Monday, July 30, 2012

Research Integrity and Politics: The Regnerus Affair

Because many engineers do scientific research and publish in peer-reviewed journals, the matter of research integrity should be a concern of all engineers.  An acquaintance of mine, University of Texas sociology professor Mark Regnerus, has recently found himself in the center of a tornadic controversy over a paper he published last month in the Journal of Social Science Research.

I am not an unbiased observer of this situation.  I met Prof. Regnerus several years ago at a dinner, and he impressed me as a pleasant, sincere Christian (he is a Catholic convert) whose presence in the field of sociology was a welcome one, because sociologists in general tend to be leery of personal commitments to organized religion.  Regnerus is interested in the way sexuality influences and is influenced by social behavior, as evidenced by his earlier Oxford University Press book Forbidden Fruit, an investigation of teenage sexual behavior and attitudes.  But with his latest paper, Regnerus stepped on a political third rail.

The paper describes an extensive research project into the question of whether gay parenting affects the lives of children in measurable ways.  The conventional sociological wisdom, represented by a fairly small number of research papers, says that there is essentially no negative effect of being raised by two mommies or two daddies, as opposed to the conventional mother and father.  This body of work is cited by every judicial decision in favor of things such as adoption by gay parents and the extension of marriage to gay couples.

Regnerus’s study, which he himself admits is not perfect, found otherwise.  There were significant negative consequences of being raised by parents who were gay, according to the study.  I am not going to address the controversial question of defining “gay” or how extensive the negative consequences were or how accurate and scientific the study was. 
Not being a sociologist, I am not qualified to pass judgment on these matters.  What I am qualified to judge is the way the peer-review process has been attacked and corrupted after Regnerus’s paper was published.

The idea behind peer review is that scientific publications should be judged by those most qualified to do so:  namely, other scientists in the same field.  That is exactly how Regnerus’s paper was judged.  As is common practice in some fields, Regnerus was allowed to suggest the names of some reviewers, and as is also common, he had worked with some (not all) in the distant past.  In specialized fields, this kind of thing is often unavoidable and does not mean that the reviews will necessarily be biased in the author’s favor.  (Sometimes it works the other way!)  In any case, the reviewers recommended publication and the paper was published.

Then the deluge began.  A journalist and self-described “minorities anti-defamation professional” whose pseudonym is Scott Rose wrote a letter to the University of Texas administration alleging that Regnerus’s paper falsified data.  This is the most serious professional charge that anyone can level against a scientist, comparable to a malpractice charge against a doctor.  The first wrongdoing (as I pointed out in a letter published in the Austin American-Statesman) was for UT Austin to act on such complaints from a person who was not in a competent professional position to make such assessments.  Scott Rose is not a sociologist.  Rose has since published the full “evidence” he plans to present to UT Austin, and it consists of two kinds of arguments.  One kind comprises disputes over methods and definitions that Regnerus used.  If Rose had been selected as a reviewer of Regnerus’s paper, these arguments might have played a role at that point.  But Rose, not being a qualified sociologist, has no professional standing to make them, and they must be assessed on their merits by other professional sociologists.  The other kind of argument consists of various ad hominem attacks on Regnerus’s funding sources, which include organizations such as the Witherspoon Institute that favor conservative causes.  While taking funding from organizations with a political agenda is certainly a possible source of bias, in the field of sociology it is hard to avoid.  Even the federal government has a political agenda, and one’s source of funding cannot be construed as prima facie evidence of research falsification.

Rose also cites the other outrage against the peer-review process:  a special audit report written by a member of the Journal of Social Science Research’s editorial board on the question of whether the peer-review process that led to publication was flawed.  The member, Darren Sherkat, found essentially nothing wrong with the peer-review process.  Instead, he took the opportunity in the audit to review the paper himself, and used terms (“bulls---“) that in my opinion have no place even in a conversation about another colleague’s work, let alone a report on the integrity of the review process.

I have not even mentioned the press coverage with derogatory headlines, the letter signed by over a hundred sociologists objecting to Regnerus’s conclusions, and the politically motivated letter-mobbing of the journal’s editor, James Wright, which pressured him to request the review audit.  Releasing a draft audit to the media, as Wright did, was clearly a craven attempt to deflect hostile politically motivated attacks from himself.  It showed no respect or regard for Regnerus, and probably did not even achieve its intended purpose.

In an opinion piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, sociologist Christian Smith takes Regnerus’s side and expresses better than I can, the point that the scientific integrity of the field of sociology is at stake here.  I will ask a question.  In the 1930s, many prominent scientists and engineers in Germany lost their reputations, their jobs, and some eventually their lives because of a non-scientific reason:  they happened to be Jews, or outspoken Christians, or simply opposed to some political aim of the government.  Everyone now agrees that this was a grievous violation of human rights, an early warning sign of the greater wrongs the German government would do in World War II.  While that situation differs from the one Regnerus finds himself in by degree, does it differ in kind from what Jewish scientists suffered in Germany in the 1930s?  Regnerus has reached scientific conclusions that oppose the prevailing political winds.  Though his punishment has come from activists rather than official government sources, it is no less politically motivated and no less unjust.  Smith thinks the integrity of the social-science research process is threatened by the “public smearing and vigilante media attacks” mounted against Regnerus.  If such attacks are successful, we have taken a long step away from scientific integrity and a long step toward the encouragement of a political atmosphere that is totalitarian in its effects.

Sources:  Among the many articles published on this controversy in the last few weeks, I have used the following.  The Austin American-Statesman published a description of UT’s inquiry on July 11 at  The Chronicle of Higher Education has published “The Regnerus Affair at UT Austin” by Peter Wood on July 15 at and “An Academic Auto-da-Fé” by Christian Smith on July 23 at

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