regnerusGuest post by Scott Rose

There is a long and shameful history of people presenting anti-minority junk science to the Supreme Court. In Loving v. Virginia, the landmark 1967 case that struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage, the State of Virginia’s go-to “expert” was sociologist Dr. Albert I. Gordon, a conservative rabbi , whose volume Intermarriage cherry-picked scientific findings, engendering prejudice against interracial couples. Gordon and those who used his work emphasized the alleged harm that interracial marriage, if legalized, would do to children.

In the present day, the chief work of junk science being used against gay people and their rights is The New Family Structures Study. Sponsored by The Witherspoon Institute and conducted by Witherspoon’s puppet researcher, Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin, the study, made available online in June 2012, alleged to have upended the field of gay parenting studies by proving that gay parents have child outcomes statistically inferior to those of heterosexual parents. Whereas the actual scientific literature shows that there is nothing about a parent’s sexual orientation that determines an individual’s or couple’s ability to parent effectively, Regnerus and his backers are using his junk science worldwide to smear and to demonize all gay people. Their campaign bore ugly fruit during Supreme Court oral arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry when Justice Scalia incorrectly stated that there is “considerable disagreement” among sociologists about gay parenting and that some states “do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.”

After Regnerus filed an anti-equality amicus brief with the Supreme Court, many major relevant professional associations  — among them, the American Medical Association and the American Sociological Association –filed briefs of their own, large focused on analyses of Regnerus’s methodology. They ultimately concluded that Regnerus’s study has nothing at all to do with children raised by gay parents.

A particular problem arises when people promulgate anti-minority junk science in bad faith. Science progresses when flawed conclusions are disproven through an honest use of the scientific method, but arguing against the perpetrators of junk science only rewards them. Regnerus and his anti-gay supporters’ claim to scientific legitimacy rests on his study having been published through peer review in Elsevier’s journal Social Science Research. However, there is documentable evidence that editor James Wright subverted the peer review process, and is in many additional ways in violation of the Committee on Publication Ethic’s (COPE) Code of Conduct for journal editors. Dr. Gary Gates submitted an essay titled “An Illegitimate Review Process” to the journal for publication in November, 2012, explaining how the facts show that the Regnerus paper did not have valid professional peer review. According to Gates, Wright said that he gave the essay to Elsevier officials who then “blackballed” it against being published. That happened, even though Wright had said he would publish anything that credentialed academics submitted to him about the Regnerus matter.

Wright and Elsevier have been rewarded by an international anti-gay stampede to the journal’s website. However, professionals who have reviewed Wright’s actions have concluded that he violated science publishing ethics. Dr. Michael Schwartz, Chair of Sociology at Stony Brook University told me, “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.” Sir William Timothy Gowers of Cambridge University, who is leading a boycott of Elsevier for other reasons, has said that “the paper is bunkum and shouldn’t have been accepted: its conclusion (that children do worse if they have gay parents) is not remotely justified by the data used.”

W. Bradford Wilcox is a member of Wright’s Social Science Research editorial board. In 2010, as Director of Witherspoon’s Program for Marriage, Family and Democracy, Wilcox was involved with recruiting Regnerus for the study and subsequently collaborated with him on study design, data collection and analyses. COPE’s Code of Conduct states that funders’ roles in research and publication must be disclosed, yet Wright and Wilcox have ignored calls for them fully to disclose Wilcox’s role in the study and its publication. Wright has actually published, twice,Regnerus’s claim that his funders had no role in the design or carrying-out of the study. However, documents recently obtained through Public Information Act requests to the University of Texas at Austin show that in August, 2011 – before the study’s data collection had occurred – Regnerus and Wilcox traveled on Witherspoon’s dime to Colorado, where they spent a full day discussing media and public relations promotions for the study with Focus on the Family’s Glenn Stanton. Why would Stanton have agreed to meet with them, before data collection for the study occurred, if he had not been promised that the study’s first paper would reflect negatively on gay parents? In an e-mail, Regnerus reported on the meeting to Witherspoon President Luis Tellez, telling him that it went well, and that they had a good plan moving forward. Tellez, for his part had previously stipulated that the research had to be done by people opposed to marriage equality, and that it should be completed before major decisions of the Supreme Court.

Trust in the scientific community is undermined when a journal editor and a science publisher sacrifice integrity to increase clicks on their publication’s website. A group of sociologists headed by Dr. Laurie Essig of Middlebury College recently wrote letters to Wright and his editorial board asking for retraction of the paper and expressing dismay over Wright’s role in improperly validating the Regnerus submission through publication in his peer reviewed journal. Wright refused them, without addressing the issues they raised about the invalid peer review process.

Clearly, some action must now be taken to restore the trust that Wright has violated. No minority should ever suffer baseless defamation through junk science, but the Regnerus paper is doing exactly that, at the highest levels of U.S. government and around the world. What is perhaps most chilling of all is that Elsevier has James Wright in place as editor-in-chief of its upcoming International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and the anti-gay right worldwide now knows where to go if they’re looking to get their anti-gay junk science published.