200 researchers respond to Regnerus paper

This is a letter signed by 200 researchers, including me. The effort was organized by Gary Gates, a scholar (acting in an individual, not institutional capacity) at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.

Letter to the editors and advisory editors of Social Science Research

As researchers and scholars, many of whom with extensive experience in quantitative and qualitative research in family structures and child outcomes, we write to raise serious concerns about the most recent issue of Social Science Research and the set of papers focused on parenting by lesbians and gay men. In this regard, we have particular concern about Mark Regnerus’ paper entitled “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.”

LGBT parenting is a highly politicized topic. While the presence of a vibrant and controversial public debate should in no way censor scholarship, it should compel the academy to hold scholarship around that topic to our most rigorous standards. We are very concerned that these standards were not upheld in this issue or with this paper, given the apparently expedited process of publication and the decision to publish commentaries on the paper by scholars who were directly involved with the study and have limited experience in LGBT parenting research. We also have serious concerns about the scholarly merit of this paper

In this letter, we detail the specific concerns that lead us to request that you publicly disclose the reasons for both the expedited peer review process of this clearly controversial paper and the choice of commentators invited to submit critiques. We further request that you invite scholars with specific expertise in LGBT parenting issues to submit a detailed critique of the paper and accompanying commentaries for publication in the next issue of the journal.

We question the process by which this paper was submitted, reviewed, and accepted for publication. The paper was received by the journal on February 1, 2012. A revision was received on February 29, and the paper was accepted on March 12. This suggests that the peer review process and substantive revisions occurred within a period of just five weeks. According to the peer review policy of the Social Science Research website hosted by Elsevier, the first step of the review process is an initial manuscript evaluation by the editor. Once deemed to meet minimum criteria, at least 2 experts are secured for a peer review. The website states that, “Typically manuscripts are reviewed within 2-3 months of submission but substantially longer review times are not uncommon” and that “Revised manuscripts are usually returned to the initial referees upon receipt.” Clearly, Dr. Regnerus’ paper was returned to him very quickly, because he had time to revise the manuscript and get it back to the journal by February 29th. Further, it appears that a second substantive peer review may not have occurred as the paper was accepted just two weeks after the revision was submitted.

The five-week submission to acceptance length was much shorter than all of the other articles published in the July 2012 issue. The average period of review for papers published in this issue was more than a year and the median review time was more than ten months. As we note below, there are substantial concerns about the merits of this paper, and these concerns should have been identified through a thorough and rigorous peer review process.

We further question the selection of commenters for the Regnerus paper. While Cynthia Osborne and Paul Amato are certainly well-respected scholars, they are also both active participants in the Regnerus study. According to her curriculum vitae, Dr. Osborne is a Co-Principal Investigator of the New Family Structure Survey. Dr. Amato served as a paid consultant on the advisory group convened to provide insights into study design and methods. Perhaps more importantly, neither Osborne nor Amato have ever published work that considers LGBT family or parenting issues. A cursory examination of this body of literature would reveal a wide range of scholars who are much more qualified to evaluate the merits of this study and were neither directly involved in the study design nor compensated for that involvement.

We have substantial concerns about the merits of this paper and question whether it actually uses methods and instruments that answer the research questions posed in the paper. The author claims that the purpose of the analysis is to begin to address the question, “Do the children of gay and lesbian parents look comparable to those of their heterosexual counterparts?” (p. 755). He creates several categories of “family type”, including “lesbian mother” and “gay father” as well as “divorced late,” “stepfamily,” and “single-parent.” But, as the author notes, for those respondents who indicated that a parent had a “same-sex relationship,” these categories were collapsed to boost sample size:

That is, a small minority of respondents might fit more than one group. I have, however, forced their mutual exclusivity here for analytic purposes. For example, a respondent whose mother had a same-sex relationship might also qualify in Group 5 or Group 7, but in this case my analytical interest is in maximizing the sample size of Groups 2 and 3 so the respondent would be placed in Group 2 (LMs). Since Group 3 (GFs) is the smallest and most difficult to locate randomly in the population, its composition trumped that of others, even LMs. (There were 12 cases of respondents who reported both a mother and a father having a same-sex relationship; all are analyzed here as GFs, after ancillary analyses revealed comparable exposure to both their mother and father).

By doing this, the author is unable to distinguish between the impact of having a parent who has had a continuous same-sex relationship from the impact of having same-sex parents who broke-up from the impact of living in a same-sex stepfamily from the impact of living with a single parent who may have dated a same-sex partner; each of these groups are included in a single “lesbian mother” or “gay father” group depending on the gender of the parent who had a same-sex relationship. Specifically, this paper fails to distinguish family structure and family instability. Thus, it fails to distinguish, for children whose parents ever had a same-sex relationship experience, the associations due to family structure from the associations due to family stability. However, he does attempt to distinguish family structure from family instability for the children of different-sex parents by identifying children who lived in an intact biological family. To make a group equivalent to the group he labels as having “lesbian” or “gay” parents, the author should have grouped all other respondents together and included those who lived in an intact biological family with those who ever experienced divorce, or whose parents ever had a different-sex romantic relationship. That seems absurd to family structure researchers, yet that type of grouping is exactly what he did with his “lesbian mother” and “gay father” groups.

It should be noted that the analyses also fail to distinguish family structure from family stability for single mothers; this group included both continuously single mothers and those single mothers who had previously experienced a divorce.

The paper employs an unusual method to measure the sexual orientation of the respondents’ parents. Even if the analyses had distinguished family stability from family structure, this paper and its accompanying study could not actually directly examine the impact of having a gay or lesbian parent on child outcomes because the interpretation of the measurement of parental sexual orientation is unclear. The author acknowledges as much when he states:

It is, however, very possible that the same-sex romantic relationships about which the respondents report were not framed by those respondents as indicating their own (or their parent’s own) understanding of their parent as gay or lesbian or bisexual in sexual orientation. Indeed, this is more a study of the children of parents who have had (and in some cases, are still in) same-sex relationships than it is one of children whose parents have self-identified or are ‘‘out’’ as gay or lesbian or bisexual.

Respondents were asked whether their parents had ever had a same-sex relationship. The author then identifies mothers and fathers as “lesbian” or “gay” without any substantiation of parental sexual orientation either by respondents or their parents. Given the author’s stated caveats, it is both inappropriate and factually incorrect for him to refer to these parents as “gay” or “lesbian” throughout the paper.

We are very concerned about the academic integrity of the peer review process for this paper as well as its intellectual merit. We question the decision of Social Science Research to publish the paper, and particularly, to publish it without an extensive, rigorous peer review process and commentary from scholars with explicit expertise on LGBT family research. The methodologies used in this paper and the interpretation of the findings are inappropriate. The publication of this paper and the accompanying commentary calls the editorial process at Social Science Research, a well-regarded, highly cited social science journal (ranking in the top 15% of Sociology journals by ISI), into serious question. We urge you to publicly disclose the reasons for both the expedited peer review process of this clearly controversial paper and the choice of commentators invited to submit critiques. We further request that you invite scholars with specific expertise in LGBT parenting issues to submit a detailed critique of the paper and accompanying commentaries for publication in the next issue of the journal.


