Professor Regnerus’ Study Seems Deceptive About His Funding Source’s Participation

10.03.2012, 1:35 AM

In his post earlier tonight, Brad Wilcox writes that I “asked about [his] affiliation with the Witherspoon Institute.”

The reason I emailed Brad was that I had grown curious about an issue that lgbt-rights blogger Scott Rose has raised.

To provide context, here’s the full text of the email I sent to Brad, with links added:

Hi, Brad. Barry Deutsch here – we’ve exchanged a few comments on “family scholars blog” from time to time.

I’ve been reading about something that I will probably blog about, but I wanted to ask you if you wanted to comment.

I’m hesitant to ask you about this at all, because so many of the folks who have criticized Regnerus’ study have been, in my opinion, over-the-top, and have made personal attacks on Professor Regnerus. That’s not something I want to be associated with. Although I’ve criticized Professor Regnerus’ study, I bear him no ill will.

Professor Regnerus has said a couple of times, referring to the NFSS, that “the funding sources played no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of this manuscript.”

However, it appears that you were a paid consultant on Professor Regnerus’ study. And your bio page on the Witherspoon website describes you as “Director of the Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy.” Finally, publicly available tax records indicates that Witherspoon’s tax return describes the NFSS as one of “the two major accomplishments” of a program called “Family, Marriage & Democracy.”

From this information, it appears that Professor Regnerus’ statement that “the funding sources played no role at all” in the NFSS cannot be accurate.

I’ll probably blog about this in the next couple of days, but if there’s anything I should know for the blog post, please do let me know. (I’ll assume that anything you tell me is okay to repeat in a blog post, unless you say otherwise, of course.) If you think it’s objectionable for me to blog about this, of course please tell me why, so I can consider that as well.

Best wishes,

Barry

First of all, I want to thank Brad for his response.

Brad says that he provided advice to “Witherspoon Institute staff” about “the New Family Structures Study,” as the Director of the program that funded the NFSS. However, Brad explains that his “Director” title was strictly honorary.

Separately, Brad was also a paid adviser on the NFSS project.

There is nothing unethical about Brad working with both NFSS and Witherspoon, in my opinion. Brad is a known scholar with interests similar to those of Witherspoon and Professor Regnerus; it is natural that both the staff at Witherspoon and Professor Regnerus should seek his advice.

However, given Brad’s dual role, I cannot understand why Professor Regnerus wrote in his study:

The NFSS was supported in part by grants from the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. While both of these are commonly known for their support of conservative causes—just as other private foundations are known for supporting more liberal causes—the funding sources played no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of this manuscript.

Professor Regnerus’ statement is unequivocal – there was “no role at all,” according to him, at any level other than funding. But based on what Brad has now written, that simply wasn’t true.

There’s a similarly unequivocal statement on the official NFSS website:

In order to insure that the NFSS was conducted with intellectual integrity, beginning from the earliest stages the Witherspoon Institute was not involved in the Study’s design, implementation, or interpretation.

Neither of these statements are consistent with the role Brad played, according to what Brad describes in his post, and Professor Regnerus should not have made either statement.

I continue to think that the main argument against Professor Regnerus’ study is that it was poorly designed to address the question it claimed to address, for reasons that have already been much discussed. (For those interested in reading up on the matter, I recommend this post and the comments at Scatterplot, and also following the links in this post at Family Inequality.)

And as I said in my letter to Brad Wilcox, I don’t wish Professor Regnerus ill, and I have a strong aversion to personal attacks. But there’s a difference between not making personal attacks, and refusing to criticize what appears to be significant dishonesty in a published study.

Scholars are obligated to be honest in their claims — especially claims which are intended to establish the scholar’s credibility and objectivity in the mind of the reader.

In my opinion, Professor Regnerus’ carefully-crafted statement about his funding sources’ non-participation was deceptive. It omitted a relationship that was obviously relevant and should have been mentioned, and Regnerus’ choice to omit that, and the use of wording which gave the impression that there was unequivocally no relationship to report, calls his credibility into question.

Furthermore, Professor Regnerus’ statement had the effect of covering up an apparent conflict of interest that some people would view as unethical and against academic norms. To actively cover up such an apparent conflict of interest is, in my view, far worse than the apparent conflict of interest itself. I cannot see it as anything but extremely unethical behavior.


30 Responses to “Professor Regnerus’ Study Seems Deceptive About His Funding Source’s Participation”

  1. StraightGrandmother says:

    In my opinion, Professor Regnerus’ carefully-crafted statement about his funding sources’ non-participation was deceptive.

