Regnerus study controversy guide

As the American Sociological Association convenes in Denver this week, there will be some formal discussions about a possible response by the association to Mark Regnerus’s paper, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study,” published this spring in the journal Social Science Research. The request for an association response emerged when it became clear that the study was being used to support the legal case against homogamous (same-sex) marriage, which is at issue in several federal court actions that will likely include the U.S. Supreme Court in the near future.

To bring folks up to speed if they haven’t been following, or as a reference for those involved in discussions, here are some key facts and links.


A number of sections of the ASA, including the Family Section, which I serve as a council member, will consider resolutions asking the association to respond. The Family Section will start its discussion with the following proposal:

We request that the ASA Council intervene via legal briefs in the federal court cases regarding the Defense Of Marriage Act. In particular, we are concerned about the misuse of a published study by Mark Regenerus in the journal Social Science Research, which has been cited in amicus briefs as providing evidence for the harm caused to children raised by gay and lesbian couples. This has been cited in the case of Golinski currently before a Federal appeals court, which may end up before the US Supreme Court. It may well be used in other cases making their way through the courts. Exactly in what form the ASA should respond should be determined after more thorough legal investigation. However, it could range from a simple clarification that the Regenerus study does not support the conclusions offered, to a full-blown analysis of the situation for children raised by gay and lesbian couples (along the lines of that published by the American Psychological Association). The ASA also could decide to join in briefs with other groups. We leave that for the Council to decide. This section offers its membership as a pool of potential experts to consult or assist the ASA in this process.

I don’t know the specific wording or other issues that may emerge in these discussions. I assume that if and when the ASA Council takes up the issue, they will bring their own perspective to the decision. I think it’s an important issue, and also re-elevates the issue of how and when ASA should act as an association.

Events so far (source)

  • August 19, 2011: Data collection start date
  • February 1, 2012: Paper received by Social Science Research
  • February 21, 2012: Data collection end date
  • February 24, 2012: Data file delivered to University of Texas “containing the collected data”
  • February 29, 2012: Revised paper received by Social Science Research
  • March 12, 2012: Paper accepted by Social Science Research
  • June 10, 2012: Paper published online
  • June 11, 2012: American College of Pediatricians references the paper in its amicus brief filed in the case of Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management. See the American Psychological Association and others’ response here (relevant passages of the briefs quoted by me, here).
  • June 29, 2012: 200 researchers sign a letter, organized by Gary Gates, to the editor and advisory board of the journal, to “raise serious concerns” about the article.
  • August 8, 2012: U.S. District Judge Alan Kay cites Regnerus study in denying suit against Hawaii marriage ban. His summary of the study: “(finding that children raised by married biological parents fared better than children raised in same-sex households in a range of significant outcomes).”

Press accounts

Regnerus statements

  • Elsevier press release: “The most significant story in this study is arguably that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.”
  • His self-directed Q & A on the study, declaring, “an assessment of causation is not possible here,” discounting political implications or intent.
  • His publicity piece in Slate: Queers as Folk: Does it really make no difference if your parents are straight or gay?. The study “may suggest that the household instability that the NFSS reveals is just too common among same-sex couples to take the social gamble of spending significant political and economic capital to esteem and support this new (but tiny) family form while Americans continue to flee the stable, two-parent biological married model, the far more common and accomplished workhorse of the American household, and still—according to the data, at least—the safest place for a kid.”
  • The study’s unadjusted findings in simplistic graphic display are here.

Sociologists’ critical commentary

Defenses of the study and against ‘witch hunts’

36 thoughts on “Regnerus study controversy guide

  1. This is a good comprehensive outline to the merits, which as an expert on these issues you are properly interested in. From my perspective (ie, someone less interested in the substantive scientific or political issues than the principle of academic freedom) though it would be nice to mention the formal academic discipline hearings instigated by Scott Rose. For this latter issue I suggest

    That’s not to say that critics of Regnerus bear any responsibility for Rose’s overreach, just that it is an important related issue.


    1. Thank you for pointing that out. I linked to that article under “Press Accounts.” An interesting question the Rose complaint raises is whether or how sociologists should get involved in defending researchers accused of misconduct. (Remember how unions sometimes used to protect people from their bosses?)


