The news, reported in The Daily Texan, with documents retrieved via public records request, is that, in the face of conflicting views about Mark Regnerus’s promotion to the rank of full professor, UT’s Dean of Liberal Arts, Randy Diehl, commissioned a report on the scandal by sociologist Marc Musick. The report is an excellent review and summary of the affair, and provides ample evidence for declining the promotion. And for the rest of us, it had the beneficial effect of flushing out Regnerus, who wrote his most detailed response yet to the accusations against him — a response he may or may not have realized would become public. (The new documents are linked in the Texan article; for my coverage, you can start here for a review with links.)
It’s difficult to try to draw a line, as Musick does, apparently at the dean’s request, between ethical misconduct and bad research. It’s really where the two are combined that Regnerus causes trouble. More on the promotion issue later.
Musick was entirely correct when he wrote:
Based on these [media] appearances and his [court] testimony, it is self-evident that Professor Regnerus has used his research in the debate over same-sex marriage in direct contradiction to the statements he made in the NFSS article and response to commentaries. When combined with clear evidence that he colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study, it leads to the appearance that the post-study behavior was an extension of the political work that was happening prior to the study. In light of all of this activity, it appears that the statements he made in the article could certainly be seen as misleading at best and an outright fabrication of his intentions at worst.
This is the heart of the ethics side of the complaint: his bad research was part of a covertly-organized political effort, and he lied about it to cover that up. Regnerus simply asserts this isn’t true, but to believe his self-serving description of his own intentions is to be made a fool of. It’s just not plausible that,
I did not intend to utilize the results for any political or legal purpose, and stated so when I completed work on the manuscript in late February 2012. My interests, from the outset of participation in this project up through December 2012, lay squarely in the social science question that gave rise to the study.
Only God can truly see into the unlit depths of Regnerus’s heart — but the rest of us can be pretty sure he’s lying based on his actions.
Regnerus claims that as he became immersed in the subject he grew convinced that same-sex marriage is a bad policy, and began “to worry about esteeming the systematic severance of children from their biological origins.” But he was part of the “coalition” (his word!) against gay marriage from before the study was even fielded. His email to Brad Wilcox, prior to conducting the study:
I would like, at some point, to get more feedback from Luis [Tellez] and Maggie [Gallagher] about the ‘boundaries’ around this project, not just costs but also their optimal timelines (for the coalition meeting, the data collection, etc.), and their hopes for what emerges from this project, including the early report we discussed in DC.
What pure interest in “the social science question” involves planning an “early report” with the leading activist against gay marriage, Maggie Gallagher?
Lots of research is as poor quality as Regnerus’s. It’s in combination with the rotten ethics that we see the more serious problem — it’s how the research fits in with his diabolical political plans and his reprehensible moral views. That is, the research was not just bad, it was bad in a purposeful direction. That’s not discernible from a reading of the single, (not really) peer-reviewed article.
Cause and effect
The issue of causality is described in the report as one of methods, but I think it’s really an ethical issue.
Regnerus has been having this both ways from the beginning, and it highlights the challenge of (and for) public intellectuals who speak to multiple audiences. In the original paper he wrote, “I would be remiss to claim causation here.” So that is his cover (and he quotes again here). But in presentations to friendly audiences he is much less guarded. As I reported earlier, in a talk he gave at Catholic University:
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 [for the controls], 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.
The causal story at that talk was hammered home in two other ways. First, he presented the results as evidence of a “reduced kinship theory,” under which parents care less about their children the less biologically related they are. Second, he said his “best guess” about why he found worse outcomes for children of women who ever had a lesbian relationship than for those whose fathers ever had a gay relationship was that the former group spent more time with their mothers’ lesbian partners. Both of these descriptions are based on a causal interpretation of his findings.
Anyway, on to the political machinations.
Regnerus lies about Brad Wilcox’s lies
Regnerus complains that Musick brings up the “tired ethical complaint” about Brad Wilcox, who, Regnerus claims, “held an honorific position with the Witherspoon Institute.” And he offers this: “In my interactions with him, he never acted with authority, only advice suggestive of his own opinion.” Regnerus no-doubt thinks he is using a clever legalism, as if Wilcox did not have literal signing authority for dispersing Witherspoon funds and therefore did not offer anything beyond “his own opinion.” But it’s clearly wrong.
Just to be clear how ridiculous this hair-splitting is, here is the email exchange that they no-doubt both now regret (which Musick quoted as well). Regnerus writing, Wilcox answering in bold caps:
Tell me if any of these aren’t correct.
