Tuesday, March 12, 2013

American Independent: Regnerus Study Influenced by Funders

The American Independent has obtained documents and emails from a public records request showing that the widely-critiqued Regnerus study was timed to influence "major decisions of the Supreme Court" and that, contrary to language in the study purporting otherwise, The Witherspoon Institute may have played a larger role in the study than claimed.

Sofia Resnick reports:
"[The documents] show that the Witherspoon Institute recruited a professor from a major university to carry out a study that was designed to manipulate public policy. In communicating with donors about the research project, Witherspoon’s president clearly expected results unfavorable to the gay-marriage movement.

The think tank’s efforts paid off. The New Family Structures Study came out just in time for opponents of gay marriage to cite it in multiple federal cases involving marriage equality – including two cases soon to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.....
Records show that an academic consultant hired by UT to conduct data analysis for the project was a longtime fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, which shelled out about $700,000 for the research. Documentation about University of Virginia associate sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox’s dual roles contradict Regnerus’ assertions that the think tank wasn’t involved with how the study was designed or carried out.
Religious right groups such as the Witherspoon Institute have for years been challenging the legality of gay marriage on all fronts and trying to amass data that that can be used to sway the public, lawmakers, and the courts to their side of the debate. Groups seeking to block gay marriage have been eager to use Regnerus’ study – and even further twist his findings – as evidence that gay parents are inferior to straight parents.
So far, the New Family Structures Study has been cited in United States v. Windsor, a challenge to the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, which seeks to overturn California’s gay-marriage ban, Proposition 8."
I believe that the main issues with respect to the Regnerus study are substantive flaws. These do not need to be re-hashed, as I originally hashed them out here (and many others have done so as well). At the same time, the two above-cited issues of concern, seem to be more.... concerning since the release of the documents.

Barry Deutsch questioned Wilcox's dual roles back in October. And Wilcox responded in his own words, saying:
"I served as a fellow and as the director of the program on marriage, family, and democracy at the Witherspoon Institute from 2004 to 2011. These positions were honorific, and designed to highlight my writing and speaking on family-related issue."
Language in the study itself claimed that the Witherspoon Institute 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 [the study.]"

Yet, Resnick cites an email suggesting otherwise:
"In the early stages of the New Family Structures Study – before data was collected and long before any results were known – the Witherspoon Institute’s president, Luis Tellez, made it clear to Regnerus that expediency was paramount.

'Naturally we would like to move along as expeditiously as possible but experience suggests we ought not to get hung up with deadlines, do what is right and best, move on it, don’t dilly dolly, etc.,' Tellez wrote in a Sept. 22, 2010 email. 'It would be great to have this before major decisions of the Supreme Court but that is secondary to the need to do this and do it well. I would like you to take ownership and think of how would you want it done, rather than someone like me dictating parameters but of course, here to help.'”
To me, this email doesn't suggest that the Witherspoon Institute engaged in anything extraordinarily damning from a methodological standpoint, but it is pretty explicit that having the study available for the Supreme Court to consider is at least one motivating factor for the study to happen. Technically, urging the study to take place quickly so it can be used in court cases, is involvement in the "conduct" and "preparation" of the study.

In addition, Renick claims that emails exist of "examples of Wilcox making decisions on behalf of Witherspoon and of Tellez insisting Wilcox be present at certain meetings alongside Regnerus," suggesting that his role was more than simply "honorific." In one email, Regnerus purportedly asks Wilcox for feedback on the funders' "'boundaries' around this project" and "their hopes for what emerges from this project."

I know in the past that some people, including David Blankenhorn, have expressed a distaste for the Public Information Act (or, perhaps, the distaste is just toward the application of the Act to this particular case?), which was implicated because of Regnerus' association with the University of Texas.

Yet, open and honest government is (purportedly) a cornerstone of American government. And, this study was purporting to tell certain truths, both substantively with respect to outcomes and procedurally with respect to the influence of its funders, with the weight, legitimacy, and authority of the University of Texas behind it. Yet, these records suggest more of an influence from Witherspoon than what the study's disclaimer purports, and what both Regnerus and Wilcox have claimed.

And, that troubles me.

In my original critique of the study I was very clear about not ascribing anyone involved "with having evil or malicious intent here."  I'm not sure if I would use the word evil, but this study does seem especially tainted now, in my opinion, by this influence and dishonesty. 

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