  2. Is there a formal disciplinary hearing at UT against Regnerus, or is that something in Rosenweig’s fantasies repeated by a stenographer? While many LGBT activists want to see Regnerus publicly flogged (and Jim Wright, and me!), there is zero evidence that there has been any formal procedure at UT. They MUST say they are “investigating” what to do (particularly since you can be assured that Rosenweig and several others have been contacting them daily since early June), but that is a far cry from UT moving to formally censure or reprimand Regnerus. UT did respond to my FOIA seeking to identify conflicts of interests with anonymous reviewers and the editor of SSR. That “investigation” confirmed that the conflicts of interest were already revealed in the editorial process, and that no vast right wing conspiracy had invaded the editorial office of SSR. Poor little Mark’s academic freedom is not compromised. If he wants to do crappy studies to hurt LGBT people, that’s his right. But, his colleagues and discipline don’t have to value his research.


  3. Yeah, like it means that the staff in the legal office had to say something to the activists. If faculty aren’t allowed to make up bullshit for political purposes that will tank every public policy school in the US, and completely eliminate all schools of “international relations.” There is no investigation. This simply plays into Rosenweig’s power fantasies and Regnerus’ persecution complex.


  4. Sherkat has used a misspelling of the German-Jewish name I had a birth, but which I have never used in my entire professional life. A right wing anti-gay group dug up my German-Jewish birth name to incite anti-Semites among their supporters against me. Very few venues favorable to gay rights used my German-Jewish last name, and those that did changed it back once I sent them my form letter explaining this situation, and how offensive it is to me personally, given that I am a regular contributor to the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism. We know the connections between the Witherspoon funders of the Regnerus study, and the National Organization for Marriage — NOM does not hesitate to exploit antisemitism in the population when doing so will further its anti-gay and/or Republican political goals. This same group will develop a “Christian” anti-gay newsletter and in the middle of it, without referring to the president as the president, call him “Barack Hussein Obama,” obviously signalling readers to think “Muslim!” the same way they are inciting to hatred against me by signalling “Jew!” Sherkat has already disgraced himself plenty in this; he needn’t have added to his personal disgrace by imitating the antisemites and then misspelling my German-Jewish name to boot. Sherkat: Du gleichst dem Geist, den Du begreifst, nicht mir. Something not noted above is how very seriously Social Science Research violated its own Peer Review Policy in rushing the Regnerus “study” to publication, paired politically to the Loren Marks “study.” The peer review policy says that submissions will be matched to peer reviewers on the basis of expertise; that did not happen. Additionally, the Peer Review Policy states that normal peer review times are 2 to 3 months. Then, it says that for submissions on esoteric topics — and gay parenting child outcomes is one — authors should expect to wait substantially longer that those 2 to 3 months, as it can take months just to locate topic expert peer reviewers. By contrast, as we see, the Regnerus submission, politically paired to the Marks submission, was submitted February 1 and accepted just 5 1/2 weeks later, with non-topic expert peer reviewers with conflicts of interest involved in rubber stamping the “study” for publication. I interviewed Vanderbilt University Sociologist Tony N. Brown, Editor of the American Sociological Association’s American Sociological Review, told me: “journal editors should always seek knowledgeable reviewers who do not have any conflict of interest regarding the submitted author or the study’s funder.” That is the ethical and scientific standard by which Regnerus’s, or any paper should be considered for publication. Mr. Sherkat is not without his own conflicts of interest in commenting on this matter; he is more interested in protecting those interests than he is in protecting the victims of the NOM/Regnerus weaponized “study.” It is doing immense harm. NOM leaders of course are political allies of the American Family Association; the AFA’s Bryan Fischer has a radio show that reaches 20 million listeners, Fischer is telling his audience that the Regnerus study is authentic as science and that it proves that homosexuals must never be left alone in rooms with children. Fischer also has advocated for kidnapping children being raised by gay parents, to “rescue” them from the danger. Regnerus himself has repeatedly violated the American Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics. For example, he saw gay-bashing comments online in support of his study, from Robert Oscar Lopez. Regnerus himself then contacted Lopez FIRST, and began correspondence with him about his “study” and “LGBT issues.” Subsequently, a Lopez essay, full of gay bashing and very seriously misrepresenting what the Regnerus study says, was published on the Witherspoon website and immediately cross posted to the NOM blog and by NOM officials to the National Review. Regnerus didn’t make a peep about Lopez’s very serious misrepresentations of what his study says. That violates the ASA’s Code of Ethics on Public Communications, the preamble to Section 10 of the Code of Ethics says this: “Sociologists adhere to the highest professional standards in public communications about their professional services, credentials and expertise, work products, or publications, whether these communications are from themselves or from others.” The condescension from some quarters about my interventions and reporting on this scandal will not deter me. The study was booby trapped against gay parents, and commissioned on deadline for pernicious exploitation in an election year. For their $55K “planning grant,” the NOM-linked Witherspoon funders got a study “plan” for a cherry picked control group to be compared with a test group loaded up with variables. As trained sociologists, obviously Regnerus, and then James Wright both understand what is unacceptable there. Nobody involved in this study and its promotions has behaved with the least bit of honor. That would include the lead signer of that Baylor letter in support of Regnerus, Byron Johnson, Director of Baylor’s Institute for Religious Studies. He also is a senior fellow at Witherspoon, which of course funded the study and is promoting it very aggressively in anti-gay-rights contexts. The stink of corruption is coming off of this study in billows. The funders are dishonorable hate group leaders. NOM just admitted to guilt in 18 counts of campaign finance law violations in California; they were fined $49K, a drop in the bucket compared to the tens and tens of millions of dollars they are spending to wage political war against gay people, and less than the $55K they paid for their booby trapped anti-gay study design. Regnerus’s funders are the same ones whose strategy documents released through court order described plans to “drive a wedge” and to “fan hostility” between African-Americans and gays, the better to defeat gay rights measures. That’s how much Regnerus’s funders care about child welfare — fomenting hatred and discord in the society. My conscience is totally clean in this, but I don’t know how Sherkat can live with himself or sleep at night. The proper action was for the study to be retracted from publication and then put through ethical and appropriate professional peer review, and revisions, before any eventual re-publication. Who of any honor would defend a booby trapped anti-minority “study” with a cherry picked control group and a test group loaded up with variables?


