There is a new release of documents, obtained by the American Independent through a Texas Freedom of Information Act request, regarding Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas-Austin (UT). The new documents are excerpted here and here. This adds an interesting chapter to the ongoing story of the infamous paper published in the journal Social Science Research (even if you haven’t been following it so far.)
In that paper, Regnerus reported negative consequences of being raised by lesbian or gay parents. The study has been thoroughly debunked and substantively should be completely disregarded. Regnerus subsequently signed onto an amicus brief for the Supreme Court, using the study to justify continued denial of marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. (Here is a review of the controversy with links, and here is the most recent debunking).
From my reading, the information in these documents shows that declarations by Brad Wilcox and Mark Regnerus were not true:
- Brad Wilcox was not truthful when he said he never served as an “officer” of the Witherspoon Institute, even though he was director of the institute’s Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy – which funded the study – and when he implied that he did not have a direct hands-on role in it. In fact, Wilcox played a leading role in the original conception, the design, and the dissemination of the results of this study. His description of himself as, “one of about a dozen paid academic consultants,” surely was deliberately misleading.
- Mark Regnerus was not truthful when he said that the Witherspoon Institute “had nothing to do with the study design, or with the data analyses, or interpretations, or the publication of the study.” This assertion appeared in several public venues as well as in the article itself. In fact, Witherspoon, in the person of Brad Wilcox as well as its other officers, was heavily involved throughout the process.
We could have guessed that already; these new documents are merely confirming the probable. But the bad behavior of these individuals ultimately is not as interesting as the story of how Christian conservatives used big private money to produce knowledge in service of their political goals, and how the seemingly puny defenses of the academic establishment may be easily overrun by well-organized, well-funded interest groups.
(To clarify: I didn’t request or publish these documents; I am just discussing them. But the ethics of this exposure seem OK to me: Regnerus ran almost a million dollars in research money through a public university’s research center – this isn’t his private life we’re talking about. As a Maryland employee, incidentally, my own email may be subject to public records request. If you catch me lying and covering up my true motives in my emails, I will be embarrassed, and that’s one reason I try not to do that.)
Fall 2010: Witherspoon lines up its team
Witherspoon is a tax-exempt, right-wing think tank at Princeton University whose leaders have ties to the Bradley Foundation, and the Christian conservative Family Research Council, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Institute on Religion and Democracy, and so on. It also funds the Institute for American Values. In 2011, the New Family Structures Study – the Regnerus study grant – accounted for more than 70% of its external grants. Its president is Luis Tellez.
This is how Regnerus described the funding for the study in his self-Q&A:
Funding is hard to get these days. Witherspoon had nothing to do with the study design, or with the data analyses, or interpretations, or the publication of the study. To me, I treated it the same as if the funding came from NICHD or NSF.
Q: So why didn’t you go to NICHD or NSF for funding?
A: For two reasons. First, because in informal conversation about it, Witherspoon expressed openness to funding it. I was between book projects and it sounded like an interesting thing to pursue. I informed Witherspoon that if I were to run the study, I would report the results, whatever they may be. And honestly my bet was that it would be a far more mixed set of results, with many null findings. Second, I actually don’t think a study like this would fly at NICHD or NSF.
But this was not the idea of an independent researcher looking for funding to pursue his scientific questions. Rather, the early emails in the document release show Witherspoon president Tellez and Wilcox fundraising and developing the vision for the project.
On September 13, 2010, Tellez wrote to someone named David at Abt Associates, a research firm that has done work on marriage promotion: “At the request of Brad Wilcox, I am sending you a description of ‘The New Family Structure Study.’”
There can be little doubt Tellez and Wilcox were motivated by political goals. There are two indicators of that. The first is technical but important: the proposal Tellez sent, forwarded from Wilcox, described their plan to “sample 1000 young adults from same-sex households, 1000 young adults from adopted households, and 1000 young adults from heterosexual households.” As would become immediately apparent once actual experts were consulted, finding 1000 young adults raised by gay and lesbian couples through random survey sample methods would be next to impossible without a budget in the millions of dollars – there are simply too few of them in the population. Any researcher with substantive expertise and interests in this area would have seen that as an outlandish proposal. Substantively, they did not understand this area of research – but they understood the politics very well.
And second, in a Tellez email to Regnerus later that month – apparently working out the details of their new arrangement for Regnerus to conduct the study on Witherspoon’s behalf – he wrote:
“It would be great to have this before major decisions of the Supreme Court but that is secondary to the need to do this and do it well… I would like you to take ownership and think of how you want it done… rather than someone like me dictating parameters… but of course, here to help.” [ellipses in original]
You might think Witherspoon was motivated to discover the truth – whatever it was – so that it could inform the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decisions. But I believe Tellez, Wilcox and Regnerus were sure they would find that children raised by gay and lesbian parents fare worse than those in what they smugly call “gold standard” families. They believed they would find that if they did do the research “right.” And when they were unable to get anything like that sample they imagined, they adjusted. Their decision was to boost the sample of children of gay or lesbian parents by including anyone who reported a parent ever having a same-sex relationship — a change certain to produce the negative-outcomes result. Believing in what they expected in the first place, and motivated to produce the result they were already planning for, they showed no hesitation in drawing the conclusion they initially expected – even though it was not supported by the evidence they actually got.
