problematic than those in the Regnerus study in work both published and unpublished. All of those decisions should be subject to criticism and debate. I think, in fact, that there is often too little criticism and debate, especially when the works in question reach conclusions consistent with perspectives that are popular in academia.
I hope that we can all act in accordance with the spirit of the UT statement. To me, this would mean that we do not employ double standards, but seek to subject all work, regardless of whether it confirms our moral or political predispositions, to the same process of dispassionate critical analysis. If we conclude that work is flawed, well, then, it is flawed. It is not a crime. It would mean, similarly, that we do not personalize our criticisms. We address them to evidence and arguments, not to the individuals adducing evidence or making arguments. This kind of behavior would make us better role models for our students, as well as better researchers.