    In my opinion I agree. Dr. Regnerus lied when he stated in his original article at the Journal Social Science Research and also in his soon to be published rebuttal in the same Journal, that Nobody From His Funding Organization Had Any Role In Working On The Research.

    In fact the University of Texas Austin in a Letter to the Texas Attorney General clearly states that Dr. Wilcox Participated in the research project
    http://bit.ly/PaXTl3

    Dr. Wilcox has come forward for the first time at Family Scholars and admitted that he participated in the research and that he did so WHILE being Director of the Witherspoon Program that Fundered Regnerus. The Witherspoon Tax forms do not lie.

    I would encourage all readers to read the Family Scholars article by Dr. Bradford Wilcox as well as read the evidence of his work for Witherspoon Institute http://bit.ly/SDMjQv

    The bottom line, which Barry I am so pleased that you have brought forward, the bottom line is that Regnerus LIED.

  2. Greg P: I deleted your comment because it violates our civility policy. It was borderline, I admit. But mocking the blogger in that way — well, please be a bit more careful. Thanks.

  3. Judith Levine says:

    I have been following this story for some time and am very pleased to see that the issue of academic honesty is being addressed. Thank you. It is very clear from this evidence that the University of Texas must at the very least examine this study and certainly Professor Regnerus has some ‘splainin’ to do. It would behoove the Journal of Social Science Research to retract this article until such time as the legitimate claim of ‘junk science’ for obvious political purposes is put to rest. We must never allow our universities to be used this way. When any science is tainted this way, all science is in question and I suspect that was the point of Witherspoon’s funding of this project.

  4. Tristian says:

    I don’t know about the charge of dishonesty. I can see that in light of the controversy the study generated it can look in hindsight that a more explicit statement of who all was involved doing what should have been provided. But people do wear many hats in the academic world, and as slippery as they can be the distinctions between Prof. Peabody, private citizen Peabody, and Dr. Peabody, Executive Director of the Institute for Studying Boring stuff matter. If as he says Wilcox was not a participant in his capacity as a director of the Witherspoon program, I think the letter of Regnerus’ statement is ok, barely. I suppose a critical question is what role if any Wilcox plaid in the decision to fund this study and whether as consultant he pushed for things on behalf of Witherspoon.

  5. A great many studies are funded by organizations that have a vested interest in the outcome. What concerns me here, Barry, is that the referees didn’t do the kind of due diligence that should be part of the peer review process.

    I spoke with someone who has been a reviewer for the same journal. This is unconventional in the sense that it is not double-blind. The reviewers knew who authored this study which means that there might have been some informal discourse as the review was in process.

  6. Diane M says:

    “The reviewers knew who authored this study which means that there might have been some informal discourse as the review was in process.”

    I think in many fields that the people you would ask to do a peer review may know the researcher. So even if you don’t tell them who it is, sometimes they must know.

  7. [...] Did Mark Regnerus intentionally obscure the influence of conservative groups in his flawed parenting [...]

  8. Tristian, I hate to get into a debate about what is a lie and what is the truth with a professional philosopher, since I’ll surely lose. :-p

    But it seems to me that the typical practices for disclosure are fairly high. The goal of disclosure is to let the reader be aware of any even marginally relevant relationships, so that the reader can form their own judgement.

    If “one of my paid advisers on this study is also, in another capacity, Director of the project funding my project” is not a relevant relationship that needs to be disclosed – especially when he’s emphatically claimed multiple times that the funding organizations had no role at all in the project — then I don’t think the idea of disclosure has any teeth or meaning.

    I think “did he technically lie if we parse it very finely” isn’t the most substantive way of looking at the matter. Whether or not we can parse the statement until it is in some sense true, at a common-sense level the statement was deceptive and hid something which ought to have been disclosed.

  9. David, I agree that “A great many studies are funded by organizations that have a vested interest in the outcome.” I don’t think that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that.

    However, to take money from a funding organization, while hiring someone from that same organization as an adviser, makes it unethical to then claim that “the funding sources played no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of this manuscript.”

    What concerns me here, Barry, is that the referees didn’t do the kind of due diligence that should be part of the peer review process.

    That’s a concern of mine, as well. It’s clear to me that the review process failed, in this case; I don’t think that Regnerus’ article should have been publishable without major revisions.

    However, the refereeing process is (by design, and for some good reasons) pretty much hidden from public examination, so I don’t feel that I as a blogger have anything to contribute by commenting on it.