Sociology and family studies: Silke Aisenbrey, Katherine R. Allen, Eric Anderson, Nielan Barnes, Amanda K. Baumle, Debbie Becher, Mary Bernstein, Natalie Boero, H.M.W Bos, Lisa D Brush, Neal Caren, Mary Ann Clawson, Dan Clawson, Philip N. Cohen, D’Lane Compton, Shelley J. Correll, David H. Demo, Catherine Donovan, Sinikka Elliott, Louis Edgar Esparza, Laurie Essig, Myra Marx Ferree, Tina Fetner, Jessica Fields, Melissa M. Forbis, Gary J. Gates, Naomi Gerstel, Katherine Giuffre, Gloria González-López, Theodore Greenstein, Jessica Halliday Hardie, Mark D. Hayward, Melanie Heath, Amie Hess, Melanie M. Hughes, Shamus Rahman Khan, Michael Kimmel, Sherryl Kleinman, Charles Q. Lau, Jennifer Lee, Jean Lynch, Gill McCann, Tey Meadow, Sarah O. Meadows, Eleanor M. Miller, Debra Minkoff, Beth Mintz, Dawne Moon, Mignon R. Moore, Chandra Muller, Nancy A. Naples, Peter M. Nardi, Alondra Nelson, Jodi O’Brien, Katherine O’Donnell, Ramona Faith Oswald, Joseph M. Palacios, C.J. Pascoe, Dudley L. Poston Jr., Nicole C. Raeburn, Kimberly Richman, Barbara J. Risman, Sharmila Rudrappa, Stephen T. Russel, Virginia Rutter, Natalia Sarkisian, Saskia Sassen, Liana C. Sayer, Michael Schwalbe, Michael Schwartz, Christine R. Schwartz, Pepper Schwartz, Denise Benoit Scott, Richard Sennett, Eve Shapiro, Eran Shor, Wendy Simonds, Sarah Sobieraj, Judith Stacey, Arlene Stein, Verta Taylor, Debra J Umberson, Suzanna Danuta Walters, Jacqueline S. Weinstock, Amy C. Wilkins, Cai Wilkinson, Kristi Williams, Kerry Woodward. Psychology: Nancy Lynn Baker, Meg Barker, Joel Becker, Steven Botticelli, Petra M Boynton, Mark Brennan-Ing, Alice S. Carter, Carol A. Carver, Armand R. Cerbone, Kirstyn Y.S. Chun, Victoria Clarke, Gilbert W. Cole, M. Lynne Cooper, Howard H. Covitz, Dennis Debiak, Rachel H. Farr, Herb Gingold, Abbie E. Goldberg, Carla Golden, Robert-Jay Green, Beverly Greene, Harold D. Grotevant, Sarah A. Hayes-Skelton, Stacy S. Horn, Sharon G. Horne, Harm J. Hospers, Steven E. James, Darren Langdridge, Chet Lesniak, Heidi Levitt, William D. Lubart, Carien Lubbe-De Beer, Tasim Martin-Berg, James P. Maurino, Ximena E. Mejia, Roger Mills-Koonce, Lin S. Myers, Jo Oppenheimer, Susan M. Orsillo, David Pantalone, Jeffrey T. Parsons, Maureen Perry-Jenkins, Madelyn Petrow-Cohen, Todd R. Poch, Scott D. Pytluk, Damien W. Riggs, Lizabeth Roemer, Ritch C. Savin-Williams, J. Greg Serpa, Louise Bordeaux Silverstein, Bonnie R. Strickland, Karen Suyemoto, Lance P. Swenson, Fiona Tasker, Marcus C. Tye, Richard G. Wight. Other scholars: Paula Amato, Ellen Ann Andersen, Mary Barber, Judith Bradford, Robert P Cabaj, Ryan M. Combs, Christopher Conti, Russel W. Dalton, John D’Emilio, Anne Douglass, Jack Drescher, Oliva M. Espin, Nanette Gartrell, Patti Geier, Alan Gilbert, Ann P. Haas, Ellen Haller, Nicole Heilbron, Tonda Hughes, Daniel Hurewitz, Jesse Joad, Debra Kaysen, Sang Hea Kil, Martha Kirkpatrick, Holning Lau, Arlene Istar Lev, Lisa W. Loutzenheiser, Michael F. Lovenheim, Catherine A. Lugg, Gerald P. Mallon, Laura Mamo, Sean G. Massey, Kenneth J. Meier, Stephen O. Murray, Douglas NeJaime, Henry Ng, Julie Novkov, Loren A. Olson, Donald L. Opitz, Katherine Parkin, Jessica Peet, Victoria Pollock, Jesus Ramirez-Valles, Nancy J. Ramsay, Paul J. Rinaldi, Barbara Rothberg, Esther Rothblum, Ralph Roughton, Leila J. Rupp, Shawn Schulenberg, Ken Sherrill, Vincent M. B. Silenzio, Stephen V. Sprinkle, William J. Spurlin, Carole S. Vance, Angelia R. Wilson.

Health inequality recap

On SCOTUS’s ACA D-Day, here is a quick recap of some health inequality posts.

Percentage of Adults Aged 18-64 Who Did Not Get Needed Prescription Drugs Because of Cost, by Poverty Status: National Health Interview Survey, 1999-2010
From 1,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer over 11 years in Washington, D.C.: The number of days between the discovery of an anomaly and the diagnosis, by race/ethnicity and insurance status.


Children with asthma are almost twice as likely as all children to be below the poverty line, and less than half as likely to live at 4-times the poverty line or higher.


All groups of countries are showing improvement in maternal mortality rates except the U.S.
The U.S. lags seriously behind almost all European countries on infant mortality (most of which is caused by preterm births, the result of women’s poor health).
Estimated Percentage of Persons Who Delayed Seeking or Did Not Receive Medical Care During the Preceding Year Because of Cost, by Respondent-Assessed Health Status

OK, that’s enough! You can see all the health care related posts here.

Do Asians in the U.S. have high incomes?

The Pew Research Center last week released a lengthy research report on Asians in the U.S., titled “The Rise of Asian Americans.” It combines information from the Census and government sources with the results of Pew’s own national survey of attitudes and opinions.

The report has lots of good information, but there are some thorny problems here. I’ll describe a few problems, then offer one data exercise to help clarify. This gets technical and it’s long, so I will give you the substantive conclusion at the top:

  1. Because Asians are a diverse category made up of groups with very different profiles, and their household composition and geographic distribution vary by national origin group, generalizations are often unhelpful.
  2. Among the 10 largest Asian groups, five (Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean) are above average in income and five (Vietnamese, Pakistani, Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong) are below. But all 10 Asian groups are doing better compared to the national average than they are compared to the average incomes in the places they live — they are richer nationally than they are locally.
  3. The amount of income inequality within Asian groups varies as well. Pakistanis,  Chinese, Koreans and Indians have the highest levels of inequality, while Filipinos and Laotians have low levels of inequality.

