Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Wise Decision in the Regnerus Case

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.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Waiting for Isaac

Hurricanes are a fact of life along the Gulf Coast. When I was 13 years old, Hurricane Betsy wrought destruction in the lives of Louisianans, but my main memory is of how exciting the winds were, how interesting it was to have part of a tree in our kitchen, and how much fun it was to paddle around the neighborhood in the family canoe. There are advantages in undeveloped frontal lobes.
In 1965, of course, there were more coastal barrier islands and wetlands than today, so the big storms may hit us harder now. Evacuation, unknown when I was a teenager, has become a standard response to approaching hurricanes. Forty years after Betsy, I left New Orleans for what I thought would be a couple of days of storm vacation in the old family farm home in Washington Parish, only to spend the following couple of months in exile and wandering. When we did return home, we settled in a trailer in the front yard of a house with a collapsed ceiling in the main bedroom upstairs and downstairs walls ruined by floodwaters.
Hurricane Isaac, now moving toward us, does not look like it will be as bad as Katrina. There is something undignified about running away from the weather, so I’m staying in place this time and hoping the ceiling doesn’t fall on me while I’m asleep. At any rate, I still have the old canoe.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Octavio Paz on the Limitations of Politics

Octavio Paz
I ran across an excellent old interview by Spanish television with the late Mexican poet, essayist, and diplomat Octavio Paz, best known for his book on the national psychology of Mexico, El Labirinto de la Soledad [The Labyrinth of Solitude].  The interview took place not long after Spain’s transition to democratic government following the death of Francisco Franco, so the writer’s warnings to the Spanish not to put too much faith in the problem-solving potential of government are especially interesting. Regarding government in general, Paz advocated decentralization, observing that “el gran criminal del siglo veinte es el estado, el estado centralista que monopoliza el poder politico y el poder economic. Parecia que el gran tema del siglo veinte era la sustitucion del sistema capitalista por un sistema socialista … la critica de las anarchistas … ha side profetica. El gran criminal del siglo veinte es el estado”  [“The great criminal of the twentieth century is the state, the state that monopolizes political power and economic power. It seemed that the great theme of the twentieth century was the substitution of the capitalist system by a socialist system  … the criticism of the anarchists has been prophetic .. the great criminal of the twentieth century is the state.”]
Later in the interview, Paz connected this idea of the dangers of the centralized state to his view that the Spanish should be modest in their expectations of the new government. “Yo no creo que la politica pueda ofrecer una solucion a las problemas fundamentales de la condicion humana … la historia del siglo veinte es la historia de utopias convertidas en campos de concentracion … la politica es la arte de convivir y no la arte de cambiar el hombre” [“I don’t believe that politics can offer a solution to the fundamental problems of the human condition … the history of the twentieth century is the history of utopias transformed into concentration camps … politics is the art of living together and not the art of changing man.”]
I  find particularly insightful the idea that politics is the art of living together, of allowing individuals and groups with different goals and interests to work out their means of coexistence and not of making people “better” or of achieving someone’s scheme for a “more just” society. That phrase, “politics is the art of living together and not the art of transforming humanity,” captures the core of the democratic ideal.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Atop Mount Evans

Why do human beings like mountains so much? We speak of the “high points” of our lives and “peak experiences.” Drug users try to get “high.” In San Francisco, many years ago, I liked reading on one of the many small summits around the city. When I used to live in the Bataan Peninsula, one of my favorite pastimes was sitting on a crag looking far down at a river running through a deep valley.  This is not the kind of experience I often have now, below sea level in the New Orleans area. So, the best part of my attendance at the American Sociological Association meetings in Denver was playing hooky on the first day and going up into the Rockies.
A couple of old friends met me at the airport Friday morning with a rental car. After lunch in a Mexican restaurant in the old mining town of Morrison, we drove to the Red Rocks around the amphitheatre and hiked around a little before proceeding to Lookout Mountain, where we ran through the woods and enjoyed vistas of Golden and Denver. Then, we drove to Mount Evans, the second highest point in Colorado.  Driving up the winding, guardrail-free road to the top, I remembered about forty years ago when I caught a ride up a similar road to Aspen with a rugged, tax-resisting old anarcho-libertarian  cowboy who was hauling a horse trailer behind his speeding pick-up truck. The Aspen road didn’t faze that guy at all, but my friends and I lacked his nerve and we had our fingers crossed the whole way. I was glad I was not the driver.
When we reached the end of the road and got out of the car, I had to sit down. That’s when I realized I had traveled that day from below sea level to over 14,000 feet. But we were soon able to scramble the rest of the way up to the top of Mount Evans, intoxicated with the thin air. We lost enough judgment to drive back down worry-free. 
After that, the meeting was metaphorically and literally anti-climactic. As I’ve mentioned before, I did not like the “Real Utopias” theme of the gathering, since I thought the theme was just another vehicle for pedaling politically correct forms of social activism. But I managed to avoid all of the thematically related sessions, fulfilled all of my obligations, and met with a representative of the publisher with which I have a contract to produce another book by this coming spring. I was also gratified to receive a minor award, one of the “outstanding reviewer” awards of the journal Sociology of Education. My award consisted of a t-shirt with the phrase “Revise and Resubmit” on the front. I have to confess that I enjoyed seeing colleagues and talking with them. My secret vice is a fondness for people as individuals, even though I’m leery of humanity in the abstract.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Fisher v UT Austin: Social Science Takes a Stand