  10. Judith Levine says:

    As an addendum to my previous comment above, I should like to add that the following information has come to my attention just today.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/108824887/Wilcox-Witherspoon-Director-Evidence

    http://tinyurl.com/9gzbu5c

    There seems to be even more to this story than meets the eye. Dr. Wilcox seems to have had a long-standing association with Professor Regnerus’ Witherspoon funders as well as being a long-time professional associate of both Professor Regnerus and Social Science Research editor James Wright.

    Dr. Wilcox chaired an anti-gay-rights project called “Why marriage matters?” to which Professor Regnerus contributed. That project was cited in anti-gay-rights court briefs in Defense of Marriage Act cases. On the face of it, this seems to indicate that there is reason to suspect that this new ‘study’ was conducted for political and not academic purposes. James Wright must surely have been aware of his editorial board member, and of Professor Regnerus’ funding agency representative, Witherspoon’s Brad Wilcox’s political aims for this ‘study’. It seems likely that Wright knew that Professor Regnerus was not being entirely truthful when he wrote into his study that none of his funders were involved with conducting the study. It seems from the links posted above that Wilcox and Witherspoon are trying to erase the evidence that Wilcox has had a long-standing association with Witherspoon.

    This documentation points out that Dr. Wilcox treated his Witherspoon affiliation as a key part of his professional identity, putting it on the first page of PowerPoint presentations he made to argue against contraception. Until October 1, 2012, Dr. Wilcox’s bio information on the Witherspoon site said that he is Director of Witherspoon’s Program for Marriage, Family and Democracy. Witherspoon strangely removed that page from its site after online articles began to appear about possible wrongdoing involved in the Regnerus ‘study’.

    I have the uncomfortable feeling that James Wright was aware that the Regnerus ‘study’ was tainted but published it anyway. What is the most disturbing to me is that the University of Texas has not investigated these allegations thoroughly. I am very concerned that a university of the stature of UT would not do everything in its power to make sure there was no wrongdoing.

    I know that all academics are overworked and underpaid, but when our reputations are at stake, it is important to at least keep up appearances.

  11. Judith, I don’t think that it’s a surprising revelation that many folks who work in the same field and have similar interests, turn out to have longstanding relationships. I think that’s just normal.

    …there is reason to suspect that this new ‘study’ was conducted for political and not academic purposes.

    I don’t think that “political purposes” and “academic purposes” are mutually exclusive; there has been some excellent research conducted in which the researcher clearly had both “purposes” at heart. In the end, what matters is if the research is well done or poorly done, not what the intentions of the researcher were.

    That said, there is a danger created by combining scholarship with activism – confirmation bias becomes more likely when the author is invested in a particular research outcome. For that reason, it’s important that advocacy research in particular be subject to rigorous peer review from skeptical reviewers who don’t share the author’s views.

  12. Diane M says:

    I think the real problem with Regnerus is that he didn’t get advice from people who disagree with him.

    I think this actually ties back to civility. When an area of research becomes so political and split that people in opposite camps don’t talk to each other, you get bad research, or, as in this case, faulty conclusions.

    If Regnerus had shown his research to me, I would have told him that his results weren’t showing what happens in lesbian families, they were showing what happens when lesbians marry men and the family naturally breaks apart.

    Obviously, it would have been ridiculous for him to show his study to me, but there are experts who could have given him a much better critique.

    I’m less concerned with the possible conflicts of interest. Regnerus might believe in his own results and therefore believe that the funders didn’t influence him, they just happen to agree with him. It should definitely have been more openly stated that he was getting advice from someone who also worked for them and might have been seen by him as a person who influenced funding.

    But in the end, that wouldn’t have mattered so much if Regnerus and the journal had gotten advice and criticism from other sources before his article was published.

  13. Tristian says:

    Barry, I agree with most of what you’re saying. In retrospect it seems obvious that Wilcox’s participation in any capacity could be perceived as a conflict of interest, that no one affiliated with Witherspoon should have been involved in any capacity, and so the fact that he was without acknowledgment looks really fishy. But that’s in retrospect–after the public controversy, charges of fraud and bias, and extreme scrutiny the study has generated. My question is how might things have looked going into the thing. And here I can see how–depending on just what Wilcox contributed and just what his role in Witherspoon funding decisions might have been–his involvement could have looked innocuous. That’s why I’d be cautious. But clearly they did themselves no favors by not being up front about this from the beginning.

