UT sociology professor

UT sociology professor Joseph Potter was in the hot seat Monday and Tuesday, testifying to stop the controversial abortion restrictions that were passed this summer. The restrictions, some of which would go into effect next week, would impose stiffer standards on abortion clinics by requiring admitting privileges at a nearby hospital for clinic doctors and restricting access to abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

In an injunction against the restrictions, Potter testified on behalf of those seeking to stop the measure’s implementation, prompting anti-abortion activists to question the study’s methodology. Pro-choice supporters, on the other hand, have lauded the study as one more piece of evidence for their cause.

Still others, such as myself, argue that designing studies for use in legal arguments can limit a study’s overall usefulness. In the rush to produce impactful, timely data by tight court deadlines, it seems difficult to both conduct research and allow the peer-review process to enhance the study’s credibility and make it durable in the long run.

Potter’s study claims that one in three Texas women could be affected by the state’s new abortion restrictions, which are expected to close 37 of 42 clinics statewide once it is fully enacted next year. Using data from the state and from pro-choice groups, Potter’s study calculated the maximum number of abortions remaining clinics would be able to offer and subtracted that from the projected number of abortions sought by Texas women in 2014. Using this method, Potter arrived at a shortfall of 22,286.

In response, the state of Texas has alleged that the study did not clearly explain how it got its numbers. But Renee Paradis, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the study is “extremely helpful” in showing the unconstitutionality of the new restrictions.

Indeed, if accurate, the study highlights the socio-economic dilemma facing pro-life advocates: Will poor women denied legal abortion forgo it, or will they opt to abort in more dangerous circumstances? Even for abortion opponents such as myself, this study lays bare the impact of Texas’ law on the vulnerable in our society.

Even the review process can be limited by political debates. When review is possible, studies are sometimes rushed through peer review and published because of their provocative subject matter, not their scientific merit. While speed allows these studies to influence policy and prove professors’ relevance, this lack of substantive review weakens them by leaving them wide open to partisan criticism and eliminating a layer of healthy debate. Taken to an extreme, activist studies run the risk of “cheapening” research, and the reputation of the university associated with it, by prioritizing “timeliness” over quality.

UT government professor Benjamin Gregg, who looks at the use of sociological research in public policy, had the opposite concern: Destructive self-censorship. He pointed out that scholars “self-selecting for restraint” would merely lead to less informed actors dominating the discussion.

Gregg proposed that a plurality of expert opinions is best in the courtroom and that the high-profile debate that results informs the citizens about pressing issues.

Gregg has a point. Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, conducted studies in 1939 analyzing children’s reactions to black and white dolls. Both black and white children preferred the white dolls even when all other factors were equal. The results were published in 1947, and Kenneth Clark testified in 1952’s Briggs v. Elliott, and later the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education which ended segregation in schools, using the study to make the case that “separate but equal” was not equal at all. This study was vetted by years in the public sphere and timely enough for when the case reached the Supreme Court.

It’s clear from cases like the Clarks’ that a sharp firewall between science and politics can stifle constructive debate and further public ignorance.

I understand that time is not on Potter’s side, but instrumental science runs the risk of putting political priorities before the goal of producing quality research — unwittingly reinforcing the university “factory model” bemoaned by progressive academics. Potter’s research may be efficacious. But given the limitations mentioned above, he should better inform the public about the steps he and internal reviewers have taken to balance timeliness and quality.

Regardless of the results, the public should show caution and evaluate Potter’s study on its scientific merits, not on its political usefulness to advancing or stopping an agenda.

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.

UT associate professor of Sociology Mark Regnerus led the New Family Structures Study, which sought to answer how the children of gay parents fare in comparison to children of heterosexual parents. (Daily Texan file photo)

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

UT sociology professor Mark Regnerus, the author of a controversial gay parenting study allegedly showing that children of same-sex parents are damaged as a result, spoke this weekend on a panel put on by the Religious Newswriters Association in which he called for “greater civility” in discussing gay marriage, acknowledging parenting studies like his will not “solve national and global debates” surrounding the issue. 

These level-headed and uncontroversial comments are surprising, considering Regnerus’ signed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case which overturned California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8.

Moreover, in recent months, Regnerus has inserted himself into the international debate regarding same-sex parenting in a decidedly political way, raising important questions about his complicity in the ways in which his study is being used to limit LGBTQ rights.

Initially, I defended Regnerus’ right to fight for his flawed study in the academic sphere.  However, it’s clear to me now that assuming good faith was a naïve mistake. I was wrong: Regnerus has not been irresponsibly silent. At best, he has been reckless in his promotion of his work without regard to the fallout. At worst, he is aware and doesn’t mind. 

In February of this year, Regnerus gave an interview to a Russian language news agency in Ukraine. The homophobic article that resulted cites “shocking” evidence from a “reputable university” (ours)  showing inferior results for children of same-sex parenting. The reporter asked Regnerus about a September 2012 investigation into whether Regnerus breached ethics standards in his research protocol. The article claims that not only did the University say that Regnerus did nothing wrong, which is true, but that UT has allegedly tested the methodology and confirmed that the research is of high quality. Actually, the University has not taken a position on the quality of the study.