Details follow.

But first: Who is Asian? On the Census questionnaire, Asian is not exactly a category – rather, the category is created from all the responses of people who specify Asian national origins in the race question. To refresh, this is the question:

So “Asian” is all the people who specify Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese or “Other Asian.” (The right-hand column is for Pacific Islanders.) Yes, in the U.S., Hispanic/Latino national origins are “ethnicities,” but Asian national origins are “races.” Go figure.

That lack of a common definition is compounded by two factors: First, there is so much diversity among Asians that the using a single category is as challenging statistically as it is politically. And second, Asians – as the Pew report shows – have a high rate of intermarriage with Whites, as well as (among some groups) across Asian national-origin lines. As a result, some Asian groups have high rates of “multiple-race identification” — especially those whose immigration was generations ago.

The controversy over the Pew report is summarized in this Color Lines story and this response from the Asian American / Pacific Islander Policy Research Consortium. The gist of it is that the report was too rosy in its description of Asian advantages and too homogenizing in its treatment of Asian diversity – as a result repeating the “divisive trope” of the “model minority.” Here’s part of the summary from the New York Times:

Drawing on Census Bureau and other government data as well as telephone surveys from Jan. 3 to March 27 of more than 3,500 people of Asian descent, the 214-page study found that Asians are the highest-earning and best-educated racial group in the country.

Among Asians 25 or older, 49 percent hold a college degree, compared with 28 percent of all people in that age range in the United States. Median annual household income among Asians is $66,000 versus $49,800 among the general population.

In the survey, Asians are also distinguished by their emphasis on traditional family mores. About 54 percent of the respondents, compared with 34 percent of all adults in the country, said having a successful marriage was one of the most important goals in life; another was being a good parent, according to 67 percent of Asian adults, compared with about half of all adults in the general population.

Asians also place greater importance on career and material success, the study reported, values reflected in child-rearing styles. About 62 percent of Asians in the United States believe that most American parents do not put enough pressure on their children to do well in school.

Did Pew homogenize or glorify too much? I don’t know. Here’s a graph from the report, which shows that Asian groups differ, but they all have higher-than-average household incomes:

The Color Lines story quotes Deepa Iyer, head of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together:

The danger in framing the study the way Pew did, and the way the media picked up on it, is that folks who are in the general public and institutional stakeholders and policy makers might get the impression that they don’t necessarily need to dig deep into our communities to understand any sort of disparities that exist.

The problem of homogenizing Asians is longstanding in American sociology. In most data analyses, the Asian sample is small to begin with, so they are often collapsed into one category (which I’ve done) or dropped from the story (which I’ve also done, angering some readers). Here is a typical passage, from a 2001 article by Leslie McCall:

That didn’t stop her (or lots of other people) from extensively analyzing Asians as a combined group, and offering speculation on her results.

There are other examples. In my experience, Jen’nan Read and I broke out six Asian groups for a study of women’s employment with the 2000 Decennial Census data — which reinforced my conviction that disaggregating is best. (This 2010 Census report gives some detail on more than 20 national-origin groups.)

Some new numbers

Anyway, I’ve got four specific issues to address with Pew’s comparison of household incomes (some of which they acknowledge in the report): a) Household composition differs between groups (more or fewer kids, grandparents); b) Asians disproportionately live in parts of the U.S. with high costs of living (like Hawaii and California, and urban areas generally); c) different members of a household might have different “race” identities (so, a Korean man married to a Chinese woman might define their child is either or both); and d), levels of inequality differ between groups, so central tendency comparisons don’t capture the whole story.

In this exercise I address these problems. I adjust for household size and composition, count individuals’ own “race” rather than imposing a single identity on the household, compare incomes to the average in the local metropolitan area as well as the national average, and compare levels of within-group inequality.

All in one blog post! Someone might want to work this up into a real paper (and maybe someone else already has? The last time I really read about this was more than 10 years ago.) So I’m just offering this approach as a suggestion, and making my code available if anyone wants to pursue it (see below).

I use the 2006-2010 combined American Community Survey, from IPUMS, for maximum recent sample size. This is about 15 million people, and the Asian samples range from about 160,000 Chinese to 7,500 Laotians. I identify individuals according to their individual “race.”

I calculate their incomes as per capita household income, adjusted for economies of scale. To do that, I count adults as 1 person, kids under 18 as .7 of a person, and divide the total household income by that count to the power of .65 for economies of scale (see here for details). Then I take the natural log of all that to pull in the right tail of the distribution (so the mean isn’t pulled up by the ~1%). When I’m done, everyone in the household has the same income, and the distribution is pretty normal. Nice!

To see what this does: The mean household income for individuals in the country in 2006-2010 is $79,174, and the natural log of the composition-and-scale adjusted per capita income is 10.26 (see figure), which works out to $28,439. In comparison, the logged incomes for Asians range from 10.6 (~$40,000) for Indians and Japanese, down to 9.7 (~$16,000) for Hmong.

To deal with the issue of living in expensive areas, I take the mean of that logged income in each metropolitan area, and compare each person’s own per capita income to that. So a score of 0 means you have the average income in your area — more than 0 means richer than average, less than zero is poorer.

There is not one correct answer about how to do this: Having an average income in a rich area still means you can buy more stuff on Amazon than someone with a lower absolute income. But it might also mean having a smaller house, or not being considered rich by your neighbors. On the third hand, if a rich family moves to a rich area, we shouldn’t feel sorry for them for not being above average in their neighborhood. For your consideration, I show the incomes compared with the national average and with the local metro mean, for the 10 largest Asian groups (click for higher resolution):

To interpret the figure, you can see that Japanese and Indians are about 0.36 higher in log dollars than the national average but only 0.26 higher than their metro-area averages. On the downside, Hmong individuals have adjusted per capita incomes of 0.58 less than the national average, but 0.63 less than their local average.

Higher-than-average-income Japanese, Indians, Filipinos and Chinese are about 73% of the total; Koreans are about average, and the lower-than-average groups are 17% of the total. By this method, then, a big majority of Asians in the U.S. belong to above-local-average income groups, but a substantial fraction are well below average. And they are all doing worse relative to their metro area neighbors than they are to the national average.

Notice how it’s different from the Pew figure. In that, Vietnamese households had higher incomes than Koreans, and both were above the national average. Here Koreans are doing substantially better, mostly as a result of the household size adjustments. Also, the smaller groups I show – the ones Pew did not detail in that figure – are the poorer ones. And they are also doing worse locally relative to their national position.

Finally, consider the inequality within groups. Without doing a full-blown analysis of this, I can show the importance of the question with a simple box-and-whisker plot. This shows the distribution of income — adjusted as described above for household composition and size — for each group, including non-Asians for comparison.

The graph shows a lot of information in a small space:

  • The line through the middle of each box is the median, or mid point, of each income distribution.
  • The blue + sign is the mean. The further the mean is above the median, the more rich people there are pulling the mean up.
  • The top and bottom of the boxes are the 75th and 25th percentiles. The further apart they are, the greater the income gap between top and bottom.

