Today I came across a letter to the editor that is being sent around in an attempt to add scholars as signatories before it is sent to the editor of Social Science Research, the journal that published the Regnerus study. Recall that the Regnerus study reported differences between children raised by a parent who had had a same-sex relationship and children whose parents were in intact, heterosexual marriages.
The letter has been drafted by Gary Gates of The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. The web site at The Williams Institute says it is a think tank that “advances sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy through rigorous, independent research and scholarship, and disseminates it to judges, legislators, policymakers, media and the public.”
The letter acknowledges straight away that it (the letter) could be viewed as essentially a call to censor unwelcome research findings: “While the presence of a vibrant and controversial public debate should in no way censor scholarship, it should compel the academy to hold scholarship around that topic to our most rigorous standards.” Clearly the signatories do not want their letter to be viewed as a call to censor unwelcome research findings.
The letter questions three main points: (1) what appears to be an accelerated review process (i.e., 5-week submission to publication), (2) the selection of commentators (none of whom is believed by the signatories to have expertise in LGBT families), as well as (3) specific concerns with various aspects of the methods and analyses.
As I discussed here, I don’t have quite the same reaction to the study, although I appreciate some of the points raised in the letter. Some of the requested information could be provided or discussed further, and perhaps that would be helpful, but it might just not be enough to satisfy critics given the amount of attention and scrutiny the study is receiving.
My reaction may also reflect a different philosophy toward research findings in general. I tend to see published research as an ongoing dialogue within the scientific community. So various decisions that are made in terms of methods and analyses should be explained to the reader. If that happens, then there is more latitude around what is published (again, provided it goes through the peer-review process and is determined – by peers – to be warranted or justifiable and clearly explained to the reader).
The challenge that comes up with controversial topics is not so much that these limitations exist (as limitations exist in all research) but that they are not fully understood by others outside of the scientific community. I am thinking here of policy-makers and others who make decisions based on their understanding of a study or larger body of research.
Of course, this cuts both ways: existing research on this very topic is not very good either (in terms of sample size, use of convenience samples, non-representative samples, and so on). So it would be helpful if critics were also vocal about the limitations seen in other studies. It may be human nature to give a pass to these same standards when findings fit our own biases and interests. When a study’s findings do not, we may be more apt to identify its weaknesses/limitations and call for higher standards and greater scrutiny.
It will be interesting to see how the letter is received and whether anything will be done in response. There are already several prominent signatories, and I imagine more will be added in the next day or so.
FYI: Here is a contrasting letter from the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion in support of the publication of the Regnerus study.