Scholarly “consensus” isn’t always valid

Judges who cite academic journals in support of same-sex parenting should be alert to bias.
Walter R. Schumm | Mar 26 2014 | comment  



If you read the journals, you would be sure that there is a scholarly consensus on same-sex parenting. Many papers have been published which claim that there is no difference in parenting ability between sexual minority parents and heterosexual parents.

However, the facts on the ground are often different from scholarly consensus, most notably perhaps for the intergenerational transfer of sexual orientation but also for other areas. While some of the disparities observed may legitimately be attributed in part to discrimination against sexual minorities, others may be related to differences in over-benefited status, personal conduct, gender nonconformity, or impulsivity (delayed gratification/time preference/delay discounting) -- rather than to sexual minority status per se.

We should beware of drawing conclusions prematurely from an underdeveloped research literature, regardless of the political pressures on scholars to bring closure to complex, controversial questions that may have serious political or policy implications. 

Scholarly intimidation  

We should also be alert to the dangers of intimidation, including ad hominem attacks on individual in order to undermine empirical findings that may not be politically popular. The danger is that this may well “work” in the short run. And it may discourage thorough debate and discussion about controversial issues from a wide range of viewpoints, if not eliminating some minority viewpoints from the field of science altogether.

Lest anyone think this sort of intimidation is unique to any one area of social science, Dr Murray Straus published a paper in 2010 in the journal Partner Abuse in which he chronicled the abuse he and others received from fellow progressives for presenting research findings that concerned domestic violence. 

Another more subtle form of intimidation is the reduction of disagreement about the merits of various family forms to “sexual prejudice”. Yet if one is concerned about the credibility of social science in the long run, that is not how science should be done. 

Scholarly bias   

I recently summarized research on the question of whether gay or lesbian parents were more likely than heterosexual parents to raise children who either identified as non-heterosexual or engaged in non-heterosexual sexual behavior as adolescents or young adults. What I found should give judicial authorities pause.

While I unearthed over 200 quotes from over 120 scholars and authors – a pretty definitive “consensus” - rejecting any thought that the children of same-sex parents might be any different than the children of heterosexual parents in these regards, it was clear from the actual evidence from over 30 studies that such differences had been found by many researchers, including pathways for such developments. A few pro-gay scholars have “seen the light” on this, but they also have often been criticized severely, as if they had betrayed the “cause”.

As one example, between 1979 and 1981 three articles, with the same co-authors, on lesbian parenting were published from the same institution, two articles in the same journal.

Two of the articles found evidence that appeared to favor lesbian parenting while one article found apparent adverse results. By 2010, the two pro-lesbian parenting articles had been cited at least 65 times while the other one had been cited only twice. Statistically, this was a very significant difference. As of January 2014, that gap had grown to 155 to six.

How else can anyone account for this nearly 13:1 disparity (taking into account that there were two favorable articles), other than academic bias?

In court, one side might boost the credibility of the two articles by reporting how often they had been cited. Yet, because the samples involved mostly the same people and the researchers were largely the same, even from the same timeframe, from the same journal, any differences in value of the reports, if they have value, are likely more apparent than real.

But courts need to consider that even if you have ten so-called experts saying one thing and one genuine expert saying another, truth may reside with the latter. Truth does not depend on “body counts”. If courts cannot understand this, they risk becoming little more than rubber stamps for fools and foolish arguments.

Unhappily, because judicial decisions are often effectively irreversible, a court may end up forcing the public to live with unreality for decades. Who knows what the cost of that will be?

Is poly-parenting down the road?

While some may feel society has evolved far enough with increasing approval of homosexuality and same-sex relationships, it should be recognized that already there is a very strong push in social science theory questioning the value of sexual monogamy and praising the value of parenting by polyparents.

If judges are incapable of assessing the credibility of this research, we should not be surprised to see them granting formal approval to openly polyamorous individuals and relationships. This will be praised as an evolution past our values-based obsessions with “compulsory heterosexuality”, “compulsory monogamy” or our “groundless, biased, polyamorophobic” fears of polyamory.

One scholar already has argued that “legalizing gay marriage does make legalizing polygamy more likely”. Another has pointed out that “In recent years, the term polyamory has begun to replace non-monogamy among individuals who wish to symbolize linguistically their rejection of monogamy as the only ideal form of relating”. In her view, US culture is biased “sex-negative and monogamy-positive” because “purely sexual encounters are no more inherently immature or irresponsible than sexual behavior within the context of a relationship”.

Along such lines I found one article in which lesbians were eager to get married so they would have the security needed to be “free” to have extradyadic sexual affairs.  If that does not twist the conventional meaning of marriage for women in a new way, I am not sure what would. 

In my view, the current situation seems very fertile for polyamorists to at least to try to follow the same path laid down by LGBT activists in order to demand and then create a “right” to polyamory, to create an accompanying pseudoscience to discredit any fears of polyamory and to show how polyamorists are unfairly stigmatized, along with academic discrediting of any scholar who objects to polyamory, followed by legal acceptance and justification through our court systems.  A judicial decision along these lines occurred recently in the conservative state of Utah with respect to polygyny (one man and several wives).

The arguments are familiar ones. For example, one scholar has argued that polyamory is good for children, at least better than parents getting divorced after an affair. Another recently reported interviews with several gay couples who were co-parenting biological children conceived with lesbian couples – effectively giving the children four parents. He describes this as “unconventional” but as “creative and successful solutions to wanting a family with children and being in a same-sex couple”.

If such patterns are truly “successful” and in the best interests of the children, then how could courts rule them as inferior or illegal?

Lest we forget, it was nearly unheard of, not that long ago, that most people would have thought that “gay marriage” would have become so widely accepted. Why do we think it so impossible that polyamory will become culturally acceptable (and with judicial approval) in like manner in the near future?

Dr Walter Schumm is Professor of Family Studies in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University. Some of the material herein is extracted from a forthcoming article by Dr Schumm in the International Journal of Jurisprudence of the Family and from other unpublished working papers.



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