- We want to run this project through UT’s PRC. I’m presuming 10% overhead is acceptable to Witherspoon. YES
- We want a broad coalition comprising several scholars from across the spectrum of opinions… [goes on to discuss individuals]. YES
- We want to “repeat” in some ways the DC consultation with the group outlined in #2. … [details of how the planning document will be crafted] YES
- This document would in turn be used to approach several research organizations for the purpose of acquiring bids for the data collection project. YES
Did I understand that correctly?
And per your instruction, I should think of this as a planning grant, with somewhere on par of $30-$40k if needed. YES
Regnerus may now say, indignantly, “Professor Wilcox did not — and does not — speak on behalf of Mr. Tellez,” the Witherspoon president, but he certainly understood Wilcox as speaking for Witherspoon in that exchange. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he ask Tellez these organizational questions directly?
In a 2012 blog post on the now-defunct (and deleted) Family Scholars blog hosted by the Institute for American Values, Wilcox wrote that he never served as an “officer” of Witherspoon. He was, on the Witherspoon website as preserved by the Internet Archive, listed as “director” of the institute’s Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy from late 2008 to mid-2010. That program still exists on the website, incidentally, but it no longer mentions any director — Wilcox is the only director ever listed in the Internet Archive pages. As of last month, Wilcox’s CV doesn’t mention this position.* (I don’t understand the purpose of an honorific position if you’re not proud of it.)
And then there’s the Wilcox email where he refers to the study as “our dataset.”
Campaign, or coincidence?
Regnerus tells a story of coincidences. For example, Tellez may have (in his words) wanted the research done “before major decisions of the Supreme Court,” but that had nothing to do with Regnerus’s goals, which were to finish his report by January 2012 “for no other reason than I wished to finish it and move on to other projects.” At the time the research was funded, Regnerus says, he did not share Tellez’s political goals. Coincidentally, they both happened to want to project completed in the same time frame. And then, in another coincidence, Regnerus later came around to joining in Tellez’s opinion that same-sex marriage must be stopped. Is this a more plausible story than the simpler one in which Tellez, Wilcox, and Regnerus were all on the same page all along? The evidence for the conspiracy is pretty robust, considering Regnerus, Wilcox, David Blankenhorn, Maggie Gallagher and other anti-gay marriage activists planned the research at a meeting in Washington hosted and paid for by the Heritage Foundation. On the other hand, the evidence for the coincidence is Regnerus’s solemn word. This conspiracy is a theory kind of like evolution is a theory — it’s the only plausible explanation for a known series of events.
In the coincidence story, the survey was delayed, so Regnerus would have to keep working on it beyond January 2012. However, he nevertheless just “decided to give a journal submission a shot” in November 2011 anyway. Not that he was aiming for Tellez’s Supreme Court deadline. Just because. So he “contacted [Social Science Research editor] Professor James Wright to ask if he’d consider reviewing a manuscript on a study like this one,” before the data were even collected. You social scientists out there — have you ever asked a peer-reviewed journal editor if they would consider publishing something “like” what you were working on before you even had the data collected?
In fact, this “give a journal submission a shot” idea came from Wilcox, who in the email mentioned above suggested sending it to SSR because Wright was (the late) “Steve Nock’s good friend” and “also likes Paul Amato,” whom they had secured as a consultant. In the end, Wright would use both Wilcox and Amato as reviewers.
The coincidences Regnerus speaks of also include the meeting he had in August 2011 in Denver with Wilcox, Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family, and Scott Stanley, after which (he wrote to Tellez at the time), “we feel like we have a decent plan moving forward” for “public/media relations for the NFSS project.” In his response to Mucisk, Regnerus now writes, “Denver was a convenient stop on the way back to Austin from the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Las Vegas, and I took the opportunity to meet socially with a few peers.” That includes Stanton, who “lived about an hour’s drive of where we met.” (I’m not sure why you need a “convenient stop” from Las Vegas to Austin, which is a short nonstop flight.)
See, no campaign. Sure, he also arranged for the study to be shared with “some conservative outlets” before publication, attended a “short function hosted by the Heritage Foundation” about the study just before it was published, and “another such function … at the offices of the Institute for American Values.” But he doesn’t even know, “frankly,” “how such groups came to be apprised of the impending study release.”
Then, after describing, literally, how he colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study, Regnerus concludes, “This hardly merits the accusation that I ‘colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study.'”
And oh, sure, on closer inspection (he actually says, “I see now…”) he did use the “media training” document that Heritage provided, which he has falsely testified he “largely ignored,” in his own promotion of the study. In his post on Patheos.com (here), he wrote:
Q: So are gay parents worse than traditional parents?
A: The study is not about parenting per se. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible straight parents. The study is, among other things, about outcome differences between young adults raised in households in which a parent had a same-sex relationship and those raised by their own parents in intact families.
