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The Regnerus Affair at UT Austin

Updated 3:30 pm 7/16/12.  Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, is under attack.  In the July 2012 issue of Social Science Research, (Vol. 41, Is. 4) he published a peer-reviewed article, “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships?  Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” No doubt had the study eventuated in the finding “no significant differences were found,” Regnerus would have received encouraging nods from the many academics who believe that to be the appropriate answer. But Regnerus’s data revealed “numerous, consistent differences, especially between the children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still-married (heterosexual) biological parents.”

In the view of a good many academics, that’s not an acceptable finding. How many? Well, more than 200 “Ph.D.’s and MD’s” are said to have signed a letter to James Wright, the journal’s editor, questioning “the process by which this paper was submitted, reviewed, and accepted for publication.” The text of the letter is embedded in this blog by Scott Rose, on “The New Civil Rights Movement.”

“Scott Rose” is the blogonym of freelance writer and gay activist Scott Rosenweig. He is the primary instigator of the attack on Regnerus, and appears to devote much of his time to writing screeds against defenders of traditional marriage, a collection of which can be found here. Rosenweig is not a scholar or an expert in Regnerus’s field and his views on Regnerus’s research might occasion little attention except that he has triggered the University of Texas at Austin’s procedure for handling allegation of “scientific misconduct.”

Rosenweig has characterized the University’s response as an “investigation,” but when I used that term in the first version of this post, Gary Susswein, UT’s Director of Media Relations, hastened to explain that:

In fact, UT has not  launched a formal investigation into Mark Regnerus’ study. Rather, we have launched an inquiry that will determine whether a formal investigation is needed.

Moreover:

 [I]t is standard operating procedure, as laid out in our long-established university policies (http://www.utexas.edu/policies/hoppm/11.B.01.html). Any allegation of scientific misconduct automatically triggers a 60-day inquiry which may or may not lead to an investigation. We have received 28 allegations of scientific misconduct in the past 16 years — each one triggered an inquiry, very few led to a formal investigation.

This is welcome news up to as point. UT has left itself room to climb down, though why it climbed up in the first place is not so clear.   Rosenweig wrote to UT president Bill Powers on June 21 saying that Regnerus’s study was “designed so as to be guaranteed to make gay people look bad, through means plainly fraudulent and defamatory.” Those are pretty claims–though judging by Rosenweig’s comments on this article, he is standing by them.

Regnerus article stands (or falls) on its own merits. All scholarship should be open to scrutiny. But Rosenweig isn’t inviting scrutiny. He is, rather vividly, seeking to use the university’s mechanisms for investigating academic misconduct to silence and stigmatize scholars whose findings he dislikes. To get the full flavor of his attack on Regnerus, read Rosenweig’s gloating account of how the university responded to his complaint by inviting him to campus (from New York) to be interviewed by the Inquiry Panel.

Some prominent scholars have come to Regnerus’s defense, including Michael Emerson, Christian SmithRodney StarkW. Bradford Wilcox, and Bradley Wright. There have also been some interesting posts by independent writers, such as the Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall.  But if this becomes a matter to be settled by which side can summon the larger number and the loudest voices, Regnerus’s academic freedom has slim odds of prevailing. UT’s decision to convene an Inquiry Panel in the case shows perhaps cluelessness or institutional pusillanimity. Or, if we take Gary Susswein’s explanation at face value, it shows scrupulous adherence to the university policy 11.B.01.  I would suspect, however, that at least a few of the wilder accusations launched against faculty members are spared the 11.B.01 treatment.  There is surely some element of human discretion involved, and discretion in this case leaned toward an “inquiry.”

If If there are flaws in Regnerus’s data-collection, analysis, or reporting, they can be discovered and corrected through the usual methods. What Rosenweig has offered instead is a kind of scorched-earth personal attack, part ad hominem, part innuendo, part fly-specking, and all venom.  The gist of it is that Rosenweig disagrees with the criteria by which Regnerus defined the categories of people he compared.

A university indeed has an obligation to look into serious allegations of misconduct, but it also has a serious obligation to weigh whether allegations are indeed serious and not just expressions of parti pris or personal animus. As to the mobbing of the editor of Social Science Research, the tactic has become distressingly familiar. Activist groups have for the last quarter century mastered the art of besieging journal editors—who are typically isolated from any substantial base of support for their decisions—with hectoring letters.

The activists who pursue this sort of thing don’t necessarily expect to win each time. What they expect is that their show of force will intimidate other scholars and editors from risking expressions that might rouse similar ire. These are tactics of force and brute power, lightly veiled in the rhetoric of concern for scientific integrity. Attempting to stigmatize research that results in findings you don’t like as hateful or bigoted is a poor excuse for critical thinking or substantive disagreement. Some of Regnerus’s opponents nonetheless plunge ahead in exactly this manner. Others attempt to veil their animus by proliferating seemingly substantive charges—but the sheer number, variety, and contradictory character of the bills of particular testify to ulterior motives.

We get it: Researchers take note. Publish only findings that support the gay agenda. Departures from that rule will be punished up to and including career-ending academic show trials.

The Regnerus case is brand new. We will have to wait to see whether the University of Texas has the backbone to stand up to this campaign. More to come as the story unfolds.

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