    Regarding the screen captures Judith Levine’s links, I’m not entirely sure what the point is. Anyone who reads regularly on First Things and Public Discourse knows who Bradley Wilcox is and how much he’s done with the Witherspoon Institute. If Witherspoon is now trying to hide that, well good luck.

  14. Judith Levine says:

    Tristian, my point in including the screen shots was to evidence that Witherspoon does indeed seem to be trying to hide these connections. Not everyone has regular access to every publication on these matters. I always appreciate documentation and assume, perhaps erroneously, that others do as well. My interest in this affaire concerns academic honesty. It is with great dismay that I notice more and more ‘studies’ that are funded, conducted and published with little or merely perfunctory peer review. I agree with Diane M. that critical review is an absolute necessity prior to publication for good reason. Science requires that the process be pure and the results be reproducible. To publish anything that is neither is disingenuous to be polite.

  15. This brings out my best (or worst – depending upon perspective) Howard Beale which sometimes sends my comments to /dev/null.

    The Church doesn’t seem to give a rodent’s derriere about the intellectual or procedural dishonesty of this work. It is in every Church affiliated hand out, insert and polemic about “defending marriage.”

    The Minnesota Catholic coalition, for example, claims in their anti-equality handout – with a footnote to Regnerus – that this represents the “overwhelming” consensus. They go on to “explain:”

    …it is undeniable that every child raised in a same-sex household is intentionally deprived of the love and affection of one parent, either his or her mom or dad.

    In other words they mis-characterize a study that mis-characterizes the “findings.” Excuse me while I open a window and start screaming. In SOBE, though, most people would assume that I got my check from a mediocre restaurant on Ocean Drive.

  16. Judith Levine says:

    David Cary Hart, I am less concerned by what any church says or does not say about this ‘study’. It is of great concern, however, if and when it is used in a custody battle in a family court, for example, to unfairly influence a judge to take a decision to remove children from a good home. ‘Junk science’ is not merely a blemish on academia, although that would be reason enough to condemn it, of course. It is, much more importantly, a real danger in the real world.

  17. Tristian says:

    Judith, I wasn’t being critical of you. My point was that if Witherspoon is trying to hide this, they’re being silly. Wilcox’s involvement has been very visible for a couple years now. I agree entirely that holding academic research to very high standards is paramount, and that the enterprise as a whole is tainted by politically driven shenanigans.

    (A correction: it’s Bradford Wilcox, not Bradley).

  18. Jonathan says:

    I think that the real problem here is simply being hinted at rather than stated directly. The opponents of ssm have been desperate to have some “evidence” that they can introduce in the marriage cases. As Judge Walker pointed out in his decision on Proposition 8 not everyone who claims to be an “expert” is actually qualified as an expert. And while the opponents of ssm have lots of George Rekers-like things to cite, no one takes them seriously because they are not “peer-reviewed.” It seems very clear to me that the Witherspoon Institute through its various manifestations and overlapping organizations (such as the National Organization for Marriage) decided to buy some science. They commissioned Regnerus to do the dirty work, then recruited the Journal of Social Science Research to publish it. These people colluded on creating and disseminating this junk science with a single goal in mind: something that could be cited in court cases to deny marriage equality and smear gay and lesbian parents. Nothing too subtle here.

  19. Judith Levine says:

    Thank you, Tristian. I am not offended.

  20. Judith Levine says:

    Jonathan, I agree and it has also occurred to me to ask what Professor Regnerus’ expertise is in these matters. I know little of his previous work nor of his area of study, but it should be of interest to anyone reviewing this ‘study’. From a cursory glance at his publications, it does not appear that he has any expertise at all in human sexuality.

  21. StraightGrandmother says:

    Here is a link to the Letter on the Letterhead of the University of Texas Austin where the University States that Dr. Wilcox participated in the Data Collection (which would have been done early) as well as the data analysis, that would probably have been done later in the project.

    My guess is that this Letter from the University of Texas to the Texas Attorney General is what has motivated Dr. Wilcox’s disclosure yesterday. http://bit.ly/PaXTl3

  22. Jonathan says:

    Judith, I think you are right about Regnerus’s lack of expertise in the subject of gay and lesbian parenting. His previous work has, however, indicated his conservative and religious bent. He is clearly an ideologue motivated by his religious beliefs. As I recall, he was an Evangelical Christian who recently converted to Roman Catholicism.