With some misgivings, I’ve decided to renew my membership in the American Sociological Association and attend this year’s meeting. I have too many professional and personal obligations to opt out. Still, my misgivings grew a bit more when I noted that the ASA has joined the American Educational Research Association and others in filing an amicus curiae brief supporting the use of race conscious admissions in the Fisher v. UT Austin case. The AERA, the ASA, and the others maintain that “social scientific evidence” indicates that UT Austin and other universities have a “compelling interest” in diversity and that maintaining student diversity requires consideration of race in admissions.
To say that “scientific evidence” favors the UT policy sounds a bit like saying that if the justices find the university’s approach to admissions unconstitutional they’ll be ignoring the laws of physics. But law and government derive from political decisions, not from objective facts.  I’m also skeptical of the evidence itself, since I have something of an inside view of how it has been produced and I think that the “facts” in what is often referred to as “the overwhelming body of research” have been largely shaped by political decisions. I’ve referred earlier to the prevalence of “confirmation bias” in social scientific research, that is, to the tendency of researchers to find what they set out to find. The explicit purpose of most of the research encouraged and subsidized by the organizations in this amicus brief has been to find arguments and evidence demonstrating the benefits of race conscious admissions. That doesn’t mean that the conclusions of the researchers are necessarily wrong, but everyone should be aware that their findings and their interpretations of their findings have been from the beginning aimed at a predetermined outcome.
When organizations like the ASA or the AERA take official positions on political issues they exacerbate the problem of built-in bias. There is no way of avoiding this problem entirely. Social scientists, like other human beings, tend to adopt the opinions and assumptions that are popular among their peers. But when social scientific organizations take a side, they announce formally that “this is the right way to think.” Ironically, that should create even greater skepticism about their pronouncements because the bureaucratic endorsement of an opinion discourages alternative thinking and truly critical investigation of the “scientific evidence.”  It also pushes professional and academic groups further away from being assemblies of diverse colleagues and toward becoming clubs for the politically like-minded.