(The top whiskers, which can be used to show the highest point in each distribution, aren’t shown here, because they’re so far away it would make the graph unreadable.)

As I mentioned at the top, the graph shows that Pakistanis and Chinese, and to a lesser extent Koreans and Indians, have high levels of inequality — their + signs are far from their median lines, and their 75/25 spreads are large. On the other hand, Filipinos, Laotians and Hmong have much narrower spreads.

Practically speaking, all this means that some groups are misrepresented by measures of the overall status of “Asians,” especially the smaller, poorer groups. And further, that generalizing will represent some groups worse than others because of their internal diversity. For example, the average Chinese American is quite a bit richer than the average non-Asian American, but the poorest 25% of Chinese are not much better off than the poorest 25% of the population at large.

Like I said, just an idea, with a few examples.

Take it away

Feel free to do it more, and/or better, yourself. Here’s my SAS code. Please credit me if it works, but don’t blame me if it’s wrong. This has not been peer-reviewed – it’s rough work product. Send any corrections written on the back of a $20-bill. (Everyone else: You can stop reading now!)

Just get these variables from IPUMS:


And then do this to them:

/* exclude households with no income */
if hhincome>0;
/* this codes folks into this scheme, with Asians from richest to poorest:
0="Not Asian"
1= "Japanese" 
2= "Indian" 
3= "Filipino" 
4= "Chinese" 
5= "Korean" 
6= "Vietnam" 
7= "Pakistani"
8= "Laotian"
9= "Cambodian"
10= "Hmong"
11= "OtherA"
12= "twoplusA" 
/* these codes refer to RACED, the detailed race variable on IPUMS */
/* Count asians as those who are asian alone, multiple asian, asian and white, asian and PI, or white-asian-PI */
if raced in (400 410 420 811 861 911) then asian=4;
if raced in (610 814) then asian=2;
if raced in (600 813 864 865 914) then asian=3;
if raced in (640 816) then asian=6;
if raced in (620 815) then asian=5;
if raced in (500 812) then asian=1;
if raced in (660) then asian=9;
if raced in (661) then asian=10;
if raced in (662) then asian=8;
if raced in (669) then asian=7;
if raced in ( 663 664 665 666 667 668 670 671 672 810 817 818 860 867 868 910 915) then asian = 11;
if raced in ( 673 674 675 676 677 678 679 819 869) then asian = 12;
/* so the variable labels display in output */
 ASIAN asian.
/* add the decimal to the weight variable */
format PERWT 11.2;
/* this counts up the number of kids and adults in each household */
proc sort data=temp; by serial; run;
data hh;
set temp (keep=serial age);
by serial;
if first.serial then do;
retain kids adults;
if age le 18 then do; kids=kids+1; end;
if age gt 18 then do; adults=adults+1; end;
keep serial kids adults;
if last.serial;
proc sort data=hh; by serial; run;
/* this merges in those people counts, and then calculates the household income variable */
data people;
merge temp hh; by serial;
equiv = hhincome/((adults+(.7*kids))**.65);
lnequiv = log(hhincome/((adults+(.7*kids))**.65));
/* this outputs the mean logged household equivalent income for each metro area (with non-metro folks as 0 */
proc means noprint data=people;
var lnequiv;
class metarea;
weight perwt;
output out=msa mean=msaequiv;
proc sort data=msa; by metarea; run;
proc sort data=people; by metarea; run;
/* this merges in the metro area variable and calculates the income-difference variable */
data merged;
merge people (in=a) msa;
by metarea;
if a;
relhhinc = lnequiv-msaequiv;
/* Distribution of the logged income variable */
proc univariate data=merged; var lnequiv; run;
proc univariate data=merged; var lnequiv; class asian; run;
/* Boxplots */
proc sort data=merged; by asian; run;
title 'Income distributions, household composition- and scale-adjusted';
proc boxplot data=merged;
 plot equiv*asian / clipfactor = 1.5 grid;
where asian le 10;
/* National income means */
proc means mean data=merged;
var lnequiv;
weight perwt;
/* National asian income means by group */
proc means mean missing data=merged;
var lnequiv; class asian; weight perwt;
/* Relative income for each Asian group, for metro people only */
proc means mean;
var relhhinc; class asian; weight perwt;
where asian >0 and metarea>0;

Bad science on top of stigma for lesbian and gay parents

In the category of op-ed pieces The Man chose not to publish, here’s what I wrote about Mark Regnerus’s Social Science Research article “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Blog readers get a special edition with links sprinkled in.

"happy gay parents" collage courtesy Google Image search
Collage from the top page of a “happy gay parents” Google image search.

By Philip N. Cohen

What do you get when you combine bad science with ideological motives? A disingenuous attempt to stigmatize families that distracts from the serious problems many of them face.

Conservative activists last week leaped to embrace a paper purporting to show that the adult children of gay and lesbian parents fare poorly compared to those raised by stably married heterosexual couples. Although many social scientists – myself included – believe the study is seriously flawed, it immediately became a weapon in the political arsenal against marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians.

The researcher, sociologist Mark Regnerus, analyzed survey responses from young adults who described their family structure growing up. He compared those who lived their whole childhoods with two married, biological parents, to those who reported that one of their parents had ever had a same-sex romantic relationship. The finding: those in the latter category were more likely to report having a variety of economic and emotional problems.

There are two design problems that render the study unfit for drawing meaningful conclusions. First, the parents who ever had a same-sex relationship are a widely diverse group that share not only sexual orientation, but, more importantly, a history of family instability. Although they include a tiny number of couples who raised their children as long-term, committed partners, the vast majority were single or divorced parents. Any difference that might be the result of parents’ sexual orientation is confounded with the differences between those in long-term stable marriages versus disrupted families.

Second, the study did not take into account many background factors known to have dramatic effects on child wellbeing. For example, it is a sad fact that those from wealthy backgrounds are (on average) more likely to get and stay married (to each other), and more likely to have children who grow up to be rich and successful. Totally apart from sexual orientation, any study of how family background affects adult outcomes needs to take such material factors into account. The Regnerus study falls far short of the depth and quality necessary to draw even basic conclusions.

The research was derailed by its obsessive focus on sexual orientation – over more tangible factors that do affect children’s wellbeing. That is why the researcher lumped all gay and lesbian parents together, rather than differentiating families based on parenting practices, family stability or access to resources. That emphasis is not surprising, however, because Regnerus has a published track record as a social conservative advocate for “traditional” marriage, what he calls “the gold standard of a married mom and dad.” And the study was the product of funding by the arch conservative Witherspoon Institute and Bradley Foundation.

In the article itself, Regnerus wisely included some disclaiming language, cautioning against a causal interpretation of the role of parents’ sexual orientation. He wrote, “I have not and will not speculate here on causality, in part because the data are not optimally designed to do so.” Without that caveat, the paper never would have passed muster for a peer-reviewed publication.

However, Regnerus has since sacrificed that scientific pretense for his political convictions. “The most significant story in this study,” he declared, “is arguably that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father.” As he knows, however, his stably married-couple families had many opportunities and advantages over the other parents that the study could not account for.