  5. Sherkat lied to somebody about having obtained his FOIA-request materials from the University of Texas. When he was communicating with me, in my capacity as an investigative journalist, he told me that he had completed his “audit” without having received his FOIA requested materials. I have the e-mail where he told me that. Why did he tell me that then, but now claim that he had access to the FOIA materials and that they showed nothing additional about the (suspect) peer reviewers? He either lied to be before when he said he had completed the audit without the FOIA materials, or he is lying now in saying that he did receive them. Meanwhile, all of those same communications are objects of either FOIA or Open Records Act requests from multiple journalists — and UT asked the Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for legal exemptions to the FOIA requests. All of the journalists involved of course received official letters about the requests from UT and the Texas AG. One of the reasons UT gives to Abbott for asking for these FOIA exemptions is that as there is an ongoing “investigation” (and yes, UT’s attorney used the word “investigation” in the official letter to Abbott) the FOIA exemptions are necessary to protect the integrity of the investigation. Now, if that is the reason UT gives for requesting FOIA exemptions (and Abbott has not yet reached a decision about UT’s request) how could it be that UT would so quickly give Sherkat some of the same communications included in those FOIA requests? That would defeat the purpose of UT’s request for the FOIA exemptions. Yet right above in this comments thread — and counter to what he had told me — Sherkat says: “UT did respond to my FOIA seeking to identify conflicts of interests with anonymous reviewers and the editor of SSR.” Sherkat expects all of this from him — his contradictory statements about what he had done during his “audit” — with no way for any news person to fact check it. I say “A otro perro con ese hueso.”


  6. PS — although it is imperative for the ASA to file appropriate amicus briefs, the real problem in this is not how the study is used in courts, but rather how it is being used to amplify the funders’ and the funders’ political associates’ existing gay-bashing hate campaigns made up of endless demonizing lies against gay people. The problem right now is that Regnerus and his funders and enablers have done what they did, but nobody in the ASA is behaving honorably and taking an official public stand against them. This is hardly the first time that a political group conspired with a willing shill to attack a minority with faked “science.” Shame on the ASA for not acting more responsibly and more promptly.


  7. It’s very revealing that Sherkat writes about things playing into my (falsely alleged) “power fantasies.” If I wanted to, I could easily be doing much pleasanter work — but do you know what motivates me? I have seen what gay victims continue to suffer because of gay-bashing bigotry. I know about that gay student in a Florida public school who was threatened with getting taken out of school in a body bag, and then had his head crashed into cement by that same stalker as school administrators looked on and laughed, and later mounted a whole anti-gay harassment campaign against him. I could give umpteen examples (and also where my inteventions have been on behalf of victims from other minority groups, including women, Muslims and Hindus). I do not have “power fantasies;” I act out of concern for people unjustly victimized by bigots and bigotry. If I have “power” it’s the power to investigate and to learn truths. NOM’s partner in crime at the National Review, Robert VerBruggen, for example, was writing about me almost exactly as Sherkat does. Yet, I dug into his history and found where he previously had published and promoted a bogus “study” by a trans-basher. You will never find any place where I have promoted a bogus study. I don’t get any feeling of “power” from exposing these dishonorable people. I just have a very mild satisfaction in knowing that at least I have made it possible for other people to confirm that these lying bigots are lying.