The Heritage talking points (from Musick’s report) included this:
Whether gay parents are worse than traditional parents.The study is not about parenting. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible traditional parents. The study is about outcome difference between young adults raised in a same-sex household and those raised by their own parent in intact families.
Well, he says now, “I very likely did use a few lines” from the document. “So be it.” Nevertheless, “to suggest I received extensive media training — and leaned on it in a comprehensive campaign — is out of touch with my lived reality.” (Who’s a phenomenologist now?) It’s tempting, after reading his response, to assume that whatever Regnerus specifically denies is exactly true.
On the labeling issue
I noticed something new in reviewing material for this post. If you’ve made it this far, bear with me here on this detail.
The infamous Regnerus article was published with the title, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?” In the article he referred to the adult children who reported that their mother ever had a same-sex romantic relationship as “LM” for “lesbian mother,” along with “GF” for “gay father.” In the rebuttal to his critics, published later in 2012, he acknowledged these were the wrong terms:
Concern about the use of the acronyms LM (lesbian mother) and GF (gay father) in the original study is arguably the most reasonable criticism. In hindsight, I wish I would have labeled LMs and GFs as MLRs and FGRs, that is, respondents who report a maternal (or mother’s) lesbian relationship, and respondents who report a paternal (or father’s) gay relationship. While in the original study’s description of the LM and GF categories I carefully and accurately detailed what respondents fit the LM and GF categories, I recognize that the acronyms LM and GF are prone to conflate sexual orientation, which the NFSS did not measure, with same-sex relationship behavior, which it did measure.
But he insisted this was just a question of confusing terms, not an attempt to actually label these parents according to their sexual orientation. He added:
The original study, indeed the entire data collection effort, was always focused on the respondents’ awareness of parental same-sex relationship behavior rather than their own assessment of parental sexual orientation, which may have differed from how their parent would describe it.
This came up in the Mucisk report, and Regnerus responded:
As noted in Professor Musick’s assessment, the problem of locating an optimal acronym here is something to which I have already confessed … It remains a significant regret. And yet the distinction between a woman’s same-sex relationship (to use Professor Musick’s acronym) and a woman’s “lesbian” relationship (as I assert by using the MLR acronym) is no doubt a narrow one. As ought to be obvious, I use the term “lesbian” as an adjective here, not a noun [emphasis added]. It describes a relationship, not a self-identity.
But did Regnerus really intend to use “lesbian” as an adjective? No, he did not. I know this because, in the email exchange between Social Science Research editor James Wright and Brad Wilcox (in which Wilcox lied by omission and which Wright later misrepresented), we can see the original title of the article Regnerus submitted, which is not the title subsequently published. The original title was, “How different are the adult children of lesbian mothers and gay fathers? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Clearly, Regnerus’s original intention was to describe the parents of the people he surveyed as “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” — using nouns referring to the people, not adjectives referring to their romantic relationships. It was not a matter of confusion; it was an attempt to create a false impression of the study’s implications.
In our department, promotion to full professor requires “an exemplary record in research, teaching, and service” which has made the candidate “widely regarded as a scholar.” However, these terms are not defined, and no quantities of research or citations are included. These things are left vague, and much rides on the interpretation of the experts consulted, who are considered the best judges of academic merit. So, what if a professor brings scandal and disrepute to himself and the institution? What if he expresses views that are morally reprehensible? What if he lies about his work, including in his work?
I don’t envy my colleagues in the excellent department of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin (about this case — I do envy them in other ways). Their directory lists 39 professors, only one of whom is disgraceful in those ways. It’s not a simple matter, denying a tenured professor a promotion. It’s a personnel decision governed by laws, and it’s wrapped up in the tenure system, which is important for academic freedom.
In the case of Regnerus I’ve already expressed my opinion.
Honest social scientists do not combine these activities: (1) secret meetings with partisan activist groups to raise money and set political agendas for their research; and, (2) omitting mention of those associations later. If Regnerus, Wilcox, Allen, and Price, had included acknowledgements in their publications that described these associations, then they would be just like anyone else who does research on subjects on which they have expressed opinions publicly: potentially legitimate but subject to closer scrutiny (which should include editors not including people from the same group as reviewers). Failure to disclose this in the publication process is dishonesty.
Based on that — more than based on the morally reprehensible views — I would vote against Regnerus’s promotion. But I am not privy to the process at UT, to their reviews and other materials, and I haven’t been asked for my opinion or advice.
* Is it unethical to take academic activities off our academic CV if they make you look bad? It emerged in one of the gay marriage trials that Brigham Young economist Joseph Price, testifying as an expert against gay marriage, took a grant from the Witherspoon Institute off his CV. In this case I don’t see that Wilcox ever had Witherspoon on his CV, but he was listed as a director on their website.