Anyway, on September 21, 2010, Regnerus sent Wilcox a detailed email, seeking his approval – on behalf of Witherspoon – for the plan he intended to bring to the director of the Population Research Center at UT. Wilcox responded, on September 22, with “YES” to each item. The message goes like this (excerpted):
This sounds right on target. My thoughts in CAPS. Thanks, Brad.
[then, quoting Regnerus’s message:]
OK, so let me process some of this. I need to have my stuff together before I approach Mark Hayward [director of UT's Population Research Center], perhaps early next week if I’m clear on things.
Tell me if any of these aren’t correct.
- We want to run this project through UT’s PRC. I’m presuming 10% overhead is acceptable to Witherspoon. YES [Wilcox’s reply –pnc]
- We want a broad coalition comprising several scholars from across the spectrum of opinions… [goes on to discuss individuals]. YES
- We want to “repeat” in some ways the DC consultation with the group outlined in #2. … [details of how the planning document will be crafted] YES
- This document would in turn be used to approach several research organizations for the purpose of acquiring bids for the data collection project. YES
Did I understand that correctly?
And per your instruction, I should think of this as a planning grant, with somewhere on par of $30-$40k if needed. YES
I would like, at some point, to get more feedback from Luis and Maggie [Gallagher? –pnc] about the ‘boundaries’ around this project, not just costs but also their optimal timelines (for the coalition meeting, the data collection, etc.), and their hopes for what emerges from this project, including the early report we discussed in DC. Feel free to forward this to them.
Just to be clear that the idea and impetus were coming from Witherspoon, two other emails from that day show the chain of command. Tellez wrote to Regnerus: “we will include some money for you and Brad on account of the time and effort you will be devoting to this.” Regnerus replied,
Got it; thanks, Luis, and Brad. … I have a light teaching load all this year, which is a significant help. Providential, perhaps.
On October 19, Tellez got back to David from Abt to say:
Mark Regnerus of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin is in conversations with us about PRC hosting the project. When I have more specifics I will let you know.
David responded, “Thanks for the update. A pop center as host sounds promising.” To which Tellez replied: “…you set me off in the search for that major university and it appears we have found it.”
Regnerus’s CV shows a $55,000 “planning grant” from Witherspoon starting in October 2010. (I don’t think Abt ended up working on the research.)
This is a beautiful illustration of the legitimacy-seeking nature of the Witherspoon project. By hiring Regnerus, and getting UT’s population center to host it, Tellez and Wilcox were buying their seal of academic objectivity – the tool they would later use to boost the political influence of the published study. (I’m not expert in this area of how elites construct “popular” opinion – all I know I learned from books like Domhoff’s Who Rules America, which describes this process pretty well.)
Starting in October, there are a series of emails from Regnerus attempting to recruit academic consultants to enhance that legitimacy. He offered professors a few thousand dollars and a paid trip to a meeting in return for their input. The requests are from Regnerus – not Tellez and Wilcox – and in them Regnerus distances himself from the well-known political bent of Witherspoon.
For example, he wrote to sociologist Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld on October 25:
So my job here is more managerial than intellectual – to pull together a small team of ideologically diverse scholars who are serious about doing good science on this important subject. … This is *not* some right-wing conspiracy (I myself am moderate and largely apolitical); while the initial funding source is conservative, they’re actually pursuing (and are already getting) additional financial support from across the spectrum.
After listing some other possible consultants, Regnerus writes, “On the more conservative side, Brad Wilcox of UVa has agreed to be part of this…”
Rosenfeld sent an email declining to participate. (In it, incidentally, Rosenfeld advised Regnerus, “creating a new nationally representative sample of children raised by same-sex couples, with your proposed sample size of 1,000 is in my view an [sic] very ambitious, and maybe an overly ambitious undertaking.” Regnerus got the same response from Chintan Turakhia at Abt: “This is obviously an extremely rare population. Most probability based sampling methods are likely to be cost prohibitive.”)
In his attempt to recruit one professor, Regnerus wrote on December 2,
I’m an odd pick to run this thing… I didn’t know anybody at the Witherspoon before several months ago. Basically, was a friend of a friend who introduced me. … I’m between books and this hit at the right time, so fine, I can manage such a project, provided I locate good advisors … I realize the funder is conservative, but they are working hard as well to get funding from pro-GLBTQ orgs and donors, and are nearing that.
The emails I’ve seen contain no trace of this effort to find progressive donors, and none eventually were found, but the claim showed Regnerus trying to put a legitimate face on the project.
