Rigorous about Regnerus: a case study in bullshit detection

As of last week, we now know two things, conclusively, about the report issued last year by researcher Mark Regnerus, which claimed to find - in opposition to years of legitimate research - that children of gay parents are worse off than their peers.

We found out last year that the "research" was, in the words of someone at the very journal that published it, "bullshit" that should never have been published.

And now we know why it was published anyway.

Goal of UT parenting study was to influence SCOTUS decisions on gay marriage, docs show [American Independent] 

There is no deniability: this skewed truth is out there in its most naked form.

Thanks to the work of bloggers, activists, national organizations, and independent journalists, we have incontrovertible proof that the colloquially branded "Regnerus Study"—which again, purported to say homes headed by same-gender couples are less stable, nurturing, and generally satisfying than those headed by different-gender couples—was crafted by far-right social conservatives in hopes that it would steer the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in the upcoming marriage cases. 

But more than gloat about the confirmation of what those of us in LGBT activist circles suspected from the first moment we laid eyes on this study, I instead want to take a moment to applaud the American mainstream media for having the same suspicions, and more importantly, heeding them.  The same social conservatives who fostered the study tried desperately to persuade the mainstream media to pick up its findings and apply them directly to the marriage debate.  They have tried but failed, because journalists largely recognized this work for what it was; "bullshit."

The New York Times' earliest report is a good example of strong reporting that set the proper context.  While being careful to say that there is a little bit of actual research attached to the study, writer Benedict Carey made it clear that the study did not even remotely apply to the debate to which its supporters wished to apply it.  Carey noted the flawed sample (e.g. "About half the study participants with a gay parent, as defined in the study, were born out of wedlock and half into a traditional family that broke up. Many lived with the gay parent sporadically;" "Just three of those who had lesbian mothers lived out their entire childhood with that parent, Dr. Regnerus said; none of those whose fathers had had a same-sex relationship lived full time with their fathers through childhood.") and every single expert Carey quoted in his piece noted the "limited usefulness" in applying the findings to the marriage equality conversation.  Carey's article made it perfectly clear that if there is anything at all to be gleaned from Regnerus' work, it speaks to other factors (e.g. divorce, fragmentation, family transition, etc) and not gay parenting in general.  

The Times writer even included this damning quote from Regnerus himself: 

Dr. Regnerus said that the study did not include the number, or variety, of people with a gay parent that he would have liked. “This whole narrative of a gay couple raising a kid together, staying together — that kind of thing didn’t exist much,” when the participants were children, he said. [SOURCE]

It takes a lot of brass to hear the researcher make such an admission and still try to apply it to the very narrative that he himself says he didn't examine.  And of course now we know without question the reason that application was attempted. This "research" was never actually about research. It was about skewing the debate - even if it meant spitting in the face of science to do it.

(Witherspoon Institute president Luis) Tellez went on to explain that the crux of (Regnerus's) New Family Structures Study – whether kids raised by gay parents fare as well as those raised by straight parents – “is the question that must now be answered – in a scientifically serious way – by those who are in favor of traditional marriage.”

This question "must now be answered," according to the group that funded the research, by researchers who are already biased.

This explains once and for all why anti-gay activists spent so much time and energy feeding the conservative media with pretense about the study, even using Regnerus' work in campaign ads during the 2012 election cycle.

But to the mainstream media's credit, few bought the obvious spin.  Virtually every outlet who ran a report led with the controversy surrounding it and gave more time to those who noted its obvious flaws rather than those who attempted to misuse it.  ABC News' Medical Unit, for example, ran a headline about the study "spark[ing] criticism" and gave quote slots to three critics versus one supporter (from the exceedingly anti-LGBT Family Research Council).  This is not an example of the "liberal media bias" that these same Regnerus supporters would surely accuse it of being.  When the flaws are so sweeping, that becomes the story.  It would be biased to give equal time to those who do not have the facts backing up their agendas.

But more than just the outside voices, some of the most damning comments came from Regnerus himself.  This same ABC News report closed with this. from the researcher's own mouth:

Regnerus said he has no opinion on whether the study supports or refutes the benefits of condoning same-sex marriages and parenting.

"This study really can't answer any political questions," he said. [SOURCE]

This directly repudiated what the anti-LGBT groups tried to do with the findings.  Heck, they are still trying to do it, with political special interest groups regularly citing it in their campaigning, amicus briefs, and rallying rhetoric. 

But while I somewhat credit Regnerus for being so frank about what he didn't find - no matter how desperately his funders wanted him to - he himself fostered the misinformation cycle. He's trying to have it both ways.  In the past six months, Regnerus has appeared on advocacy panels alongside both of the National Organization For Marriage two cofounders, Robert George and Maggie Gallagher.  Later this year, Regnerus will appear at the annual conference of the Ruth Institute, which is also a project of NOM's Education Fund (*See Carlos Maza's eyeopening undercover report form the 2012 conference).  These are not apolitical bookings that an independent researcher would make.  Regnerus is not playing the part of a mere conservative researcher who did the best work that his purview would allow—he is playing the role of an agenda-driven activist whose own national tour schedules belies his own comments to the mainstream press.

Every single journalist, provided he or she is more interested with reporting than furthering a political agenda, has an innate bullshit detector.  Real journalists know when a source is hiding something, or when a piece of information is wildly off-the-mark, or when an angle just smells funny.  The anti-gay industry has proven time and time again, conclusively, that the media really needs to trust these bullshit detectors when it comes to their claims.

And when their bullshit is exposed as such? There's your story.