Friday, August 10, 2012

School Discipline Again

A new article by Heather MacDonald, published online in the current issue of the City Journal, criticizes the campaign recently launched by the Departments of Education and Justice against disproportionate minority discipline rates in public schools. MacDonald argues that the two Departments consider the higher discipline rates of black and Hispanic students as evidence of discriminatory treatment by schools. Further, these federal bodies, according to MacDonald, espouse the theory of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which holds that unequal school discipline policies, especially in the form of suspensions, not only tends to disadvantage minority students educationally but also to channel them toward the penal system in adulthood. MacDonald maintains that the campaign creates administrative red tape for schools, hampers the ability of schools and teachers to use discipline effectively, and pressures schools to punish students by race as a matter of official practice. She argues that mere variation across groups cannot, in itself be taken as evidence of discrimination. Asians, for example, experience school discipline at lower rates than whites, and few would take this as automatically indicating anti-white bias.  MacDonald also points out that the evidence for a causal relation between school discipline and adult imprisonment is slender. Finally, she cites anecdotal and statistical support for the argument that black and Hispanic students receive more disciplinary responses because they commit more infractions.
I’ve dealt with this topic previously, but one of the reasons that I found this article interesting is that I recently served as a rebuttal witness in a court case in which a school district was trying to achieve unitary status (freedom from court oversight) against the opposition of the Department of Justice.  School discipline was one of the areas of contention. The DOJ maintained that the disproportionate punishments received by black students in this district indicated that the district engaged in discriminatory treatment. The DOJ attorneys brought in an expert witness to support these claims. Essentially, their expert, a sociologist specializing in school discipline argued that the school district gave its teachers too much discretion in making disciplinary decisions and that they therefore used this discretion in ways that systematically discriminated against black students. She also cited the “school-to-prison pipeline” as one of the negative consequences of this alleged systematic discrimination.
To support her argument, she relied mainly on a series of regression equations including the central associations of interest between various disciplinary responses and race and other variables. Because the association between discipline and race was still there in each equation even though other variables (such as being classified as a student at risk of dropping or receiving free or reduced lunch) were included, she argued that the association must be due to discrimination. Now, as I pointed out in my response, this is obviously untenable. An unexplained association is just that: unexplained. One cannot use “discrimination” as the default. In my extensive work as a manuscript reviewer, though, I’ve noticed that this practice of taking discrimination as the automatic default explanation is common among social scientists, especially in the literature on school discipline. It is a form of systematic confirmation bias derived from the assumptions and expectations many social scientists share with the current Departments of Justice and Education and supported by perspectives that are popular among many academics and advocates.

Murders Committed by People Under 18, by Race, 2010
As MacDonald points out, there are good alternatives to assuming that unexplained variations can be attributed to discrimination. In my own research on events in schools, I have pointed out that the inequalities, problems, and injustices within schools often result less from the actions of the schools than from the inequalities, problems, and injustices of the society that contains the schools. On this point, it is worth noting that in the larger society,  in which schools exist  there are clear racial differences in all manner of infractions.  For example, Black young people made up 62% of all homicide offenders under the age of 18 in 2010, according to the federal government's Uniform Crime Reports, even though Blacks constituted slightly under 17% of the population of the United States aged below 18.  I cite homicides not because these are the most typical crimes but because they are so well reported and allow little discretion on the part of the police. If we look at other offenses, Black young people were over-represented among offenders in crimes of forcible rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, vehicle theft, arson, prostitution, and drug abuse.

Percentages of All Juvenile Crimes Committed by Blacks, 2010

The reasons for these demographic variations are complex and rooted in our history and we should not take the variations as indicators that any racial or ethnic category is inherently inclined toward crime or disorder. Nevertheless, we can take the variations as well-established social facts. Consistent with the idea that schools reflect the larger society, we can find reflections of these problems in our schools. The "Indicators of School Crime and Safety" available from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in school year 2009-2010 schools with larger percentages of minority students reported more student racial and ethnic tensions, more student verbal abuse of teachers, more widespread disorder in classrooms, more student acts of disrespect for teachers other than verbal abuse, and far more gang activities.
Although the “discrimination as default” was my disciplinary colleague’s most serious mistake, she made several other errors, some simply methodological, but mainly driven by the fact that she shared with the DOJ the a priori conviction that group differences must be due to discrimination and that governmental intervention can eliminate this putative discrimination. My analysis of her report appears to have some effect because the DOJ lost this part of the case.
To briefly relate this to issues that have come up in another recent controversy, although I think the opposing expert in this case was wrong, and that many of her errors were due to the fact that she was convinced of the “right” answer and looking for ways to find this “right” answer, I most certainly do not consider her as in any way morally culpable or incompetent. In fact, she seemed to me to be an extremely intelligent and well-spoken individual who was making some common fundamental errors. Nor do I consider the large number of social scientists who make similar errors to be fools or bad people. Errors are useful.  We can’t engage in meaningful discourse if we can’t risk being wrong.  But all of us, including those now running the Departments of Justice and Education should ponder Cromwell’s admonition: “ I beseech you, think it possible you may be mistaken.” This is hard to do when official campaigns and programs of orthodoxy seek to direct our conversations.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An Old Family Photo

Bankston Family, c. 1912
Judging by the ages of the children in this picture, it must have been taken about 1911 or 1912. Except for my great-grandmother, Allie Magee Bankston, these are all people that I grew up with, although of course I knew them when they were much older. As I look at pictures like this, I think of how we become emissaries from a different world as we age. My grandfather's family travelled by ox-cart. Automobiles were rare and when my grandfather and his siblings heard a car rattling down the country road near their house in Washington Parish they would all run out to see this strange new means of transportation. They knew many old Confederate veterans from the Civil War, and people had strong feelings about the war.

