Social science is a sham. That’s what I take from Helen Rittelmeyer’s superlative February 2014 First Things essay, “Bloodless Moralism.” Claims to objectivity are a smokescreen—those who profess to explain political, economic, or social behavior are almost always motivated by personal interests and natural biases. They are often at least as politically minded—if not more so—than the average opinion columnist. The “results” of their social science (surprise, surprise) typically conform to the researcher’s a priori personal beliefs about the subject in question. Once published, their studies are greedily inhaled into the churning combine of the popular press. We flock to those commentators we can count on to affirm our basic assumptions and discard or discount those who challenge them. You got a study to back up that claim? Good, I’ve got one to back up mine as well.
With that in mind, consider New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, whose regular dispatches from the developing world have delighted coastal progressives with their smartly worded criticisms of American foreign policy and their surefooted prescriptions for What Must Be Done to solve a host of intractable global problems. He is an American liberal dreamboat—curious, compassionate, and cultured. He travels. He has Pulitzer Prizes. He has all the right opinions.
Now, as the New Year begins, Kristof has announced his intention to turn his many years of worldly wisdom upon matters domestic. Tucked within a recent column about American family breakdown and the political forces that have aligned around the issue—the left ignores it, Kristof laments, while the right has “hijacked” it—is this gem of authoritatively framed pseudo-science: “An Australian study found gay parenting had better outcomes on average, apparently because gay couples don’t have kids by accident.”
Let’s for a moment put aside the notion of straight people having kids “by accident”—I will come back to it—and focus instead on Kristof’s casual assertion that evidence has been “found” linking gay parenting to “better outcomes on average” than straight parenting. What is the basis for the claim made by this sentence which appeared on page A27 of the New York Times on January 23, 2014? The web version of Kristof’s story links to the Australian “study,” which turns out to be a one-page “interim report” of research being conducted by Simon Robert Crouch. Crouch is a “public health doctor” and lead investigator of the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families (ACHESS) at the University of Melbourne.
Some casual Googling reveals that Crouch is also “a gay dad with twins” who writes and blogs frequently about gay parenting from an advocate’s point of view. (“The heteronormative world begins its gender distinctions before birth. ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ is the first question most women are asked when they announce that they are pregnant.”) Further snooping turned up what, to this non-social scientist at least, looked a lot like an effort by the researcher to game the results of the research:
There has been some research looking at the health and wellbeing of children with same-sex parents, mainly from Europe and North America…. Critics of the research to date highlight small sample sizes and a focus on lesbian parents. Researchers at the University of Melbourne are trying to fill these gaps however through a new project—the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families (ACHESS). (Emphasis added.)
The purpose of the study is to answer critics of previous studies? Does anyone really believe that Simon Robert Crouch is going to find anything in his research to suggest that gay parents are not at least the equal of—and, as it happens, better “on average”—than straight parents?
But there is more to consider than the apparent biases of the researcher. There is Kristof’s credibility in reporting on the study given that significant concerns have already been raised about the quality of Crouch’s research. The ACHESS study was first noted in the media in June 2013. At the time, Kansas State University professor Walter Schumm noted that while the Australian press had made much of the results, “there is an important difference in the scholarly credibility of a one-page interim report that has not been peer reviewed or published in a peer-reviewed journal and a peer-reviewed publication.” Writing at National Review Online, Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas pointed out obvious flaws in the research’s methodology: “[N]onrandom samples are not a representative reflection of the population as a whole, but rather an image of those who actively pursue participating in the study.”
As the parent of a child with Down syndrome, I, too, write and blog frequently from an advocate’s point of view. I am also very familiar with the allegation—levelled in comment boxes and online ripostes—that my impartiality on matters related to abortion, disability, and public policy is suspect due to my very obvious emotional commitment to my daughter. Would that I could assemble all my pro-life friends and their children with Down syndrome for a study showing that families like ours are happier on average than typical families. I wonder if Kristof would put it in a column.
Let’s return to this notion of straight couples having kids “by accident.” First of all, as everyone with a basic understanding of biology knows, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between heterosexual intercourse and pregnancy. The concept of an accident only enters the equation in a colloquial sort of way when couples try and fail to short-circuit the natural course of things by taking deliberate steps to forestall pregnancy. But parents of children with disabilities also know that there is no such thing as an accident when it comes to the formation of an individual person in a mother’s womb. We know that a human life’s worth is not, in fact, the econometric summation of maximized outcomes. We know that there are more things on heaven and earth than can be dreamt of by doctors of philosophy.
As Rittelmeyer says in “Bloodless Moralism,” we turn to people like Crouch and Kristof not for information, but for authority. As it turns out, these particular social scientists offer neither. Feel free to ignore them. They are in on the sham.