On the Importance of Rock Solid Methods…

I know it’s a bit after the fact, but did anyone else catch Antonin Scalia aluding to Mark Regnerus’s (widely debunked) “research” on the detrimental effects of gay parenting on children’s outcomes?  NPR has transcript and audio from the oral argument on March 26, 2013.  I’ve pulled out the section where Justice Scalia mentions work (not by name), but we all know who he is talking about.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Mr. Cooper, let me — let me give you one — one concrete thing. I don’t know why you don’t mention some concrete things. If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must — you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there’s -­ there’s considerable disagreement among — among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a — in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not. Some States do not — do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.

photo (8)Justice Scalia’s comments are the very reason why in social science we have to be so careful with what we publish.  I believe that way we think about research has changed.  Most of us that conduct research in Academia do so with the idea that we want to make the world a better place.  That is why we went to graduate school and toiled under conditions with low pay and long hours.  We hope that we are doing so to improve the conditions of someone.  To improve their life, their world.  And we want our research to contribute to that end.  I believe that most researchers are trying to do that.

However, some of us get myopic about our research and don’t necessarily appreciate the context in which it will be received.  Of course, if we ONLY considered the socio-cultural ramifications of the research that we publish, then many wouldn’t publish.  Think about it: in addition to the soul grinding process that can be academic writing, we now have to consider how our work will be received or not?  Whether anything changes?  How many babies have died in the US since the American Academy of Pediatrics began the “Back to Sleep” Initiative in 1994?   Whatever the number is, it’s too many.  How many unrestrained passengers are killed every year in motor vehicle accidents, despite the fact that every vehicle comes equipped with safety belts? Too many.  If we consider only the fact that many babies STILL sleep in unsafe sleeping conditions or that people continue to ride in cars without wearing seatbelts as our only measures of success, then we might think that research on these matters does little to change socio-cultural behaviors that influence the phenomena we study.

Obviously, this kind of thinking isn’t usually entertained for long by prolific and productive academic scholars.  Their work serves as the narrative of our social reality that policy makers must be able to consider at face value.  What’s more, is that when the work is the product of a hurried review process, sloppy methodology, or questionable ethical relationships (in Regnerus’s study with a funder), it is indistinguishable from the rest of the body of research (those publications with a deliberate review process, solid methodology, and no unethical relationships).

This issue has become more important then ever.  In our digitally connected world where the line between “opinion/commentary” and “fact” is blurry and varies according to who is involved, our research is being used in ways that we may never have imagined.  In this particular case, Regnerus’s research became a tool in the latest battle (civil rights for homosexuals) between the right and the left.  And that is not the problem- this is why we do research, to contribute to the national dialogue that leads to change and improving the lives of people.  The problem is, that in this particular case, the conclusions based on methodologically weak research are being used to validate the unequal treatment of Americans.  And that is deplorable.

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Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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