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‘Marriage Minute’ ad relies on much-criticized research

Because of “both ideology and inattention” the “peer-review process failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems,” Social Science Research’s internal auditor noted.

The online ad from Minnesotans for Marriage alleges that same-sex parents have a negative effect on children they raise.

Minnesota for Marriage, the main group campaigning in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage here, recently released an online spot decrying the “very significant, highly negative” effects of growing up with a  gay or lesbian parent.

The evidence, according to “Minnesota Marriage Minute” No. 34: The “first large-scale, random-sample and peer reviewed study,” which was “designed by eight highly acclaimed academics,” and “critiqued by several reviewers, including gay marriage supporters.”  

Young adults who have a parent who spent any time in a same-sex relationship scored worse on some 40 social outcomes, according to the four-minute video, ranging from being “10 times more likely to have been touched sexually by an adult” to being “four times more likely to currently be on welfare.”

The back-story the spot doesn’t delve into: The study in question is the subject of a highly critical internal audit conducted by Social Science Research, the journal that published it in June. The audit will appear in the November issue of the publication.

Scathing overview in Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education reviewed a draft of the audit and published a scathing overview. Because of “both ideology and inattention” the “peer-review process failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems,” the auditor noted, not least the fact that several of the peer reviewers had ties to the study’s author, Mark Regnerus, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mark Regnerus
Mark Regnerus

In an interview with the Chronicle, auditor Darren E. Sherkat, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a member of the journal’s editorial board, had a more succinct summation: “It’s bullshit.”

(He also offered an explanation for the journal’s decision to publish Regnerus’ paper and an equally suspect companion study. “In his audit, Sherkat reveals that all the reviewers declared that the paper would generate ‘enormous interest,’ ” the Chronicle reported. “Enormous interest leads to citations and downloads, which is how a journal’s relevance is judged. The higher the impact of its papers, the greater its prestige.”

Baloney or not, it should come as little surprise that it turned up in Minnesota’s intensifying marriage amendment campaigns. Regnerus’ research was funded by a right-wing group with ties to the main group promoting the constitutional amendment here and similar efforts elsewhere, the National Organization for Marriage.

Most of funding was from Witherspoon Institute

The bulk of the $750,000 that funded the project came from the Witherspoon Institute, whose co-founder, Robert George, is chairman emeritus of NOM. And its conclusions were used in an amicus brief filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in June, arguing that the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is constitutional.

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The research is also one of a number of resources available on the website of NOM’s partner in the local vote-yes effort, the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

The research may or may not get a mention in the barrage of vote-yes ads expected to begin airing on TV and radio stations in Minnesota in the next couple of weeks. If it does, it’s not going to get the same relatively lengthy treatment it does in the Marriage Minute video.

The advertisements from both sides are likely to be geared toward reaching undecided voters, voters who need motivation to get to the polls or those whose commitment to a particular position is tentative enough that they can be won over via an emotional appeal.

Arguments to support already strong feelings

The online videos, by contrast, arm people who have strong feelings with arguments to support them. “The ‘Minnesota Marriage Minute’ ads … are all much longer than a minute and hence do not function as ‘ads’ as much as helping people already in favor of the amendment to deepen their understanding of the issues and, hence, their commitment to the amendment,” explained Ed Schiappa, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Communications and an expert on messaging around the campaigns for and against ballot questions here and elsewhere.

“The ‘elaboration likelihood model of persuasion’ predicts that the more you think about the arguments for a particular issue, the more committed you become and the harder it is to change your mind,” he added.

Numerous social scientists have opined that biased and poorly designed or not, another major problem with Regnerus’ paper is that it misrepresents its findings. The author more accurately would have characterized the results as confirming that children raised in intact families do better than those who grow up with parents in unstable relationships, regardless of sexual orientation.

University rejecting blogger’s demand

Meanwhile, University of Texas administrators recently announced they were rejecting a blogger’s demand they investigate Regnerus for academic misconduct. The study’s proponents have billed the announcement as his exoneration.

Others have suggested it’s more accurately depicted as an affirmation of the importance of academic freedom.

“As with much university research, Regnerus’ New Family Structures Study touches on a controversial and highly personal issue that is currently being debated by society at large,” the administrators wrote. “The university expects the scholarly community will continue to evaluate and report on the findings of the Regnerus article and supports such discussion.”