For children to grow up happy and successful, loved and secure, parenting does matter – a parent or parents who love, care for, and develop a positive relationship with their children. Also vitally important are access to financial resources, community support, good schooling, housing, healthcare and basic security. When families have these assets, they are very likely to have positive outcomes regardless of the gender of their parents.

This is what researchers and child welfare organizations mean when they say the sexual orientation of parents should not be a determining factor in children’s adoption, placement or support. In fact, the major American medical academies and associations – pediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers – all support the adoption and parenting rights of gay and lesbian couples.

Too many children in this country have serious problems that need attention – in their families, schools, housing, healthcare and nutrition – for us to devote our energies to self-serving ideological crusades that do more to stigmatize families than help them to succeed. It would be especially harmful – and shameful – if such a study were used to justify denying foster and adopted children the right to live in the loving families of gay and lesbian parents who are prepared to care for them.

 I previously posted on the rushed timeline of the article, with some more links.

Time travel: Regnerus study timeline suggests superhuman abilities

I will comment more soon on Mark Regnerus’s paper, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” (Short: I think it’s a bad-quality piece of research that should not have been published; and that Regnerus cynically manipulated promotion by the conservative press and anti-equality advocates eager to declare, “this new research tends to affirm that the ideal for a child is a married mom and dad.”)

But here’s a quick note:

In the controversy over the publication, several people have remarked on the extremely fast timeline by which the journal Social Science Research operated. According to the data listed at the top of the article, it was submitted, revised, and accepted within 6 weeks. That’s fast, but that doesn’t make it wrong, necessarily.

On the other hand, time travel is definitely cheating. Neal Caren pointed out to me this pattern: according to the study design document online at the University of Texas (here), and the article history dates listed by the journal Social Science Research (here), this is the timeline for the study:

  • Data collection start date: August 19, 2011
  • Email and postcard reminders sent to non-responders: December 15, 2011
  • Telephone reminder campaign: December 20, 2011-January 17, 2012
  • Paper received by Social Science Research: February 1, 2012
  • Data collection end date: February 21, 2012
  • Data file delivered to University of Texas “containing the collected data”: February 24, 2012
  • Revised paper received by Social Science Research: February 29, 2012
  • Paper accepted by Social Science Research: March 12, 2012
  • Paper published online: June 10, 2012

According to these documents, the paper was submitted for publication 20 days before the end of the data collection, and 23 days before the data were delivered to the University of Texas! That’s fast.

There must be some post-hoc excuse Regnerus or the journal could give to clear this up.

Commentary on the study includes:

Why Mark Regnerus’ study shouldn’t matter, even if it were the most scientifically robust study in the world,” by Ilana Yurkiewicz at Scientific American

Study questioning same-sex parenting draws fire, by Stephanie Pappas at Live Science

Do children of same-sex parents really fare worse? by Belinda Luscombe at Time Healthland

Recession studies, academic job security edition

Google searches for recession peaked during the recession, in 2008. Academics take a little more time (usually). The academic recession hasn’t yet peaked, as of 2011 – in terms of sociology and demography articles with they keyword “recession” in the Web of Science:

There is still a lot to do. With that in mind, we had a very interesting discussion at the Work and Family Researchers Network conference in New York last week, about the recession and families.

Over the course of the conversation, I jotted down a list of outcomes people mentioned as areas of investigation, and started to think how complicated it is to see them interacting with one another.

Each of these is an area that has been studied in relation to poverty or unemployment. But the context of recession – when lots of bad economic things are happening together within families, social networks, neighborhoods, and so on – may alter their dynamics.

Here’s the list, with a few links:

These links are pretty arbitrary: what I know, read recently, or easily found. Please feel free to add other sources and suggestions in the comments.

TOTN: Challenges for single parents

I shared a segment on Talk of the Nation with Isabel Sawhill, ostensibly triggered by her op-ed in the Washington Post, “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms.” It was mostly not about preventing unmarried parenting or analyzing the trends, but about the current issues and problems single parents face (education, custody, work hours, dating, among others).

It’s 30 minutes, and they’ve posted the audio and a transcript online here. (Unfortunately, the transcript has a few places where the names of the speakers are scrambled.)

Here are a few of my comments:

On the role of government in promoting marriage:

ME (it says “SAWHILL” here): I think it’s important for us to try to get beyond wringing our hands over the decline of marriage. The government hasn’t been able to do very much of anything to reverse that trend, despite kicking millions of people off welfare. That was supposed to encourage marriage. Promoting marriage through the Healthy Marriage Initiative…

NEAL CONAN: It was supposed to encourage other things, too, of course.

COHEN: Right, no, it was very successful at encouraging work, but if you look back at what they were saying at the time, it was about encouraging marriage, also.

How government policy should address the problems of single parent families:

I think if you look at the benefits of marriage, which are very real, if you break them down, you find that many of them are not – are quite tangible. They’re not mysterious. And as Isabel said, childcare is one of them, time – but also security, health insurance, stable housing. These are among the things that are transferred from married parents to their children in terms of benefits, and those are things where we should try to focus our energies rather than worrying about the marital status of the parents.

On the importance of single parents being able to continue their education:

I think it’s important to realize that there are different ways of investing in children’s future. It can be direct through their own education and care, and it can also be through investment in the skills and opportunities of the parents. And if we can cross that hurdle of public recognition that we have a collective interest in that kind of investment, I think we’ll be much better off and find that, like with good-quality childcare, making education available to single parents may translate into not only economic benefits for them but future benefits for the children.

For a souvenir, I took this picture of the Talk of the Nation green room:

One case of very similar publications, with some implications and suggestions

This post deals with problems in academic research publishing. It’s off the usual topic of the blog, although the publications in question do concern families and inequality. I decided to publish it here rather than try to place it somewhere else because I thought it might be controversial, and I want to take personal responsibility for it. I welcome discussion of these questions here in the comments, or in other forums where these issues are pertinent — you are welcome to repost this, with attribution.

The case here is a pair of articles by John R. Hipp, an associate professor of Criminology, Law and Society at U.C. Irvine. The two articles are:

Little of substance is learned from one that could not be learned from the other, they contain many nearly-identical passages, and they both claim to make the same major original contributions. This isn’t the most extreme case like this ever published, but it’s the most obvious one I’ve noticed that involves a major sociology journal. Without attributing any cause or motivation, we can call these two “very similar publications.”

The practice of publishing VSPs:

  • Wastes the time of editors, reviewers, and future researchers.
  • Takes up valuable space in journals, space for which other researchers are competing for their publications and to enhance their careers.
  • Misleads reviewers and administrators who are evaluating and comparing publication records.
  • Misleads the research community by creating a false impression of the weight of original research on the topic (e.g., “many studies show”).
It is also just one symptom of a pretty broken publication and promotion system in academia, which I will return to later. I don’t know anything about the history of these papers, or the author’s situation or motives, so I limit myself to discussing the content of the papers. After discussing the case, I have a few suggestions. I’m sorry this is so long.

