Friday, June 29, 2012

"Snoopy Science"

Everyone’s got an agenda, including social science researchers.  The difference is, when “science” says something – “a recent scientific study has demonstrated – people take its conclusions seriously.  Especially when that study supports their agenda.

My agenda will appear at the end.  But first, other people’s.  

On Wednesday, June the 13th, Nathanial Frank, credited as “a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law” – what exactly is a “visiting scholar”?  Do they not have to show up every day, or just visit when they feel like it? 


Mr. Frank wrote a commentary in the Los Angeles Times, criticizing a study by Mark Regnerus, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, whose research, according to Professor Regnerus, “clearly reveals that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults – on multiple counts and across a variety of domains – when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father.”

Referencing same-sex marriage, Regnerus writes elsewhere that children of same-sex parents experience greater “household instability” than others, and that it could be too much of a “social gamble” to “support this new family form.”

(This pronouncement is important, as the Supreme Court may soon determine the fate of same-sex marriage.  Taking Regnerus’s “social gamble” warnings under consideration in the legal context of “compelling interest” – the state’s interest in the child’s welfare – the Court could find a persuasive reason to rule against it.)

Mr. Frank criticizes Mr. Regnerus’s study as, what I will now put in quotes, “bad science”, both methodologically and because it does not support the professor’s conclusion.  Mr. Frank claims that the study itself acknowledges that “what it’s really comparing with heterosexual families is not families headed by a same-sex couple but households in which the parents broke up.”

Thus, according to Frank, Regnerus “fails the most basic requirement of social science research – assessing causation by holding all other variables constant.”  

Mr. Frank also suggests bias, because Professor Regnerus’s study was funded, in part, by a conservative institute, who, according to Frank, “have cited research that – it’s claimed – shows that gay parenting is a bad idea.”

Because his only concern is exposing the inadequacy of anti same-sex parenting studies – his claim being that “no scholarly research, including the Regnerus paper, has ever compared children of stable same-sex couples to children of stable different-sex couples” – Mr. Frank has little interest in defending the acceptability of single parenting.  This is not his issue.  At least, in this commentary. 

In fact, as part of his argument that same-sex parents are being unfairly singled out for scrutiny, Frank kind of throws single parenting under the bus, saying, 

“Given all the research on the hardships of children raised by single parents, there is still no movement to preemptively remove kids from broken homes after every divorce or ban single people from having kids.”
Frank’s agenda is transaparent.  So, with his arguably sloppy science and less than certain conclusions, is Regnerus’s.  And so, not surprisingly, is mine.  Though I’m not a scientist, so I can’t get yelled at.  Says me.

Male-female parenting.  Same-sex parenting.  Single parenting.  They’re different.  It is possible that one may be more optimal for childrearing than another.  But before we go there, I would argue that the quality of childrearing depends, most significantly, on the people involved, an issue that cannot be studied scientifically, because every individual is their own sample, and for research you need “cohorts.”

More importantly, or equally importantly – I can’t decide which; I just know it’s not less importantly – is the question of degree.  How much, if at all, or how little, is the difference on the children raised under the various arrangements of parenting? 

What if the difference is not that big?  What if the range within the different parenting arrangements is greater than the range between one arrangement and the others?  What if  “individual differences” – involving the temperaments of both the parent(s) and the kid(s) - are a more determining factor of their children’s future success than the number of parents, or what gender they are?

It makes you wonder.  Doesn’t science have better things to do with its time than poke around in what, may prove to be, statistically insignificant differences?

Science can study anything it wants (though it has historically been known to stick its nose in where it doesn’t belong, cranial measurements, etc.)  Sometimes, however, when there is no compelling urgency, it is better – “better”, in terms of a standard other than scientific – for science stay the heck out of it, and let things just work themselves out.    

That’s my agenda.  And I‘m stickin’ to it.

(Overarching Thought:  If everybody has an agenda, who are you going to believe?)


pumpkinhead said...

He may have contributed a lot of negative to the world, perhaps as a forerunner to such brain-dead fare as Jerry Springer, but, I learned as a youngster that everyone has an agenda and no one can truly be taken at face value from none of than the mouth himself, the late Morton Downey, Jr.

JED said...

"It makes you wonder. Doesn’t science have better things to do with its time than poke around in what, may prove to be, statistically insignificant differences?"

But you don't know it's statistically insignificant unless you poke around a bit. It's a little bit like making a pilot (never having made a pilot - but I've learned a lot by reading this blog). Most scientific studies and engineering projects start with preliminary work that has to be done and approved and funded. No one wants to spend time or money on something that isn't worthwhile. Mostly.

Then we get to things like your example. If you have enough bored scientists (or pseudo-scientists) and enough money, a lot of crap can be investigated.

Then we get to the Fourth Estate who don't have enough scientific knowledge to weed out the crap and report on cancer cures and what's best for society and how copter cars are right around the corner without any real scientific vetting. No wonder people lose confidence in scientific studies when the newspaper reports that coffee is good for you at the same time the TV station is telling you that coffee is bad for you - both based on ONE study by a guy who started his own laboratory.

I love your blog, Earl. It is one of the more thoughtful ones I read.

Anonymous said...

A few years back, I recall reading that a professor at U of T wrote a paper to show that Oscar winners lived longer than their non-Oscar winning fellow thespians...he must have had some agenda but it's importance still eludes me. It would appear that science does not "have better things to do with it's time..."