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Academics intending to investigate the social effects of same-sex unions may think twice after the ordeal of Professor Regnerus

The Regnerus affair may have a chilling impact on academic freedom

By on Friday, 19 October 2012

Professor Mark Regnerus (Courtesy of Markregnerus.com)

Professor Mark Regnerus (Courtesy of Markregnerus.com)

I want to be clear, at the outset, that this is not yet another blog about Catholic teaching on the morality of homosexuality, nor is it (except indirectly) one more defence of the traditional family. It’s partly (but again indirectly) about the social effects of treating homosexual unions as though they were equivalent to marriage based on the union of one man and one woman: but again, it’s not about the morality or theology of active homosexuality.

It’s about the politics of it: it’s about the way in which the gay lobby operates. Just as most secularists are very hesitant to have a go at Islam, when they don’t think twice about mounting an attack on Christianity, so I detect a growing reluctance among Christians to risk getting on the wrong side of the gay lobby. The gay lobby doesn’t actually go in for assassination: you may not get shot or blown up: but the result can be pretty unpleasant all the same. And there is mounting evidence that this phenomenon is already having a clear effect on academic freedom.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the research of Professor Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas, who after a very large-scale survey found (publishing his findings, after the usual process of peer review, in the widely respected journal Social Science Research) that “children raised by homosexual parents are more likely than those raised by married heterosexual parents to suffer from poor impulse control, depression and suicidal thoughts” and that “They are also more likely to require more mental health therapy; identify themselves as homosexual; choose cohabitation; be unfaithful to partners; contract sexually transmitted diseases; be sexually molested; have lower income levels; drink to get drunk; and smoke tobacco and marijuana.”

I don’t want, here, to talk about these findings (I have already done that), rather I want to home in on the surrounding circumstances of their publication, for they reveal much about the ruthlessness of the gay lobby, and about the way it uses intimidation to prevent too many people with Professor Regnerus’s inclination to tell what he believes to be the truth on this subject from raising their heads above the parapet.

As for why this is a subject for a Catholic blog: Professor Regnerus is himself a Catholic and that is one of the reasons for his attack proffered by the gay blogger Scott Rose, who then made a complaint to his employers of academic misconduct, a complaint which was then promptly and thoroughly investigated by Texas University, who in the end found that Professor Regnerus had conducted his research with complete integrity. But there is a real question about that: why should a respectable university have jumped to it quite so quickly at the behest of an activist individual of this type, a person with no more status or authority than his own blog and his position in the gay activist world? The answer is that he had so successfully stirred up such vitriolic opposition to Professor Regnerus’s findings in the liberal media, that the university was actually frightened of him. So when he said “jump”, the university authorities at Austin, in the great state of Texas, jumped.

What Mark Regnerus was then put through is disquieting. Rose accused Regnerus of scientific misconduct in two letters, first charging him with deviating from “ethical standards” and later accusing him of “possible falsification” of his research. Rose claimed the study was compromised because it was funded by the conservative Witherspoon Institute and also because professor Regnerus is a Catholic, and therefore incapable of impartiality on such a subject (unlike himself, presumably).

The inquiry into their colleague’s integrity was conducted by a four-member “advisory panel” composed of senior faculty members, who (for all the world like a police force investigating fraud or paedophile offences) actually seized Regnerus’s computers and 42,000 emails. Once the inquiry was complete, the university commissioned a former associate director of the Office of Research Integrity in the US Department of Health and Human Services, to review the inquiry, which he found was “consistent with federal regulatory requirements of inquiries into research misconduct”.

So all’s well that ends well? Well, not quite. For there has now been established a precedent, which in the future those conducting academic research might well find intimidating. The moral seems to be, not so much that if you tell the truth and proceed with integrity all will be well but that if you want to be sure of avoiding that kind of gruelling ordeal, make sure you don’t choose a topic which might get you on the wrong side of the gay lobby: best just to steer clear of any such subject.

There is also the question of what a Catholic academic can now write about and research into. Earlier this week, there appeared an article in the New York Times, looking back on the Regnerus affair, tellingly entitled “Sociologist’s Paper Raises Questions on Role of Faith in Scholarship”.

“Because Dr Regnerus would not be interviewed,” says the article’s author, Mark Oppenheimer, “it is impossible to know his latest views about the relationship between his faith and research. But we can still ask if, in principle, belief in the divinity of Jesus could affect one’s social science. Put another way: “is there a Christian way to crunch numbers?”

“The answer, in my personal opinion, is no,” said Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke Divinity School. But, he added, religious concerns “can very profoundly shape the kinds of questions we ask, and what we’re interested in, what we think is important and so on”. So while “in the narrowest sense it doesn’t affect his computations”, Dr Regnerus’s Christian faith may have drawn him to questions about same-sex relationships and family structure.