The case

Here are the two abstracts. I don’t know an elegant way to show these side beside except a screen grab (click for higher resolution); I numbered the sentences in the abstracts.

I highlighted the major difference between the two articles: the Criminology article analyzes perceptions of crime in “microneighborhoods,” while the Social Problems piece analyzes reported violent crime rates in Census tracts (and adds a measure of short-term crime rate change). This is a substantive difference, and it involves using different versions of the American Housing Survey. But the abstracts are not written as a sequence of incremental discoveries; they claim to make a number of the same innovations and discoveries. Substantively, the difference could have been handled with one additional table, or even a hefty footnote. (The first paper reports that the violent crime rate and residents’ perceptions are correlated at about .70). In any event, the difference is not a significant part of the motivation for either article, as the abstracts make clear.

Here are the outlines of the articles, with Hipp’s headings. As you can see, the Social Problems article includes a measure of short-term crime rate change, and the Criminology article includes a section on sensitivity analyses. They are not identical (the first paper also includes a methodological appendix).

The second paper, from Social Problems, does acknowledge the existence of the first, but not in a way that would truly communicate the relationship between them. It notes (p. 411):

Recent scholarship has suggested that … residents’ perceptions of crime in the microneighborhood can differentially affect in-mobility and out-mobility for different racial/ethnic groups (Hipp 2010b). We extend this literature by using official violent crime rates within the broader neighborhood as measured by the census tract.

Later (p. 414), the Social Problems paper minimizes the findings of the Criminology paper:

One study provided suggestive evidence of disproportionate out-mobility using information on the perceptions of crime among residents living within a micro-neighborhood of the nearest 11 housing units (Hipp 2010b). Whereas white households perceiving more crime were more likely to move within four years, black and Latino households showed no such tendency (Hipp 2010b). Furthermore, whites living in microneighborhoods with a general perception of more crime were also more likely to leave the unit, whereas Latino and black households again showed no such tendency. This evidence of the importance of perceptions of crime within a small micro-environment is important, but it cannot assess whether such perceptions accurately capture the crime environment of the micro-area, nor whether the crime environment of the broader neighborhood is also important. The present study addresses these limitations.

The Criminology paper was published online in August 2010, and the Social Problems paper is dated August 2011, so I can’t tell if the reviewers for the Social Problems paper had access to a published copy of the first at the time of their review.

If the second paper constitutes a genuine additional contribution, it would be reasonable to publish it separately, making clear that it represents a methodological variation of findings already known. But instead the second paper announces the same contributions as the first. In fact, as the text from the sections titled “summary” in the introduction of both articles show, two out of three of the “important contributions to the literature” are identical:

The third contribution differs. However, by the publication of the second paper, the first two “important contributions” are no longer original (the generally understood meaning of “contribution”).

Later, in the conclusions, the assertions of originality (the “key/crucial implication” and “important takeaway”) are nearly identical. Here are some excepts from the conclusions:

The genuine relationship between the two papers is not revealed.

There is no substitute for reading the text with human eyes. However, there also are tools for displaying and analyzing similarity in documents. The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity provides a reference to the Plagiarism Resource Center (once) at the University of Virginia, which distributes a program called WCopyfind, an open-source Windows-based document comparison tool.

After converting these two articles to text documents, and removing the tables, references, methodological appendix, and extraneous page numbers and other fragments, I subjected them to the WCopyfind comparison. These are the parameters I used, which were recommended for cases in which minor editing is presumed.

Shortest Phrase to Match: 6
Ignore Punctuation: No
Ignore Outer Punctuation: Yes
Ignore Letter Case: Yes
Skip Long Words: No
Most Imperfections to Allow: 0

The analysis found 2,235 words that were in duplicate 6-word strings, accounting for 20% of each article’s text. For example, here are two passages, with the strings that the algorithm flagged in red:

The present study provides an important corrective to the large volume of prior research finding a positive relationship between the size of racial/ethnic minority groups in a neighborhood and the rate of crime at one point in time and assuming that the causal direction runs from the presence of such minorities to higher rates of crime.

Prior research frequently has found a relationship between the presence of racial/ethnic minorities in a neighborhood and the rate of crime at one point in time. Although they sometimes posit different mechanisms, these studies almost always conclude that the causal direction runs from the presence of such minorities to higher rates of crime.

On the one hand, we can see that the passages are more similar than the red text implies, but on the other hand there are times when the algorithm appears to just catch phrases that occur in this line of research, such as “are more likely to move into.” If you set the shortest phrase to 5 words, the program flags 23% of the text; at 10 words it flags 12%.

The nice thing about the program is it creates a side-by-side comparison of the entire documents, with the common text strings linked, so you can click on the text in one article and see where it appears in the other, in context. I have put this side-by-side file here for your perusal. The full articles (behind paywalls) are linked above.

(Odd aside: the Criminology paper is in the first person singular, while the Social Problems paper is written in the first person plural, although both have only one author.)

What is this?

This is not a duplicate paper, although it includes a large amount of copied text, which would normally be called “self-plagiarism,” defined by Miguel Roig like this:

Whereas plagiarism involves the presentation of others’ ideas, text, data, images, etc., as the products of our own creation, self-plagiarism, occurs when we decide to reuse in whole or in part our own previously disseminated ideas, text, data, etc without any indication of their prior dissemination. Perhaps the most commonly-known form of self-plagiarism is duplicate publication, but other forms exist and include redundant publication, augmented publication, also known as meat extender, and segmented publication, also known as salami, piecemeal, or fragmented publication. The key feature in all forms of self-plagiarism is the presence of significant overlap between publications and, most importantly, the absence of a clear indication as to the relationship between the various duplicates or related papers.

Thinly-sliced “salami” articles do not necessarily include any duplication, but rather just tiny increments of scientific progress. There is some of that here, as well as elements of a “meat extender” case, in which small amounts of additional data or analysis are added — without a transparent disclaimer and rationale. However, regardless of the differences in analysis, the texts — especially the framing and concluding bread around the salami — are too similar to be justified.

That last distinction in Roig’s definition, the “key feature,” is what’s important here. Using a little boilerplate theoretical language in related work, or a very similar equation or description of variables when using the same datasets, doesn’t undermine the value of the work, as long as the original source is attributed. This distinction appears in a Nature news story:

…although the repetition of the methods section of a paper is not necessarily considered inappropriate by the scientific community, “we would expect that results, discussion and the abstract present novel results”, says Harold Garner, a bioinformatician at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

There are in fact some “novel results” in the second paper, but the novelty is not as important as the basic findings, which are described nearly identically — as original in both cases.

In the normal course of pursuing a research agenda across multiple article-length publications, some repetition is justifiable and even helpful. But without a “a clear indication as to the relationship between the various duplicates or related papers,” in Roig’s words, the sandwich is not kosher.

Consider an alternative example, in an economics paper, “Booms, Busts, and Divorce,” by Judith Hellerstein and Melinda Morrill, which I wrote about recently. Their main contribution is the finding that divorce was pro-cyclical from 1976 to 2009 – that is, there was more divorce when the economy grew. The “main analysis” is this:

we combine data on state-by-year unemployment rates with state-by-year vital statistics data across the United States over the period 1976 to 2009. We assess the impact of local macroeconomic conditions on state-level divorce rates, controlling for year fixed effects, state-specific time trends, and state-specific time-invariant determinants of divorce rates.

