While Mark Regnerus’s Social Science Research essay has been all the rage, another essay by LSU scholar Loren Marks published in SSR also deserves attention.
Marks’ contention is that the American Pyschological Association prematurely and inaccurately concluded in its 2005 brief on lesbian and gay parenting that “Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents.”
Examining the 59 published studies that the APA relied on to make its conclusion, Marks finds the following.
1. “More than three-fourths (77 percent) of the studies cited by the APA are based on small, non-representative, convenience samples of fewer than 100 participants.” Further, many of these studies were racially homogenous, focusing on white gay couples. Furthermore, only eight of the 59 published studies focused specifically on outcomes of children from gay fathers. Of those eight, four did not include a heterosexual comparison group. Of the four that did include heterosexual comparison groups, one of them relied on a heterosexual comparison group of two single fathers.
2. Of the 59 studies relied on by the APA, 26 (or 44 percent) did not include a heterosexual comparison group, which as Marks notes, “In well-conducted science, it is important to have a clearly defined comparison group before drawing conclusions regarding differences or the lack thereof.
3. Of the 33 studies that did include heterosexual comparison groups, at least 13 of them used single-parent families as the heterosexual comparison group. The remaining 20 studies with heterosexual comparison groups are ambiguous about the nature of the comparison group, referring to them only as “mothers” and “couples,” without specifying if they were biologically intact families, or stepfamilies, or cohabiting families, etc.
4. Contrary to the APA’s assertion that “Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents” — there was at least one notable exception: Sarantakos’s 1996 study. That study had a sample size of 174, the seventh-largest sample size of the 59 published studies listed by the APA. However, the other six with larger sample sizes relied on adult self-report studies, whereas Sarantakos’s study specifically examined children’s developmental outcomes, making it the largest study to specifically study children’s developmental outcomes. What did Sarantakos find? “Overall, the study has shown that children of married couples are more likely to do well at school in academic and social terms, than children of cohabiting and homosexual couples.” Why did the APA not take this study into consideration, particularly if it had the largest sample size that specifically addresses children’s developmental outcomes? They dismissed it because (a) the Sarantakos study was based, in part, on “subjective reports by teachers” (which is inferior to subjective reports by parents, as is frequently done in the same-sex parenting literature upon which the APA relied?), even though, as Marks points out, some of the assessment was based on “tests” and “normal school asssessments”; (b) the APA concluded that “[Children in Australia, journal where the article was published] cannot be considered a source upon which one should rely for understanding the state of scientific knowledge in this field, particularly when the results contradict those that have been repeatedly replicated in studies published in better known scientific journals.” (The latter dismissal sounds suspiciously to me like “We don’t like what this study says, and it contradicts what the other studies we like says, so we’re not going to give it serious consideration.”)
5. In regards to the children’s outcomes that were studied, 20 of the 59 studies examined gender-related outcomes, but there was “a dearth of peer-reviewed journal articles from which to form science-based conclusions in myriad areas of societal concern,” including integenerational poverty, serious criminality, incarceration, early childbearing, drug/alcohol abuse, suicide, etc. A 2002 review of the literature by Anderssen and colleagues captures the absence of these measures:
Emotional functioning was the most often studied outcome (12 studies), followed by sexual preference (nine studies), gender role behavior (eight studies), behavioral adjustment (seven studies), gender identity (six studies), and cognitive functioning (three studies).
Further, there was at least one book-length empirical study that did examine developmental measures of concern to society — again, this time by Sarantakos, and this time published by Harvard Press (in 2000). There, Sarantakos concluded the following:
“If we perceive deviance in a general sense, to include excessive drinking, drug use, truancy, sexual deviance, and criminal offenses, and if we rely on statements made by adult children (over 18 years of age)…[then] children of homosexual parents report deviance in higher proportions than children of (married or cohabiting) heterosexual couples.”
For whatever reason, the APA chose to ignore Sarantakos’s study (maybe Harvard Press isn’t prestigious enough?).
6. None of the studies cited by the APA track long-term outcomes of children into adulthood — which, as Marks points out, is important because it is possible that, as Judy Wallerstein and colleagues found with children from divorced families, it is possible that “the ‘major impact’ of same-sex parenting ‘might not occur during childhood or adolescence…[but that it will rise] in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage.”
7. His seventh point is highly technical and drawn-out, and if you want the full import of this point, I’ll direct you to the article itself. For here, I’ll quote Marks, who addresses this question:
Have the studies in this area committed the type II error and prematurely concluded that heterosexual couples and gay and lesbian couples produce parental outcomes with no differences?
In research, incorrectly concluding that there is no difference between groups when there is in fact a difference is referred to as a type II error….All one would have to do to come to a conclusion of ‘no difference’ is to conduct a study with a small sample and or/sufficient levels of random variation….It must be re-emphasized that a conclusion of ‘no significant difference’ means that it is unknown whether or not a difference exists on the variable(s) in question (Cohen, 1988). This conclusion does not necessarily mean that the two groups are the same on the variable being studied or on all other characteristics. This point is important with same-sex parenting research because … the 2005 APA Brief seem to draw inferences of sameness based on the observation that gay and lesbian parents and heterosexual parents appear not to be statistically different from one another — thereby becoming vulnerable to a classic Type II error.
There is more, but as I said, you can look at it for yourself for the full story (see pp. 745-748).
In conclusion, Marks suggests that, based upon his examination,
To make a generalizable claim, representative, large-sample studies are needed–many of them…. Some opponents of same-sex parenting have made “egregious overstatements” disparaging gay and lesbian parents. Conversely, some same-sex parenting researchers seem to have contended for an “exceptionally clear” verdict of “no difference” between same-sex and heterosexual parents since 1992. However, a closer examination leads to the conclusion that strong, generalized assertions, including those made by the APA Brief, were not empirically warranted. As noted by Shiller (2007) in American Psychologist, ‘the line between science and advocacy appears blurred’ (p. 712).
If Marks’ critique is correct, then the following is true.
One cannot make generalized assertions, in the name of science, that children with same-sex parents fare worse than children with heterosexual parents. It may be true, and one may make reasonable arguments for it, but before one grounds a statement in science, we need many more large-sample studies.
Judge Walker’s following assertion in his Prop 8 ruling — based in part on a 2008 APA statement – was just that: an assertion that has no basis in scientific evidence:
Children raised by gay or lesbian parents are as likely as children raised by heterosexual parents to be healthy,successful and well-adjusted. The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology. [emphasis mine]
It may be true, and one may make reasonable arguments for it, but one cannot appeal to supposedly indisputed scientific research to say it is true.
Also, same-sex marriage proponents, like John Corvino in Debating Same-Sex Marriage, who appeals to a 2004 APA statement as evidence that ”mainstream professional opinion resoundingly supports the conclusion that, on average, children in same-sex households fare as well as children in heterosexual households,” must revisit their appeal to authority. Again, it may be true and one may make reasonable arguments for it, but one cannot appeal to science to say it is true. For if Marks is correct, the experts at the APA drew hasty conclusions unwarranted by the scientific literature.
Finally, if Marks’s critique is correct, it means that the APA — to whom the general population trusts is making decisions based on science, and not on their own individual biases — needs to explain itself. In the meantime, people like me are left wondering if the APA is masquerading its own bias in the name of science.
[Note: The link to Marks' paper currently says the site is experiencing technical difficulties, and is unavailable for the time being. But yesterday it was publicly accessible, so hopefully the problem will be resolved soon and we all can read to our heart's content.]