 In the Q-and-A, Regnerus explains the University’s ruling on the ethics allegations. He restates that his data is accurate and accessible. The article ends by saying the study shows “the tragic consequences” of gay parenting.

While Regnerus’ responses themselves are no different from what he has told this newspaper, Vse Novosti is not The Daily Texan. Regnerus gave this interview in a Russian-language news outlet shortly after the State Department expressed its concern about the “discriminatory” anti-gay laws then being debated there, laws that were later passed.    

Adding cowardice to irresponsibility, Regnerus still told The Dallas Morning News in June that he could not police ideological uses of his study. Regenerus’ Vse Novosti interview seems even more reckless in hindsight as his study was later used by Russian lawmaker Andrei Zhuravlyov to advance a bill that would allow the removal of children from same-sex households. 

A few weeks ago Regnerus spoke out against Zhuravlyov’s bill, and I applaud him for that. But in the same column, Regnerus defended his foray into the political sphere based on his personal opposition to gay marriage. Zhuravlyov’s  bill had not come up when Regnerus gave his interview. However, are we to believe that Regnerus was not aware of Russia’s general situation when he chose to respond to the Russian language outlet even as he declined to be interviewed by The New York Times? 

University documents show that the Office of Public Affairs collaborated with Regnerus on the initial press release for the NFSS study. They highlighted the sensitivity of the study and reminded him of the expected negative reaction to the research. Given the risks to the University’s and his co-researchers’ reputations, why didn’t Regnerus steer clear of high-profile political debates his study doesn’t address? Regnerus claims that he is merely an objective scientist, but in the last year he has acted more like a political hack than an intellectual responsibly using his position.

Perhaps the newest Russian initiative to remove children from the homes of same-sex couples has taught Regnerus the risks of inserting himself into complex cultural and legal debates. If so, Regnerus should admit his role in politicizing the study and apologize for contributing to its misuse. If not, the University community should call him to account for his irresponsibility. 

 Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.

When I first learned about UT sociology professor Mark Regnerus’ “New Family Structure Study,” which declared that children of gay parents fare worse than those from “intact biological families,” I, as the son of a gay father, felt that my upbringing was under attack. It was hard to sympathize with Regnerus feeling a “chill” after releasing the study to much criticism, as my own community had felt the chill of prejudice for decades.

After writing a column in The Daily Texan criticizing the study, I ran into Regnerus on campus earlier this semester. I immediately introduced myself. He mentioned that he had read my remarks and that he had made several revisions and clarifications regarding his study. I accepted his offer to converse about it in more detail. Looking back, the straightforwardness of these conversations still surprises me, as does the fact that I am starting to sympathize with some of the difficulties he faces.

Despite my criticisms of the study, I agree with Regnerus that we need a more civil discourse regarding this polarizing issue. Particularly, I think that some of the reaction to his study was overstated. I have often heard assertions that his study attempts to undo 30 years of research or that he wishes to say that gays are bad parents. Some academics, like Darren E. Sherkat, a sociology professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale are more frank, calling it “bullshit.” Comments like that cast aside too easily some of Regnerus’ more positive contributions, like the importance of stability in child-rearing. These positive questions cause me to see the study as a sort of Rorschach test, in which the subject looks at an inkblot and sees what he wants to see. The different actors interpret the data as they see fit, and, in the case of Regnerus’ study, progressives should reject its most extreme conclusions and wrestle with its legitimate questions regarding alleged defects in prior studies. Regnerus’ revisions to the study redefine the category in question as children who said their parents have had homosexual relationships instead of implying that they are self-identifying gays and lesbians. While I do not agree that his study is definitive — one study cannot by itself overturn the prevailing consensus overnight — Regnerus’ work raises important questions about the stability of gay relationships and provides an  alternative method to those that tend toward self-selecting upper-class gay families. When I asked him about his challenge to the academic consensus, he responded, “First, the social science here is pretty young. Second, the evidence about child outcomes among gay and lesbian parents has been limited by sample size, method variance, etc.” In a recent interview with Focus on the Family, a socially conservative Christian organization, Regnerus emphasized that he did not want to imply that “gay parents are inherently bad” and that his study did not examine “parenting methods.”

Despite the revisions, I still find parts of Regnerus’ study problematic. He decided to include his finding that there were significantly higher rates of sexual abuse in lesbian households than those of  “intact biological families” despite ambiguousness regarding whether the abuse occurred in the lesbian relationship or in a previous heterosexual marriage. Gray areas in research are not uncommon, but I still believe that it was imprudent to run the risk of publishing findings that could reinforce, on dubious grounds, the prejudice that there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia. Regnerus still asserts that he attempts to “follow the data,” that “data is not the enemy” and that one shouldn’t “avoid research questions just because you risk offending people,” and I still disagree with him. It is one thing to publish controversial numbers that are based on statistical realities, but it is quite another to publish numbers as “statistically significant” when their context is, in the author’s own words, “muddled.” In order to effectively contribute to the academic debate, Regnerus should have shown more caution and published only the most solid parts of his research.

However, I do not believe in academic censorship or in ostracizing academics for uncomfortable findings. No one can completely control how every study will be used, and gays do not need to be “not different.” Regnerus’ study deserves a more constructive reading to evaluate its place in the parenting debate.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.