But they then add this:

Our basic finding of pro-cyclical divorce is robust to alternative empirical specifications and is found when we allow the effect of unemployment rates on divorce to vary by the fraction of the population that is Catholic … the census region, and by time period. We also show that this finding is robust to extending our unemployment series back to 1970 … Finally, we replace the unemployment rate at the state-by-year level as our measure of macroeconomic conditions with two alternative measures: state-by-year per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and state-by-year per capita income.

Each of those different steps is a way of extending and corroborating the “main analysis,” and each required adding data from a different source and conducting a new statistical analysis. But they did not make the main finding a new discovery warranting an additional publication with the same motivation and conclusions as the first.

Look at me

To head off an inevitable question, you are welcome to look at my own publication record. There are two specific cases in which my co-author Matt Huffman and I wrote pairs of articles addressing similar questions. They were: whether variation in gender segregation across labor markets affected patterns of gender wage devaluation (here and here); and whether the presence of female managers is associated with lower levels of gender inequality (here and here).

In each case the later paper acknowledged the earlier (or, they acknowledged each other, in the first pair), and explained the differences in approach — they involved different kinds of data and statistical methods in each case as well. The results were consistent in each pair, and thus the conclusions were strengthened, the pattern corroborated. Maybe we could have combined each pair into one very dense article, but that might very well have been rejected as too long or complicated for the journals we used, and they weren’t ready at the same time. (For what it’s worth, I also checked the WCopyfind comparison between the latter pair of our articles, and found 37 words in matched strings of 6 words or more.)

What to do

There is considerable research on the problem of duplicate publication in the medical literature, as Nature reports about 0.4% of articles in MedLine are probable duplicates. I don’t know how widespread the various kinds of duplication are in the social sciences. I can’t say this is a rampant problem, or that this case is an extreme one — I don’t know.

However, based on what I have read and shown above, I’m satisfied this case is a problem the likes of which we should try to avoid.

First, however, we should consider this kind of problem in the context of the “cycle of publication overproduction,” in which the Academy finds itself. That’s the phrase from a report by Diane Harley and Sophia Krzys Acord, “Peer review in academic promotion and publishing: its meaning, locus, and future,” published by Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley. They write:

…the problems we face in scholarly communication are not about publishing, per se, or the process of peer review in that system. Instead, the problems lie with the current advancement system in a multitude of higher education sectors globally that increasingly demand unrealistic publication requirements of their members in lieu of conducting thorough and context-appropriate institutional peer review, at the center of which should be a close reading and evaluation of a scholar’s overall contributions to a field in the context of each institution’s primary mission.

And one of their first recommendations is: “Encourage scholars to publish peer-reviewed work less frequently and more meaningfully.”

While we’re working on that, I have more immediate suggestions for four stages of the publication process.
  • Journal peer review. A large survey of peer reviewers found that, in the social sciences, about 88% believe ensuring acknowledgement of previous work should be one of the purposes of peer review, but only 59% believe the system is current able to do so. The editors and associations in this case — Criminology (the American Society of Criminology) and Social Problems (the Society for the Study of Social Problems) — or others have an incentive to prevent this waste of their resources. Editors and reviewers must be told when highly similar work exists, obviously, and the current ethics statement for American Sociological Review states that “Significant findings or contributions that have already appeared (or will appear) elsewhere must be clearly identified.” But in one concrete step to strengthen that, we could require that referenced work that has not been published — in press, under review, forthcoming, etc. — be accompanied by access to the papers, so the editors can look for redundancy. As it is, these papers are not available to reviewers or editors for verification.
  • Promotion committees and administrators. Counting up articles, and weighting them according to journal prestige or impact factor, is widely practiced in promotion decisions. Really reading the work is much better, but it requires more time, and more specialized skill. The Harley and Acord report has some great systemic recommendations. But in the meantime one thing I might start doing when reviewing cases is to ask myself, “Could any of these articles have been shaved into multiple salami slices?” If they could, but weren’t, let’s give credit for that decision (even if the work wasn’t in a top journal).
  • Ethics guidelines. The American Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics prohibits publishing “data or findings that they have previously published elsewhere.” However, the plagiarism provision only mentions “another person’s” work. The “self-plagiarism” (or duplication) aspect of this should be beefed up.
  • Shorter articles. Thin slices of salami are not so distasteful when eaten without a full load of bread and condiments. Sociology journals tend to have long articles compared with some other social sciences (psychology, economics, public health). If one of the two articles in this case could have been published as a brief report, with a few references and a clear emphasis on what was new, that might be reasonable. In many cases, the copying is in the theory, literature review, and methods. I know I just said we publish too much as it is, but sometimes shorter articles would help with this problem.
Addendum: Why?

Why would I write this and make it public? I certainly have nothing personal against John Hipp, whom I hardly know. But part of the privilege of having tenure protection is that the fear of offending people shouldn’t prevent me from speaking up on issues I think are important, and I am worked up about this issue. Academia has the unrivaled privilege of policing itself, and we have built a system that runs on trust, believe it or not.

I have done a few promotion reviews since I’ve been tenured, and reviewed many journal articles (more than 70 in the past 7 years). I have evaluated hundreds of job candidates and thousands of graduate student applications. Maybe it’s too much to hope that academia will abandon its addiction to bean-counting in the evaluation of productivity and merit any time soon. But we can increase our sensitivity to the flaws of that approach, and promote the honesty and transparency that are prerequisites for its functioning.

These are some other interesting sites and pages on these issues:

Gaydar study calibration

The other day the New York Times had a Gray Matter science piece by the authors of a study in PLoS One that showed some people could identify gays and lesbians based only on quick flashes of their unadorned faces. They wrote:

We conducted experiments in which participants viewed facial photographs of men and women and then categorized each face as gay or straight. The photographs were seen very briefly, for 50 milliseconds, which was long enough for participants to know they’d seen a face, but probably not long enough to feel they knew much more. In addition, the photos were mostly devoid of cultural cues: hairstyles were digitally removed, and no faces had makeup, piercings, eyeglasses or tattoos.

Even when viewing such bare faces so briefly, participants demonstrated an ability to identify sexual orientation: overall, gaydar judgments were about 60 percent accurate.

Since chance guessing would yield 50 percent accuracy, 60 percent might not seem impressive. But the effect is statistically significant — several times above the margin of error. Furthermore, the effect has been highly replicable: we ourselves have consistently discovered such effects in more than a dozen experiments.

This may be seen as confirmation of the inborn nature of sexual orientation, if it can be detected by a quick glance at facial features.

Sample images flashed during the “gaydar” experiment.

There is a statistical issue here that I leave to others to consider: the sample of Facebook pictures the researchers used was 48% gay/lesbian (111/233 men, 87/180 women). So if, as they say, it is 64% accurate at detecting lesbians, and 57% accurate at detecting gay men, how useful is gaydar in real life (when about 3.5% of people are gay or lesbian, when people aren’t reduced to just their naked, hairless facial features, and you know a lot of people’s sexual orientations from other sources)? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not much.