2011: How sausage is made
Regnerus and Wilcox did not sit around waiting for the study to be completed. They were working on packaging the results before the data collection started.
On January 21, Regnerus wrote to Wilcox,
Any new thoughts about Cynthia [Osborne -pnc] as co-writer of the report? I remain positively inclined toward it. What are the negatives?
Wilcox replied, apparently wary of Osborne’s potential liberal influence:
Great idea. No Negatives. … My suggestion for report: You coauthor introduction, lit review, data and methods, and results sections and THEN write your own distinct conclusions.
Osborne ended up a coauthor on an early presentation about the study for the Population Association of America, and also wrote a critical yet supportive comment in Social Science Research – and she is listed as a “key collaborator” on the study’s web page.
Meanwhile, Tellez was working to raise more money for the study, turning to the Bradley Foundation, which would eventually contribute $90,000. (The Bradley Foundation has a long history of support conservative pro-marriage causes.)
On April 5, Tellez wrote to Bradley vice president Dan Schmidt asking for $200,000:
to examine whether young adults raised by same-sex parents fare as well as those raised in different familial settings. This is a question that must now be answered – in a scientifically serious way – by those who are in favor of traditional marriage. … Our first goal is to seek the truth, whatever that may turn out to be. Nevertheless, we are confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study as long as it is done honestly and well.
That led to a planned conference call. On April 29 Tellez wrote to Michael Hartmann, Bradley’s director of research:
Mark Regnerus is in the process of preparing a proposal… I have asked Brad Wilcox to be in the call as well as Mark. The purpose of the call, in my view, is to update you as to the importance of the project, and to explore ways in which Bradley could assist in supporting this project.
Throughout 2011, Regnerus, Wilcox and Tellez stayed in touch on budget and planning matters. In a detailed budget report to Tellez on July 7, Regnerus wrote that, “Brad and I decided to pay [blacked out] $15,000 to co-analyze and co-author the report.”
He also reported that he would spend some Witherspoon travel money to visit with Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family (author of Marriage on Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting), and that he would pay for Wilcox to attend the NIH conference “Counting Families” that summer.
On August 23, Regnerus reported back to Tellez on his travels, subject: “with Brad”:
I spent the day yesterday with Brad and a couple other researchers (Glenn Stanton, Focus, and Scott Stanley, U of Denver), and spent some time discussing public/media relations for the NFSS project. Anyways, time well spent and we feel like we have a decent plan moving forward.
Tellez gently replied, “At some point, I would like to know the plan… at your convenience” [ellipses in original], and Regnerus promptly filled him in on the details on the media strategy, such as
Brad thinks we should invite three journalists then – an NPR reporter, an Atlantic monthly writer, and an AP journalist (I can’t remember the names of the last two – Brad does…).
The data collection had begun four days earlier, and already the media plan was ramping up. Another message, from Wilcox to Regnerus on September 12, shows Wilcox’s continued assistance with the media:
Michael Cromartie runs a big press gathering in Miami in the spring. Very informal, expansive, great access to top media players. Love to get you and [blacked out] there @ the time the report is released. He’s interested.
Cromartie is vice president of the aforementioned Ethics and Public Policy Center. In this ABC News clip his event is described as “maybe the best junket in all of journalism.” The clip happens to show Brad Wilcox speaking there (apparently about his work on divorce trends).
Finally, there is a message from Wilcox to Regnerus that I can’t find a date for.
Yes, I think you have to keep in mind that even getting a report from UT W [with –pnc] Paul Amato on board is a huge achievement.
BTW: I have an idea. Steven Nock’s good friend Jim Wright is editor of SSR [Social Science Research], a good peer-reviewed journal that does lots on family.
He might be open to a special issue on our dataset – esp because Steve had hoped to study the issue. Wright also likes Paul Amato.
So, down the road, I suggest we do a report AND invite a number of people from across the spectrum to contribute to a special issue of SSR on the new data.
This seems to be the point at which Wilcox plants the idea of publishing the study in SSR. Two things about it are interesting. The first is describing the report – coming from UT, and with Paul Amato, a respected Penn State sociologist “on board” – as a “huge achievement.” Why is it a huge achievement? Is it not just the natural outcome of a large-scale academic study? Maybe Wilcox sees every published article as a “huge achievement,” and he’s merely encouraging a junior colleague. But I think he sees it that way because it represents the accomplishment of legitimacy for the study.
And the second point is Wilcox calls it “our dataset.”
In the end, two academic insiders with PhDs, Wilcox and Regnerus – enabled by various PhD allies, credulous consultants, the journal editor and his reviewers – were the conduits for a million dollars’ worth of foundation-driven anti-gay marriage PR, disguised in legitimacy-laced peer review and served up to activists, courts, and legislators around the country with a media campaign and an animated web site.
Comments short and polite, please…