Per Smith first alerted us to the emergence of a new meme in the debate over Mark Regnerus’s article: the “witch hunt and inquisition” meme, apparently first posted by George Yancey and roundly debunked before Yancey moved on to other pursuits. Christian Smith also advanced the claim, first in a set of vitriolic emails sent to various scholars and now in a breathless j’accuse in the Chronicle charging that the only reason for the critiques was sociology’s “progressive orthodoxy.”
Christian Smith severely mischaracterizes the responses to Regnerus’s article in order to support his paranoid fantasy of “inquisitions and witch hunts.” The reality is quite different. The sociological responses to the article have considered the methodological and epistemological questions (e.g., Philip Cohen and me); the extremely fast turnaround between data collection and publication (suspicions of which seem to be founded given its near-immediate uptake by conservative legal and political groups); and the apparently politically motivated misuse and misrepresentation of the findings (Deb Umberson and CJ Pascoe). It is impossible to read this material with an open mind and arrive at the conclusion of “inquisitions and witch hunts” in sociology, or anyone “seek[ing] to silence” anyone. Far more plausible is that Christian Smith finds his former student’s shoddy research a convenient opportunity to grind his ax.
Separately from the sociological responses, GLBT activists have also responded to the politics of the article and its very quick adoption by anti-same-sex-marriage groups. It is from these activists that the complaint of scientific misconduct arose. The University of Texas has responded as it must to any such complaint: by inquiring into whether the complaint has merit. Importantly, and in direct contradiction to Christian Smith’s paranoid fantasies, no less a sociologist than the president of the American Sociological Association has criticized the scientific-misconduct inquiry and sociological commentators have generally not endorsed the complaint.
Here is an email Christian Smith sent to me (apparently he has learned not to include the other recipients so I don’t know to whom else it went):
What I could not get into in this piece [in the Chronicle] is a key weakness in Regnerus’s attackers’ criticisms, namely their ignoring the association between same-sex partners and family instability, which various studies have shown. For example, Gates’ analogizing of Regnerus’s article to a bad study of gender and smoking (see http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/revenge-sociologists_648829.html?nopager=1) is misleading, in that gender and smoking are not significantly associated, whereas same-sex partners and relational instability are. So the critics are claiming that family instability should be a control variable that removes the significance of the same-sex comparison, when in fact it is quite possible that family instability is the causal mechanism linking same-sex parents’ relationships and emotional and social problems of their adult children. The critics do not bring that possibility up, as it weakens their case. I think more broadly it reflects a typical misguided tendency in “variables sociology” to always search for “independent” effects of variables, often missing mediating paths explaining how things actually work as causal mechanisms. In this case, same-sex relationships, family instability, and more problemed adult life outcomes are likely linked. So simply controlling away the same-sex effect with a family-instability variable and concluding that there is no relationship could well be wrong. (Not that Regnerus models that directly either, or said he was modeling it.)
Of course, if my argument in this op-ed is correct, which it is, then those facts are not very relevant—one way or another Regnerus will have to be taken out, and survey data are sufficiently torturable to be able to do that as necessary.
In fact, in my post here on scatterplot I specifically note the possibility that family instability could be a causal link between the parents Regnerus identifies as “gay and lesbian” and the outcomes he finds, if in fact there is any real association:
stable families are good for kids, and the sexual orientation of their parents doesn’t matter
Will Saletan does the same, as does Gary Gates. Daniel Potter makes that argument in discussing the (mis)use of his research to oppose same-sex marriage, and Philip Cohen points out the confounding as well. Nobody has actually called for “controlling away” the association; the criticism is that the instability mechanism is an extremely obvious mechanism, fully in line with extant research and theory on the subject, and was entirely ignored by the article. I think many of us, reading between the lines, believe that the reason for ignoring the mechanism is Regnerus’s ideological commitments and those of his funders, but I suppose a plausible alternative hypothesis is that he was just too ignorant of the literature and appropriate theory and methods to consider it.
Is it the case that the article attracted criticism because of its political import? Of course. Regnerus chose to do research on a controversial topic and chose to publicize the findings in a political debate. If he had done poor research on, say, the historical prevalence of indoor plumbing in rural vs. urban Burkina Faso, it is far less likely that the flaws in his research would have been discovered or discussed (although research on the relationship between altitude and altruism was apparently worth critical investigation). The fact that the research is (or claims to be) about something a lot of people care about means more people will read it, and more people will offer criticisms, particularly when there are so very many criticisms to offer. Christian Smith poses a specific claim: if the research had been done well and had still shown harm, Regnerus would still “have to be taken out.” Sadly, we have no evidence on which to evaluate this claim, since Regnerus didn’t do the research well! To use a perhaps-inappropriate idiom here: you made your bed, now lie in it.
Bottom line: the evidence does not support the accusation Christian Smith levels against the critics. What has in fact happened is that a competent sociologist who ought to know better sought to use low-quality research to enter a political debate. Having been called out for the enormous design and analysis failures of the research, he and his friends and allies launched a desperate smokescreen of ideological accusations in order to avoid the humiliation of confronting the criticisms substantively.
 Using his full name here to avoid confusion with Per Smith, also mentioned in the post.
 I have nothing against Burkina Faso, and in fact its capital, Oagadougou, has a lovely name.