Anyway, I have a serious basic reservation about studies like this — like those that look for finger-length, hair-whorl, twin patterns, and other biological signs of sexual orientation. To do it, the researchers have to decide who has what sexual orientation in the first place — and that’s half the puzzle. This is unremarked on in the gaydar study or the op-ed, and appears to cause no angst among the researchers. They got their pictures from Facebook profiles of people who self-identified as gay/lesbian or straight (I don’t know if that was from the “interested in” Facebook option, or something else on their profiles).

Sexual orientation is multidimensional and determined by many different things — some combination of (presumably many) genes, hormonal exposures, lived experiences. And, for some people at least, it changes over the course of their lives. That’s why it’s hard to measure.

Consider, for example, a scenario in which someone who felt gay at a young age married heterogamously anyway — not too uncommon. Would such a person self-identify as gay on Facebook? Probably not. But if someone in that same situation got divorced and then came out of the closet they probably would self-identify as gay then.

Consider another new study, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which used a large sample of people interviewed 10 years apart. They found changes in sexual orientation were not that rare. Here is my table based on their results:

Overall, 2% of people changed their response to the sexual orientation identity question. That’s not that many — but then only 2.5% reported homosexual or bisexual identities in the first place.

In short, self identification may be the best standard we have for sexual orientation identity (which isn’t the same as sexual behavior), but it’s not a good fit for studies trying to get at deep-down gay/straight-ness, like the gaydar study or the biological studies.

And we need to keep in mind that this is all complicated by social stigma around sexual orientation. So who identifies as what, and to whom, is never free from political or power issues.

DOMA can’t survive rationality

Secular rationality killed the antigay legal star.

Reading the frustratingly futile discussion over at the Family Scholars blog, I was struck by the collision-of-worldviews aspect of the marriage rights debate. The antigay advocates for restricting marriage rights have floundered in their attempts to win in the legal-rational arena — from the extreme comparisons of homgamous marriage rights to incest and bestiality, to the only-slightly more rational claim that a marriage ban helps children.

Their only recourse is to tradition and emotion — religion, really — and courts have been having a hard time fitting that into the model of rights and laws that constitute the “letter” of the law.

The latest legal turn was from the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which declared that one aspect of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — the part that prevents the federal government from recognizing legal homogamous marriages — is unconstitutional. It sends the law toward the Supreme Court, where it now may get a hearing ahead of California’s state marriage ban, which also was overturned by a federal court.

The decision is relatively short and easy to read. Here is my non-expert interpretation of it.

Starting with an aside

Maybe DOMA should be invalidated on philosophical-science grounds, since the sexes are not “opposites,” but merely pretty different in some ways. DOMA says:

In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word “marriage” means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.

Anyway, looking at this image may help a little with this argument.

Image by Anna Fox from Flickr Creative Commons

Assessing an irrational law

DOMA is consequential. It obviously harms married couples or survivors who can’t access federal benefits for married people. But some of the adverse consequences for states that permit homogamous marriage are symbolically and financially devastating as well. For example, the court points out, the federal government could rescind funding for an entire veteran’s cemetery if a state buried a gay-married spouse there.

DOMA was an emotional act, motivated by religious imperatives and political expedience, rather than a legal-rational one. And the court therefore had the difficult job of figuring out how “to assess the rationale for a congressional statute passed with minimal hearings and lacking in formal findings.” For example, because of DOMA, federal laws regarding a whole host of cases don’t apply to homogamous couples: ethics and nepotism for politicians, the recusal of judges, bribery and threats to family members of government officials; and the Census couldn’t count legally-married homogamous couples. The law just doesn’t survive rational scrutiny.

Equal protection

The decision is a socially conservative one. It refuses to consider the constitutional imperative of a right to marriage. It refuses to apply the “intermediate scrutiny” that gender-based discrimination draws from the courts (which is itself less demanding than the “strict scrutiny” applied in race cases). It hews closely to Supreme Court precedent.

Instead of getting into gay rights, the court merely acknowledges that there has to be some reason to overrule state laws:

in areas where state regulation has traditionally governed, the Court may require that the federal government interest in intervention be shown with special clarity.

In the absence of any such “interest,” you can’t just inflict harm on a specific group of people, legally. (Unless, the decision mentions, you are Antonin Scalia — who dissented, in a preview of his opinion on the DOMA case to come.) So, under equal protection principles, DOMA fails — it harms people substantially for no good reason.


With regard to federalism, the decision considers whether the federal government has a legitimate reason to in effect overturn state marriage laws:

Given that DOMA intrudes broadly into an area of traditional state regulation, a closer examination of the justifications that would prevent DOMA from violating equal protection (and thus from exceeding federal authority) is uniquely reinforced by federalism concerns.

As for the DOMA defenders’ cynical claim that it protects the interests of children, that’s just ridiculous:

Whether or not children raised by opposite-sex marriages are on average better served, DOMA cannot preclude same-sex couples in Massachusetts from adopting children or prevent a woman partner from giving birth to a child to be raised by both partners.

As in the California case, the judges here found that denying marriage rights to homogamous couples does not in any rational way improve or protect “traditional” marriage or its supposed benefits to children (despite the claims of self-described experts):

DOMA does not increase benefits to opposite-sex couples–whose marriages may in any event be childless, unstable or both–or explain how denying benefits to same-sex couples will reinforce heterosexual marriage. Certainly, the denial will not affect the gender choices of those seeking marriage. This is not merely a matter of poor fit of remedy to perceived problem, but a lack of any demonstrated connection between DOMA’s treatment of same-sex couples and its asserted goal of strengthening the bonds and benefits to society of heterosexual marriage.

In short, by the weakest possible rational standard, DOMA is both pernicious to minorities and an unjustified imposition on states:

If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress’ will, this statute fails that test.

The decision ends with a wistful look at “traditional” motivations:

Traditions are the glue that holds society together, and many of our own traditions rest largely on belief and familiarity–not on benefits firmly provable in court. The desire to retain them is strong and can be honestly held. For 150 years, this desire to maintain tradition would alone have been justification enough for almost any statute. … But Supreme Court decisions in the last fifty years call for closer scrutiny of government action touching upon minority group interests and of federal action in areas of traditional state concern.

In short, much as “we” might love traditions, they just aren’t a legitimate basis for laws that substantially harm groups of people any more.

As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”

Where it goes

George W. Bush was probably right when he said the only way to prevent homogamous marriage from eventually becoming legal would be a constitutional amendment. But with the movement of public opinion that seems increasingly unlikely. And with marriage facts-on-the-ground coming from the leading-edge states, I don’t see how federal courts will ultimately block the way forward.

It is ironic, though, that a universal right to marriage — that pre-modern institution, that bastion of patriarchy, that arbitrary and undemocratic mechanism for distributing property and dividing labor — would end up enshrined in modern law because there is no other rational response to the progress of social change. That’s something.