Bias in Research

In 2012 sociologist Mark Regnerus published a paper that claims to show evidence that children with gay parents are worse off than children with heterosexual parents. Conservative political activists used this study to argue against allowing same-sex couples to marry and/or adopt children, even appealing to it during the Supreme Court case that eventually declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right.

This is a social science paper, but it should still be helpful for us in the humanities, because it illuminates the way that our theoretical perspectives always influence our understanding of the world.  There are no value-neutral concepts, especially when it comes to human reality.

On one hand, this paper is exactly the kind of source we teach students to look for.  Regnerus is a tenured professor at the University of Texas, and his study was published in peer-reviewed academic journal called Social Science Research.  This seems as credible as any source could be.  On the other hand the study was paid for by a conservative think tank called the Witherspon Institute whose political mission is to oppose same-sex marriage.  That doesn’t necessarily invalidate Regnerus’s data, but it does caution us to look carefully at his methods. 

Liberal political activists argued that Regnerus was biased, because he was an evangelical Christian.  Some of his opponents even tried to have him fired from his job at The University of Texas, a taxpayer-funded public university.  The university did an inquiry and decided Regnerus was not guilty of “scientific misconduct”, but the editor of Social Science Research audited the peer-review process and declared the article flawed, as did the American Sociological Association. Then in 2015 the same journal published follow-up study where another team of sociologists (led by Simon Cheng and Brian Powell) combed through Regnerus’s data and came to different conclusions.   But despite all of this criticism, Mark Regnerus still stands by his research.  He argues in a 2015 blog post that his opponents are distorting the data to get the results they want.

In order to complete this discussion, read this magazine article Regnerus wrote summarizing his research: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/06/gay_parents_are_they_really_no_different_.html.  Then read this critique of Regnerus’s study:http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_nature/2012/06/new_family_structures_study_is_gay_parenthood_bad_or_is_gay_marriage_good_.html.  Next take a look at Regnerus’s response to criticisms of his study:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/blackwhiteandgray/2012/06/q-a-with-mark-regnerus-about-the-background-of-his-new-study/  and be sure to read Regnerus’s response to the Cheng and Powell paper, too:http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/05/14978/.  

Finally, if you want to read the primary sources, here is the original, peer-reviewed journal article as well as a follow-up paper in which Regnerus defended his research against critics.  And here is Cheng and Powell’s second look at the Regnerus data.

Please answer all the highlighted questions after reading the material!!!!!!

Questions for discussion: Was Regnerus’s research biased?  Is it possible to do unbiased research on a politically controversial topic like same-sex marriage?  Should liberals take Regnerus’s study seriously, even if they disagree with his conclusion?  Did Regnerus violate any principles of research ethics?  What lessons about research can we learn from this controversy?

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