  8. Hi Philip: Will you please do me a favor? Let me know 10 well-regarded sociological studies that have control-group/test-group comparisons like Regnerus’s, with the control group cherry picked and the test group loaded up with variables. Where should I look for the top ten best-regarded sociological studies of that sort? Which are the reputable scientific journals publishing such material? As I’m not in the field, I don’t have the off-the-top-of-my-head knowledge of the literature the way others surely do. Thanks.


  9. Wow. As a more or less dispassionate observer of all this, it’s beginning to feel like you guys are piling on. Is there something I’m missing?


    1. I think it is reasonable to see it that way. However, what you have actually witnessed is the process of sociologists working out how we will deal with this. So there is inside baseball going on at the same time as public communication and critique of the study.

      It now appears, I am glad to say, that the ASA will do something like submit briefs on this issue to the relevant courts (not just about this article but about the issue more broadly). This is a big deal, which happens rarely — and the suspicion is that it might become relevant in what history will judge as a landmark Supreme Court decision about civil rights. For most sociologists, such (potential) relevance does a lot to elevate our blood pressure.


  10. Look, you will need to act fast in the Nevada case, briefs will be filled in 30 days. You Andrew Cohen, please take ownership of these dates and cutoffs as I don’t believe anybody else is. We lost in the Hawaii case when The Federal Judge referenced Regnerus in his decision and our side didn’t give any briefs on that research. We lost.

    So PLEASE PLEASE be aware of this Nevada case as well as the North Carolina case which is suing in Federal Court for second parent adoption. Shall I get the North Carolina case information for you?


  11. Will you be updating this article with the Dr. Brad Wilcox confession that he participated in the actual research? Just wondering as Regnerus states emphatically in his report that no one from the Funding Organizations were involved in the actual research at all. Of course Wilcox being the Program Director of the Witherspoon Program that funded Regnerus for $685,00 exposes Dr. Regnerus’ lie.

    Do you feel that if a scientist has been found to lie in any part of a Report on a Study, that the study should remain published or should the Journal Retract it? Not make a mistake but lie, should the study remain published?


    1. Yes, it seems clear that Regnerus lied, and that Wilcox acted unethically by acting as a reviewer, program officer and consultant. I think the article should be retracted, but I admit I don’t have a clear sense of the threshold for retraction and I haven’t looked into it. I’m sure I will get around to writing more about this case, but this isn’t a news blog with a promise of comprehensive coverage of any particular topic in a timely way.


  12. Well we cannot definitively say that Wilcox was a Peer Reviewer of Regnerus. I don’t see how Sherkat can claim he did an audit when he was not given the names of the peer reviewers of each study, Marks and Regnerus. This is what happened, Wright gave Sherkat 6 names and said these 6 people reviewed EITHER Marks OR Regnerus. How can Sherkat know if there was a conflict of interest.?

    If Wilcox peer reviewed Marks, no conflict of interest (that we know of yet) but IF Wilcox peer reviewed Regnerus RAISE THE RED FLAG. And we can be pretty darned certain that Wilcox was a peer reviewer of Marks OR Regnerus because Sherkat filed a Freedom of Information Act at Univ of Texas giving those two names. The rest of the names Sherkat asked for will be revealed soon because Scott Rose has pending Freedom of Information Act requests and this is one of them.

    It s a bullshit audit IF as Sherkat states he was never given the exact names of which ones of the 6 peer reviewers peer reviewed Regnerus and which ones of the 6 Peer Reviewed Marks. That is not a good and fair audit. About half way through this document shows what Sherkat says

    I asked Dr. Wilcox to come forward and state that he was not a peer reviewer of Regnerus, I asked on the same article at FamilyScholars where Wilcox wrote his confession. But Wilcox never came back and commented one way or the other.


  13. Certainly when flesh-and-blood human beings are being victimized by a study booby-trapped in its design in order to hurt a minority, and that study got published without benefit of valid peer review, the threshold for retraction has been met.


  14. Most researchers agree that if one wanted to compare broken heterosexual families with broken families of undetermined sexual orientation, that would be somewhat easy. We already know that comparing intact families with broken homes results in notable differences. The intent of this work was to demonize and politicize, not to add to our understanding of scientific knowledge.


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