Kerfuffle over Gay Parenting Study Raises Important Question: Aren't These Studies Bloody Stupid?


Adorable little stoners-to-be

A social science study concluding that children of gay parents have suckier lives than those of straight parents, contradicting previous studies, has led to an outcry over some odd classification measures.

Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas in Austin, recently published a study analyzing the lives of the adult children of same-sex relationships. He writes about the outcome at Slate:

Even after including controls for age, race, gender, and things like being bullied as a youth, or the gay-friendliness of the state in which they live, such respondents were more apt to report being unemployed, less healthy, more depressed, more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner, smoke more pot, had trouble with the law, report more male and female sex partners, more sexual victimization, and were more likely to reflect negatively on their childhood family life, among other things.

Before you ask, yes, Regnerus is classifying smoking more marijuana and having more sexual partners as a negative outcome of being the child of same-sex parents. You've got to love it when an alleged scientific study is tainted from the very start with biases of what counts as a bad or negative experience.

But that's not the main source of criticism of Regnerus' science here. What has the blogosphere upset is how he classified same-sex families for his study. He compared across several different types of families – married heteros, lesbian parents, gay parents, single parents, adoptive parents, et cetera. But, in order to bolster the still-statistically-low numbers of adult children of gay parents, if either of the child's parents had ever had a gay sexual encounter, it overruled any other classification. So a child raised by a lesbian couple was placed in the category of lesbian parents. But so was a child raised by a single mom who was a lesbian, or ever had a single same-sex encounter that the child was aware of. The children of any closeted politician or celebrity caught in a public gay scandal would be lumped in the gay categories, even though they likely bear absolutely no comparative resemblance to a child raised his or her whole life by a gay couple. If the child caught Daddy kissing Santa Claus: gay. So it's not comparing apples to apples or even apples to oranges; it's comparing apples to a whole fruit salad. He's comparing children of married straight couples to children of any number of different types of same-sex familes.

The objection that Regnerus is deliberately gaming the study to make gay families appear less stable than straight families by the nature of his classifications does appear valid, regardless of whether it was a deliberately sinister intent on his part.

The $800,000 study was privately funded by the conservative Witherspoon Institute and also the Bradley Foundation (which has donated money to a number of libertarian interests, including the Reason Foundation), so at least nobody's tax dollars were wasted.

The larger question remains unaddressed: Aren't these studies stupid? It's probably going to take at least another decade or so to really get enough numbers to evaluate the experiences of kids of gay parents.  In justifying his research methods, Regnerus explains that he wanted to get a greater cross-section than other gay family studies have managed so far, due to the relatively small sample size. He may have succeeded in that one area at the expense of the credibility of the study's results.

Not that credibility really matters in studies like these. These studies, whether they show gay parents as the same, better, or worse than the heteros, are meant to be used as weapons in the culture war of gay marriage and adoption, to be excerpted in blogs and news stories, to be entered into evidence and quoted in court cases, and to be thrown out during message board debates that haven't been Godwinned yet. There's nothing about them that actually serves any valid scientific purpose.