Regnerus delivers deceptive dialogue to delighted devotees

Not rehashing the whole thing, just a brief field report.

regnerus-10-4-2013

Grainy hidden-camera footage of shadowy propagandist.

I happened to hear Mark Regnerus deliver a lecture yesterday, titled, “Children and Sociology under Fire: Conducting Research on Same-Sex Parenting.”

The talk was sponsored by something called the Pontifical Studies John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, but you might know it as the Mark Regnerus fan club. In the talk, he presented his paper from last year (read all about it under the Regnerus tag) to a fawning audience of, let’s just say, mostly White Catholics.

I went to see how he would present it (very boringly), what he might say about the controversy (nothing substantive), and whether there would be any pushback (if anyone objected, they did so silently).

I came away with three observations about his presentation (these were all apparent in the paper — as Andrew Perrin, Neal Caren and I wrote — but seeing him present it showed how they work on a receptive audience).

First, he crudely manipulated his audience’s ignorance of research methods. He first described in some detail the “standard set of controls” he used to test the relationship between having a father or mother who ever (reportedly) had a same-sex romantic relationship and his many negative outcome variables. And then he proceeded to present bivariate relationships as if they were the results of those tests. He didn’t say they were adjusted, but everyone thought the results he showed were controlling for everything.

For example, to gasps from the crowd, he revealed that 17 percent of “intact bio family” kids had ever received welfare growing up, compared with 70 percent for those whose mother (reportedly) ever had a same-sex romantic relationship. If you don’t realize that this is mostly just a comparison between stable married-couple families and single-mother families, that might seem like a shockingly large effect.

Second, Regnerus pitched his audience the simplistic version of “reduced kinship” theory from the paper, in which people caring for children naturally care less about them if they are not biologically related. This was quite self-evident to the audience, so he didn’t dwell on it. Then he arranged his unadjusted means more or less from best to worst, left to right, from “intact bio” on the left, to adopted, widowed, divorced, separated, single-mother-divorced, single-mother-never-married, and finally “mother lesbian relationship” on the right.

“As you move left to right,” he explained with regard to one variable, “you see the challenges facing these young adults increase.” With another variable he said, “If you graph this, you sort of see a big surge as you get to reduced kinship.”

What you actually get as you move along that row, of course, is not reduced kinship (after all, adopted were just next to “intact bio” on the left side), but rather increasingly female-headed. But the writing on the slide was small, the groups were poorly defined, and the “reduced kinship” narrative was pertinent.

Finally, Regnerus made a few explicit statements about how his study was not intended to show causality (and insisted that he intended it to have no impact on public policy, that he only wrote a brief against marriage equality because he was sure other brief-writers would misrepresent the true science regarding same-sex parents). But he tipped his hand grotesquely, making an argument I don’t remember tucked away in the original paper.

As you might remember, in the results there are more negative outcomes for the children of “mother lesbian relationship” than for the “father gay relationship” children. This is logical since you’re talking about female-headed versus male-headed families. In the paper Regnerus wrote:

While I have so far noted several distinctions between IBFs and GFs—respondents who said their father had a gay relationship—there are simply fewer statistically-significant distinctions to note between IBFs and GFs than between IBFs and LMs, which may or may not be due in part to the smaller sample of respondents with gay fathers in the NFSS, and the much smaller likelihood of having lived with their gay father while he was in a same-sex relationship (emphasis added).

I don’t think I noticed that at the time. Or maybe I discounted it because of the “may or may not be due in part to” language. But now he’s quite a bit more sure. He told the Catholic audience:

There are fewer differences when we look at adult children of fathers who had a gay relationship. I don’t encourage you to read too much into this, except to say that there are fewer cases of them. Those for whom this was true were less likely, of course, to have lived with their father [and his partner]. Plenty of people did not live with their dads, so it would be not surprising to see they have fewer distinctions. Plenty of them did not live with this person.

It came up again in the Q&A, when David Crawford asked:

Q: “… adverse outcome that we’re finding also more centered in the lesbian mothers rather than the gay father relations. I also found that to be interesting. Is that a question of the children tending to spend more time with the mothers and being exposed to whatever causes…”

A [interrupting]: “That would be my best guess.”

So, although he would never dream of making causal claims, his “best guess” for why children living with their mothers rather than their fathers had tougher childhoods is because they spent more time with a lesbian in the household (a very small amount of time, compared to almost none for the children of suspected-gay dads). As Crawford put it, “being exposed to whatever causes…” Or, although he would never dream of making causal claims, his “best guess” for the pattern he sees is that one group was more exposed to the treatment effect he was ostensibly not testing.

As for the whole subject of the hostile reaction from academia, that just boiled down to a few moments of saying that social scientists are all liberals, that the truth can’t come out because real scientists are afraid to touch controversial subjects, and that he’s suffered unbearably as a result of his devotion to the truth. The applause was strident.

Anyway, I also discovered that attempting to sketch him gets harder the more times you try.

regnerus-sketch

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