And a religious worldview, like any worldview, can dispose a researcher toward certain mistakes in thinking. Somebody critical of same-sex relationships may be more likely to group all such relationships together, as Dr Regnerus did.

Why that is a “mistake in thinking” is not explained: after all “grouping” relationships, or anything else, together is the necessary preliminary to discovering whether or not meaningful generalisations about them can be made.

“Dr Regnerus,” says Oppenheimer, “was a proud Christian witness, once upon a time. But these days he won’t discuss his faith, even with a Christian magazine. Two weeks ago, Christianity Today ran a lengthy interview with Dr Regnerus in which he said nothing about his religious beliefs. ‘I just didn’t think it was a profitable line of inquiry,’ Dr Regnerus said, in the one answer he would e-mail me. ‘I still don’t – sorry.’”

Can anyone blame him, after all he has been through? It is very sad – and disquieting – all the same.

  • Kevin

    That, if anything, is a secondary source. If you are going to make an accusation like that we need scanned images of signed documents.

  • Scott Rose

    The Regnerus submission did not have valid peer review.

     It is documented that the peers had multiple conflicts of interest with both Regnerus and Witherspoon, including that some were consultants on the Regnerus study, paid with Witherspoon dollars.  This violates all ethics of science publishing.  Asked about how the known conflicts of interest among the Regnerus peer reviewers compare to ethical standards for science publishing, Dr. Tony. N. Brown said this: “journal editors should always seek knowledgeable reviewers who do not have any conflict of interest regarding the submitted author or the study’s funder.”  Dr. Brown is editor-in-chief of the American Sociological Review, the official organ of the American Sociological Association.  UT is a co-investor in this study and is not to be trusted to carry out an inquiry of integrity.  Simultaneously, UT is embroiled in a scandal with its professor Charles Groat.  Groat conducted a study on fracking waste water, concluding that it is non-toxic.  When a watchdog group complained that Groat did not disclose that he is on the board of a fracking industry company, and holds over one million dollars in its stock, UT attempted to shoo the watchdogs away; only after they mounted a campaign for the university to act, did UT consent to doing a “review” of Groat, which has not yet happened.  

    UT has egg on its face.  The school’s stated purpose in conducting an inquiry is to determine whether an actual investigation is merited.  Just as UT made its announcement that an investigation was not merited, documentation was had through FOIA requests showing that Regnerus and his funders are lying about their relationships.  The school had been blockading release of the documentation, which was only had by a chance roundabout means.  Yet, what it shows, is that a Regnerus funding agency representative was also a paid Regnerus study consultant and a peer reviewer.  Moreover, that Witherspoon figure, Brad Wilcox, is on the editorial board of the journal “Social Science Research,” and a long-time crony to both journal editor James Wright and Regnerus himself.   Additional documentation showing more deeply how deliberately Regnerus and his funders are lying about their relationships has since come  to light.  Had UT done a serious inquiry, the school, not investigative reporters, would have been forthcoming with this info and documentation, if only to acknowledge its existence and to attempt to explain the non-disclosures. Of course, those non-disclosures violate all science ethics, i.e. they constitute a form of academic misconduct.  The journal itself carried out a sham audit of the circumstances of publication of the Regnerus submission, that admitted plain wrongdoing but held nobody accountable for it.  One phrase from the audit is “scholars who should have known better failed to recuse themselves from peer review.”  Where invalid peer review is discovered, the normal course of action is retraction of the study from publication, in order for it to be put through ethical and appropriate, professional peer review prior to any eventual re-publication. 

    Dr. Lori Holyfield has said this: “Politically-motivated groups bend facts all the time. The difference here is that this took place at a research university, which absolutely should have measures in place to insure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen. It sounds like there was some social networking going on, and that the $55,000 planning grant from The Witherspoon Institute got talked about, and then the work with the full $785,000 in funding followed. Somewhere along the way, though, the relationships that allowed this unacceptable thing to happen in a research university got obscured.”
    Dr. Michael Schwartz has said this: “I believe that the journal should retract its acceptance of the article and will sign a collective appeal to Elsevier.  For me, the retraction is needed primarily because the review process was compromised in several critical ways, and that therefore publication as a peer-reviewed publication was and is inappropriate.”In addition, I have now read and analyzed the article myself, and also read some of the critical (and supportive) commentaries on it.  It seems clear to me that if the article had been properly reviewed, that a whole menu of flaws in the research, in the analysis, and in the interpretation of evidence would make the article unpublishable. Also, I think that actions of the editor, James Wright–including the review process, the publication of the article with invited commentaries from collaborators, the subsequent failure to give space to legitimate criticisms of the article, and other editorial misconduct–should be professionally sanctioned.  In addressing Elsevier, I think it would be appropriate to demand that they replace Wright with a new editor who will not violate the norms and values of scholarly publication.”