On Mark Regnerus and Research about Same-sex Child Rearing

I am on the fringes of a few circles in which there has been some flapping about “thought policing,” “witch hunts,” and “inquisitions” over the case of a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Mark Regnerus is being investigated by his university over questions of scientific integrity following an article he published that included data showing that adult children of same-sex couples have more emotional issues than children raised by heteronormatively “standard” couples.

I’m not really writing here about my stake in issues of academic freedom, or about the best way to characterize the investigation, and any comment I might make about the scientific integrity of the data would be speaking way, way outside my expertise. Rather, I’m writing about some of the assumptions that seem to underlie both sides of the conversation, assumptions that I noticed myself conspicuously not-sharing from the moment I read about the story.

Perhaps it shows just how long it’s been since I drank the critical-theory humanities kool-aid, but my first response upon reading about the whole thing was to wonder why people are so cranked up over this data in the first place. Both the de-bunkers and the defenders seem to share the premise that data of this kind (if not this data) could really show us whether same-sex couples ought to be raising children or not. Science will peel back the veil on nature and we’ll (finally) see for certain what sort of familial arrangement is most conducive to healthy children. That’s a falsely constrained and reductive view of “nature” and the “natural.”

The results of the study at hand just don’t seem all that surprising to me, given that our broader cultural context contains a lot of adamant voices insisting that same-sex couples raising children are not only statistically rare, but morally aberrant. Why should we expect kids to grow up without some maladjustment to society at large when, minimally—assuming that they aren’t bullied or otherwise excluded—their default awareness of the “way the world is” includes the knowledge that a significant segment of mainstream culture believes that their home and the love shared by their family is verboten? Or, on the other side, why should we be surprised when a study shows that growing up in a stable home with two parents grow up to be better adjusted than kids raised in less-stable single parent homes—irrespective of the orientation of the parents?

If it feels as if I’m being dismissive about the discipline of sociology generally, that’s not at all my intention. On some level it’s the nature of our cynical politics that wherever science touches down in issues such as this, it functions (for either side) largely as a political bludgeon, something concrete to lob at one’s ideological opponents. I get that. I think that the point of my frustration with the heat in this conversation is directed at: a) people’s expressions of surprise and anger that data like this should exist; and b) people’s convictions (whether stated or not) that data of this sort is not only a measurement of how things are, but is capable of telling us what we should do, how we ought to arrange our society. There seems to me to be a measure of pretense in the former, and a measure of backwards thinking in the latter.

3 Replies to “On Mark Regnerus and Research about Same-sex Child Rearing”

  1. I especially resonate with your frustration about “people’s convictions (whether stated or not) that data of this sort is not only a measurement of how things are, but is capable of telling us what we should do, how we ought to arrange our society.”

    This kind of thing frustrates me in my own field (speech pathology) too. Often people seem to think the purpose of research is to give step-by-step instructions of how to deal with one client in one particular moment, and then tend to feel all upstanding and “scientific” about it. It seems to me that just as people try to take one sentence out of context of the Bible and use it to prove their own point, they (we :)) sometimes try to take one specific finding out of a huge body of research and try to use it as a prescription for how to act in any circumstance. That isn’t the point of any of it.

    My view is that just as the Bible, rather than being an instruction manual, is useful in helping us understand the character and nature of God; research, rather than being a guide to proper activity, can be useful in helping us understand the characteristics and nature of the universe that comes from God. And then we can start to think flexibly and creatively and make good decisions in the moment, based on our understanding. But we have to stop waxing eternal on the nature of a vein of a leaf and look at the forest already.

    I think the last sentence hits the crux of the problem for me. Some people most of the time, and all of us some of the time, prefer details and prescription to big picture and creativity. I suppose there can be many reasons for this, but one is that it makes things easier and less scary. Maybe I can find a sentence from the Bible or an obscure bit of research to tell me what to do about this. 🙂

    1. (Hi Chris!)

      I think you’re right on.

      I think I’d add that even the whole body of research (if someone were somehow able to gather up the entire data “context” from which this study was taken), still wouldn’t answer questions about how we ought to live, how we should proceed. If the broader culture changes (if we are able in some minor way to change the culture) then a study like this is going to get different results. A community that works to support and integrate same-sex parents and their families is going to produce healthier kids than one that marginalizes them. The science can’t tell us whether we should excoriate or embrace people, and looking to science for that kind of answer is a way of passing the buck on hard thinking and moral responsibility. And as you note, the Bible can function as a crutch in the same way.

      1. Hi Eric! 🙂 Thanks for your reply!
        I am still on the same page with you too, especially “A community that works to support and integrate same-sex parents and their families is going to produce healthier kids than one that marginalizes them.” Yes! And there’s where what is in the Bible can help us – love, kindness and support are always going to be better than their opposites.

        I have a personal story about this. I was once part of a school/parent meeting about a particular child, who was present at the meeting. He has an extreme speech disorder that may be managed but never fixed, and which could and is the cause of a lot of bullying and teasing. This child at the time was extremely upset about being teased and was acting out because of it, but the teasing that was bothering him was not about his speech disorder but about the fact that his mother lives with a partner who is a woman. At the meeting, his mother gave him the most amazing talk – I will always remember it and wish I could have it on tape. It was beautiful. She basically asked him about the teasing, and when he told her, she looked him right in the eye lovingly. She asked, “Who loves you and takes care of you?” “You,” he said. Her: “Do those people who were teasing you love you and take care of you?” “No.” “I love you and take care of you and they don’t – what matters more, what I say or what they say?” “What you say.” “I say I love you and you are a good person. I take care of you. You don’t take care of me – I am grown up and I take care of myself. So you don’t pay attention to what they say – I say I love you and you are a good person.” Terribly paraphrased, but it was a beautiful moment, and I have had the utmost respect for this lady since. 🙂

        On a different personal note, it is great to hear your thoughts. I have an iPhone now, which came complete with a phone addiction, so I’ve gotten back on Facebook. It’s great to hear a little of what is going on with you and what you are thinking about. I hope all is well! Love from Aunt Chris 

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