The paterfamilias sitting in the chair died when I was 15. Until the end, Leon Bankston retained that upright posture and steadfast gaze. He had been a schoolmaster in the 1890s, and although he had spent most of his life as a farmer, he always kept something of the nineteenth century schoolmaster's manner. He was a staunch southern Baptist. I always thought that was the reason that he raised his children to be teetotalers until an elderly lady who had known the family told me otherwise. "When people in your family drink," she said, "they have problems with it." According to her version, at least one of my great-great uncles and a number of other relatives had been alcoholics, and this made the patriarch wary of liquor.

My great-grandmother died at age 64 in 1940, possibly from diabetes, the disease that killed my father 46 years later. I believe she met her husband when she was a high school student in her late teens and he was her teacher. If that is true, the rules on faculty-student relations were obviously somewhat less stringent then, at least if the relations led to marriage. I’ve seen another picture of the two of them as attractive young people, just after their wedding.  In that photo, also, he’s in a chair and she’s standing just behind in almost the same posture.

The tall girl on the far right  (from the viewer’s perspective) is my Aunt Zula, born in 1897, who later became Zula Swetman. Aunt Zula was a public school teacher, but by the time I knew her she had retired from that and devoted herself to Sunday School and Bible teaching. Not too long ago, I met members of an African American family with property next to the old Bankston place and one of them told me that when she was a little girl Aunt Zula would visit them with books to give the children religious teachings. When I would stay around the farm during the summer, I also attended her Sunday School classes at the Baptist church just down the road. She must have taught the Bible to just about all the kids she knew. Aunt Zula and her husband, George Swetman, lived with my great-grandfather and helped him work the farm. My clearest memory of Uncle George is of him showing me how cattle were milked in the dairy barn.

The boy on the far left is the oldest son, Uncle Roland, born in 1899. Like most of the boys, when he reached young adulthood he made his way to the big land grant school in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College and became an engineer. Much later, when I was in college he asked me what my major was. He gave me a disapproving frown when I told him sociology. “what kind of job are you going to get with that?” He asked.

My grandfather is the young man with his arm on my great-grandfather’s chair. Born in 1901, he liked to talk to me about his childhood and to take me back to the country and the farm as much as possible. He was a traditionalist, and wanted to connect me to the country and the old home. He used to read to me at night out of a book on Louisiana history. But he also left the farm and made his way to the center of the world, Baton Rouge, where he became a cadet at LSU, which was then still partly a military school. I think he wanted to become an army officer, but he graduated in 1924, as the US was shrinking its armed services following the First World War. Instead, he became a salesman and worked for Burroughs Office Machine Company for 40 years. I still have some old adding machines in my garage.

The boy on crutches in front of my grandfather is Uncle Cecil, who was struck by polio. The clever doctors in New Orleans decided that the best way to relieve the pain in his legs was to cut the tendons. He never walked without the leg braces and crutches. One of my great-uncles said that the only time he had ever seen his father cry was just after they received the news that Cecil would never walk again. Uncle Jesse said that he walked into the barn and saw his parents standing with their arms around each other, both weeping. But Cecil also made his way to the center of the world. My grandfather told me that one day he was studying in his small room at the top of several flights of stairs He heard a scuffling, banging sound coming from the stairwell. When he went out to investigate, he found Uncle Cecil dragging himself up the steps. “What are you doing here?” My grandfather asked. “I’ve come to go to school with you.” Uncle Cecil finished law school at LSU, became an attorney, and was later known as the Hon. Cecil Bankston, City Judge in Baton Rouge. When my parents and my older sister were living in Baton Rouge in 1951, just before I was born, diabetes first announced itself to my father and he entered the hospital in a coma. I’ve been told that my mother and sister stayed with Uncle Cecil’s family while they waited to hear if my father would survive.