  23. Judith Levine brings up a good point – custody. The notion that this “study” has anything to do with marriage is cognitive dissonance. Even if we accepted the idea that gays make crappy parents – regardless of whether or not they can marry;

    The same heterosexual couples are going to unite in the same marriages and;
    They are going to crank out the same kids and;
    They are going to sue for the same divorces and;
    Gays are going to adopt the same children.

    The Pope has said that, when gays adopt children, they “do violence” to them. Ultimately, it is that notion that Witherspoon was seeking to prove..

  24. mythago says:

    @Tristrian, the “hindsight” issue makes no sense. The whole point of disclosure is transparency to show the research is reliable. This is standard practice. I don’t understand your argument that concealing such information was okay because….nobody could have foreseen the study would have been controversial?

  25. Judith Levine says:

    I am further concerned that the ‘study’ does not seem to compare stable heterosexual families to stable homosexual families. Nor does it seem to compare the children of ‘broken’ heterosexual homes to the children of ‘broken’ homosexual homes. Nor even stable to broken homes of heterosexual parents and of homosexual parents. In a “study’ that does not seem to be completely above board on one issue, one might honestly wonder if there were any academic honesty at all involved. In particular it leads me to wonder if there might not have been some ‘cherry picking’ done in the sampling, for example. Indeed, Tristian, ‘holding academic research to very high standards is paramount’.

  26. mythago says:

    @Judith Levine, as Barry notes, the study is pretty much the equivalent of the old joke about looking for a lost item in the wrong place ‘because the light is better here’, and that would be the case regardless of its source of funding.

    But it is extremely troubling that Professor Regnerus appears to have straight-out misrepresented information about the funding and/or consultation related to his study. If this did not affect his study or its conclusions, why misstate it?

  27. Jonathan says:

    This may be off-topic, but it seems relevant to me in that we have been talking about the ethics of research. It has not been observed here, but on the same day that Governor Brown vetoed the multiple-parent bill in California (which was noted here), he signed into law the much needed bill that bans reparative therapy for minors in California.

    Key to the development of this bill was the tragic story of Kirk Murphy, who was a student of George Rekers, whose research figured in the columns by Frank Rich attacking David Blankenhorn. In a whole series of books and “research” published by Rekers and repeatedly cited by his colleagues in NARTH and other anti-gay organizaitons, Kirk Murphy, who was treated by Rekers in the early 1970s, beginning when he was four years old because he was a “sissy boy,” was touted as a great success story, someone who had been “butched up” and became heterosexual. Of course, like many people in the anti-gay movement, Rekers was simply lying. In reality, Murphy grew up to become a homosexual but he had been so screwed up by his treatment by Rekers et al., he was unable to have any extended relationship. He committed suicide at age 38.

    The story of Kirk Murphy finally came to light as the result of the research of Jim Burroway, who received the cooperation of Murphy’s family. Burroway’s investigation was published at BoxTurtle Bulletin and inspired a series of segments broadcast on CNN by Anderson Cooper called “The Sissy Boy Experiments.” As the result of the broadcast, the concrete harm of reparative therapy became known throughout the country, and spurred the California legislature to action.

    I would put Regnerus in the same category of practicing unethical “research” as Rekers and all those who have cited his books in which Kirk Murphy is extolled as a (rare) example of success in sexual orientation conversion therapy.

    I think Governor Brown’s signing into law the banning of reparative therapy for minors is by far a more significant piece of legislative news than his vetoing a curious piece of legislation that would have permitted in very rare circumstances the designation by courts of more than two parents.

  28. Diane M says:

    Regnerus is an associate professor who has written two books on premarital sex. From the online reviews, he sounds reasonable. He finds, for example, that teens’ behavior is influenced by sexual scripts, not their religion. (I’m actually interested in reading his other books now.)

    He’s not unqualified.

    From his interviews, he clearly starts his research with beliefs about what families should be.

    So do most of the researchers who have found that same sex parents do a good job.

    Having him do the research isn’t the problem. His analysis was flawed. That’s the problem.

    Given that he didn’t ask for insight from people who didn’t agree with him and he doesn’t seem to be about to do so, I hope to heck that somebody is taking the time to write and publish some pieces about what his data really shows.

    I also hope that researchers are going to take up Wilcox’s suggestion and analyze the data themselves.

  29. Jonathan says:

    Diane M.: I rather doubt the Witherspoon Institute (and its network of related groups that it funds) chose to give Regerus almost one million dollars because he was a great sociologist. The chose him because of his religious beliefs and, likely, because he agreed to do the kind of study with the kind of results that they wanted.