Friday, July 27, 2012

Mark Regnerus, Academic Freedom, and Sociology's Heresy Hunt

The judicial murder of a promising and honest academic’s reputation
An eminent historian said in a lecture I heard the other day, something to the effect that writers on history are always taking contrary views of each others’ work – that’s the way the debate progresses, that’s the way the system works. It’s an adversarial process for getting at the truth. At least one hopes it gets us nearer the truth. By and large it is a good one and one that should offer, over time, act as a defence against the crime of twisting an manipulating the truth to serve the purposes of ideology.

He was referring to historical writing but this process is one which serves all academe equally well. Modern historiography has benefited greatly from the honest rigour which this process has generated within it and few writers will now get away with the excesses of some of the historians writing 100 years ago or more.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for other more modern disciplines in the academic field. Just now the feeding frenzy being indulged in by the ideologues circling, snapping at and ready to devour the sociologist Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas, Austin, is a sad example of the level to which academics can lower themselves – leaving aside the scavenging media elements feeding on the scraps of Regnerus’ reputation flying around from the mauling being given to him by his erstwhile colleagues.

Regnerus published an article in the July 2012 issue of Social Science Research which reported findings that adult children of parents who had same-sex romantic relationships, including same-sex couples as parents, have more emotional and social problems than do adult children of heterosexual parents with intact marriages. Those results are clearly counter-cultural in terms of gay ideology and he is not going to be let get away with it. The media smearing is relentless, as are the charges of scientific misconduct  being presented to his university. As a result he is now being subjected to an inquiry.

Regnerus, ideologically unattached himself, has committed a political offense. He can’t be charged with that so the academic arsenal is being riffled to find a pretext for some trumped up charges to bring him to “justice”. What we have staring us in the face is the judicial murder of a promising and honest academic’s reputation, pure and simple.

Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, defends Regnerus and says,

In today's political climate, and particularly in the discipline of sociology—dominated as it is by a progressive orthodoxy—what Regnerus did is unacceptable. It makes him a heretic, a traitor—and so he must be thrown under the bus.

Regnerus's study was based on a nationally representative sample of adult Americans, including an adequate number of respondents who had parents with same-sex relationships to make valid statistical comparisons. His data were collected by a survey firm that conducts top studies, such as the American National Election Survey, which is supported by the National Science Foundation. His sample was a clear improvement over those used by most previous studies on this topic.

Those who are attacking Regnerus cannot admit their true political motives, so their strategy has been to discredit him for conducting "bad science." That is devious. His article is not perfect—no article ever is. But it is no scientifically worse than what is routinely published in sociology journals. Without a doubt, had Regnerus published different findings with the same methodology, nobody would have batted a methodological eye. Furthermore, none of his critics raised methodological concerns about earlier research on the same topic that had greater limitations, which are discussed in detail in the Regnerus article. Apparently, weak research that comes to the "right" conclusions is more acceptable than stronger studies that offer heretical results.

Who is Mark Regnerus? He was trained in one of the best graduate programs in the U.S. and was a postdoctoral fellow under an internationally renowned scholar of family, Glen Elder, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The article in question underwent peer review, and the journal's editor stands over it. Regnerus openly acknowledges some limitations of his study in his article. Furthermore, another recent study relying on a nationally representative sample also suggests that children of same-sex parents differ from children from intact, heterosexual marriages.

It is quite clear that what has happened here is that advocacy groups and academics who support gay marriage view Regnerus's findings as threatening, not to the truth but to their own ideology. More importantly, however, the case itself reveals a deeper malaise within the academic world, nothing less in fact than a betrayal of fundamental academic integrity. Christian Smith argues:

The Regnerus case needs to be understood in a larger context. Sociologists tend to be political and cultural liberals, leftists, and progressives. That itself is not a problem, in my view. (I am not a conservative.) A critical progressive outlook is part of sociology's character and contribution to the world, making it an interesting and often useful discipline, especially when it comes to understanding poverty and inequality, determining whether social policies are effective, and establishing why education systems succeed and fail. But the ideological and political proclivities of some sociologists can create real problems.

The temptation to use academe to advance a political agenda is too often indulged in sociology, especially by activist faculty in certain fields, like marriage, family, sex, and gender. The crucial line between broadening education and indoctrinating propaganda can grow very thin, sometimes nonexistent. Research programs that advance narrow agendas compatible with particular ideologies are privileged. Survey textbooks in some fields routinely frame their arguments in a way that validates any form of intimate relationship as a family, when the larger social discussion of what a family is and should be is still continuing and worth having. Reviewers for peer-reviewed journals identify "problems" with papers whose findings do not comport with their own beliefs. Job candidates and faculty up for tenure whose political and social views are not "correct" are sometimes weeded out through a subtle (or obvious), ideologically governed process of evaluation, which is publicly justified on more-legitimate grounds—"scholarly weaknesses" or "not fitting in well" with the department.

To be sure, there are many sociologists—progressives and otherwise—who are good people, scholars, and teachers. But the influence of progressive orthodoxy in sociology is evident in decisions made by graduate students, junior faculty, and even senior faculty about what, why, and how to research, publish, and teach. One cannot be too friendly to religion, for example, such as researching the positive social contributions of missionary work overseas or failing to criticize evangelicals and fundamentalists. The result is predictable: Play it politically safe, avoid controversial questions, publish the right conclusions.

If that is so it is indeed a sad and worrying scenario to have to admit. History and historical research has grown up and historiography is now a mature and very enlightening debate. Ideological rubbish may still have to be sniffed out but this is routinely done. Clearly many sociologists still have a long way to go in learning how to deal in a mature and fair way with the inconvenient propositions presented to them by their colleagues if the treatment being meted out to Mark Regnerus is anything to go by.

This article is published by Michael Kirke and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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