Sociologist Defends Study Questioning Gay Parenting Against Political Attacks

Prominent sociologist Christian Smith is defending Dr. Mark Regnerus' controversial study questioning gay parenting against accusations of academic misconduct in a Monday editorial for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Regnerus' study, published in the July issue of Social Science Research, concludes that the children of parents who had same-sex relationships have more emotional and social problems than children of heterosexual parents with intact marriages.

"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," wrote Smith, professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Center for Social Research at University of Notre Dame.

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Regnerus' accusers are hiding their political motivations, Smith claims, behind the allegations that Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, is guilty of conducting poor research.

"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."

If Regnerus' findings were found favorable by his critics, Smith believes, they would not have complained about his methodology. Indeed, Smith wrote, previous studies on gay parenting had even greater limitations than Regnerus' study, but since those studies supported the critics' point of view, no concerns were raised.

"Apparently, weak research that comes to the 'right' conclusions is more acceptable than stronger studies that offer heretical results."

In response to the study, a letter was sent to the editors of Social Science Research asking them to publicly disclose the reasons for publishing the study and to invite other scholars to critique the study in a future publication. The letter was posted to a blog called The New Civil Rights Movement, which also posted a letter sent to William Powers, the president of The University of Texas at Austin.

UT Austin has launched an inquiry into whether or not to formally investigate Regnerus, which is standard operating procedure any time there is an allegation of scientific misconduct.

Smith is not a conservative, he points out, and there is no inherent problem with the fact that most sociologists are liberal, but the political agendas of some sociologists are problematic.

"Many sociologists," Smith wrote, "view higher education as the perfect gig, a way to be paid to engage in 'consciousness raising' through teaching, research, and publishing -- at the expense of taxpayers, donors, and tuition-paying parents, many of whom thoughtfully believe that what those sociologists are pushing is wrong."

Smith also believes that some sociologists fall into a "groupthink" and fail to realize that some issues are still in dispute. Some of his colleagues, Smith observed, are "parochial and mean."

"I have seen colleagues ignore, stereotype, and belittle people and perspectives they do not like, rather than respectfully provide good arguments against those they do not agree with and for their own views." (Emphasis in original.)

The result of sociology's insular liberal orthodoxy, Smith says, is that sociologists will "play it politically safe, avoid controversial issues, [and] publish the right conclusions."

Smith believes that the integrity of social science research is at stake in this debate.

"Sociology's progressive orthodoxy and the semicovert activism it prompts threaten the intellectual vitality of the discipline, the quality of undergraduate education, and public trust in academe."

Regnerus' critics should respond using the methods that science already has in place to deal with disagreements, Smith argues.

"Studies should be replicated. Data sets should be made public and reanalyzed. And new and better studies should be conducted. Eventually the truth comes out. By those means, Regnerus might be shown to have been wrong or perhaps be vindicated. That is how science is supposed to work."

Smith is renowned for his work in the sociology of religion and religiously motivated social movements. He has written several books on American evangelicals.

A June 20 letter signed by 18 social scientists, including Smith, defending Regnerus can be found here. A response from Regnerus to his critics can be found here and here.

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