I think the little girl with the big bow standing just beside my grandfather and Uncle Cecil is Aunt Theresa, born three years after my grandfather. After marrying, she became Theresa Powell. I remember her mainly as just one of the great aunts, although she lived to be about 97 and was certainly around for most of my life. The little boy with the bow tie and the suspicious expression occupies a larger place in my recollection. This is Uncle Roy, born the year after Theresa. In his adult appearance, he was clearly a larger and older version of the little boy in this picture. Uncle Roy was an engineer but not, I think, a university trained one. His family lived not too far from mine on the outskirts of New Orleans. His youngest son (also Roy) is a year older than I am and Uncle Roy was a leader in the son’s Boy Scout troop. They took me on some of the campouts with them.

                The little fellow standing beside Roland is the best-known of the clan, Jesse Bankston . As Director of State Hospitals in 1959, Uncle Jesse refused to sign orders to discharge Governor Earl Long from the state mental hospital in Mandeville. Long had been behaving in ways that were strange even for a Governor of Louisiana, and had been committed by his estranged wife. Uncle Jesse told me that even though he liked and admired Long, he believed the political leader had become seriously unstable and needed treatment. However, Earl Long was still sane enough to fire Jesse, appoint a more cooperative Director of Hospitals, and went back to running the state in his increasingly colorful manner. Jesse went on to other government offices, and served as a committed official of the Louisiana Democratic Party.  I remember my grandfather and Uncle Jesse leaning against a fencepost out in the country in 1964, arguing Presidential politics. My grandfather fervently backed Goldwater, while Jesse was a Johnson man. When Uncle Jesse died at the age of 103 in 2010, I attended a big funeral ceremony at the Governor’s mansion.

The small child with the page boy cut just in front of my great-grandmother must be my Uncle Jake, who was born in 1909 and, like many of others, lived into his 90s. For some reason that I do not know, Jake was not as close to the family as his brothers and sisters were. I do remember my grandfather talking about Uncle Jake and calling him to try to get together. I believe my grandfather was the family peacemaker and connector.

The baby on my great-grandfather’s lap must be Aunt Mildred. While many of the others left the farm life, my Aunt Mildred married Dannie Garrett, who was dedicated to the farm and country life. My parents took my sisters and me to visit the Garretts often because they were my father’s favorite relatives. Uncle Dannie had cattle and horses and dozens of hunting dogs. One day, I showed up on the farm proudly sporting my Davy Crockett coonskin cap, only to be mobbed by the dogs, who knocked me down, took the cap and tore it to shreds. If coonskin caps ever come back into fashion, I will remember not to wear one around coon hunting dogs. Aunt Mildred once told Uncle Dannie that he had to get rid of some his dogs, so he gave a number of them away to his friends and reduced his collection to a dozen or so. That, he said, was that smallest number of dogs that any man could live with. 

Two more children, Marie and Leo, do not appear here, supporting my dating of the photo. Aunt Marie was born in 1913. Her husband, Harold Scoggins, taught sociology. He did not ask me what I would do with my major. Uncle Leo, who followed in 1915, was the most easy-going of all my great-uncles. Perhaps this is a characteristic of youngest children. He was an engineer and became supervisor of waterworks in Baton Rouge.

As I look at this picture, I wonder if this was the heroic generation, the one that moved off the family farms and made our present world. I think of Ibn Khaldun’s three generation cycle of growth and decline, and I wonder if we are still just living off of what they built.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Interesting Erratum

Mr. Scott Rose, the activist identified in my post on Mark Regnerus, wrote to inform me that the photo I posted with his name is of someone else. My apologies to Mr. Rose for this error, and to the individual actually portrayed. I quote the portion of the message in which he brings this to my attention below:

BLOOPER!  ASSHOLE DUMBSHIT BIGOT!  Go ahead -- tell the public that I called you an asshole dumbshit bigot.  I took a screen shot of your post, so I'll always have evidence that you posted somebody else's photo with my name under it. I plan to call attention to the fact that your dumbass blog is choked full of contributions from gay bashing bigots. 

To be a bigot in the first place makes you an asshole.  To post a wrong picture, makes you a dumbshit.

The rest of the message is similarly temperate and rational. Let me confess that I make no claims of infallibility. I do try to be courteous, reasonable, and tolerant, though. In this spirit, I thank Mr. Rose for bringing the error to my attention. I have removed the offending picture from the post, but if the original version is of interest to anyone, a screen shot is apparently available. 

Aside from the mistaken photo, I stand by my remarks, which I believe are sensible, accurate, and without a trace of rancor or bigotry. I offer my thoughts openly and honestly, without hatred or invective.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Persecution of Mark Regnerus

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.