just as well

orgtheory has a recent thread on the Regnerus episode.  Sally Hillsman, ASA president, has a letter to the editor in the Washington Post that includes (HT: Phil Cohen):

…How well do children turn out when they are raised by gay parents?  The answer is: They turn out just as well as children raised by heterosexual parents


Social science research consistently and incontrovertibly has shown that parents’ sexual orientation has no bearing on children’s well-being.

To me, the language here is clear and forthright.  It’s also consistent with my understanding of the DOMA brief that ASA filed, which says:

when the social science evidence is exhaustively examined—which the ASA has done—the facts demonstrate that children fare just as well when raised by same-sex parents

Again, completely clear, and fine to me.  The part I feel like I have never understood: what is the relationship between statements like the above, and the criticism of Regnerus and/or Marks that he was dishonest in characterizing social scientists as saying there are “no differences” between children raised by same-sex parents and children raised by opposite-sex parents (the “Background” section of this post by Andy is an example)?

As happy as I am about the accelerating advancement of marriage equality, and as troubled as I am about the problems with the Regnerus study itself, this part has always put me a bit off.  It feels like we are both asserting something and then also sometimes denying that we assert it.

However, I suspect it’s more that there is a subtlety I’m missing.  Does it turn on the semantic difference between “just as well” and “no difference”?  Is the argument about “no differences” about something different than what these statements are about?  Is it a frequentist vs. Bayesian thing?  A public audience vs. academic audience thing?  Has there been a shift or dissensus in views on this?  About a bivariate vs. multivariate comparison?  I don’t get it, and would like to.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

10 thoughts on “just as well”

  1. I don’t know the full literature, so it’s possible I’m missing something here. But from what I do know, I think Hillsman’s letter goes beyond what is actually known. Specifically, nobody’s *shown* that “parents’ sexual orientation has no bearing on children’s well-being.” Numerous studies have looked for such bearing and failed to find it. You could make an argument that the sheer number of studies seeking such a relationship and failing to find one is sufficient to claim definitively that there is no such relationship. But the best of my knowledge at the moment is that no study has demonstrated that there is such bearing. We’ve rejected the hypotheses, but that’s distinct from proving the null hypothesis.


  2. At least partially this does depend on the difference between “just as well” and “no difference.” Stacey and Biblarz (2001), for example, have a section titled, “No difference of social concern.” Here is part of their discussion of, “how the sexual orientation of parents matters”:

    …there is suggestive evidence and good reason to believe that contemporary children and young adults with lesbian or gay parents do differ in modest and interesting ways from children with heterosexual parents. Most of these differences, however, are not causal, but are indirect effects of parental gender or selection effects associated with heterosexist social conditions under which lesbigay-parent families currently live. … Most of the differences in the findings discussed above cannot be considered deficits from any legitimate public policy perspective. They either favor the children with lesbigay parents, are secondary effects of social prejudice, or represent “just a difference” of the sort democratic societies should respect and protect.


  3. There is a great opportunity to discuss all this for the benefit of the public. In the California Proposition argument, Scalia said:

    “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.” (http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/12-144.pdf)

    As Andy says, we can’t prove “it” isn’t harmful – especially because “it” hasn’t been legal for long enough to study. But does that mean we are uncertain, and so what? In the Regnerus et al. brief, they wrote:

    “With so many significant outstanding questions about whether children develop as well in same-sex households as in opposite-sex households, it remains prudent for government to continue to recognize marriage as a union of a man and a woman, thereby promoting what is known to be an ideal environment for raising children.” (http://www.scribd.com/doc/124588517/Perry-Windsor-Amicus-Brief-of-Social-Science-Professors)

    So what is the relevant standard for policy or the law — no proven harm, or proven non-harm? In this case, I think it depends on whether gays and lesbians are entitled to heightened-scrutiny legal protection as a systematically disadvantaged “class” — a question before SCOTUS. If they are, you can’t take away their rights on the slim possibility of future-discovery of harm to children.

    But if gays and lesbians are just another group of hobbyists with a preference for a certain kind of attraction then maybe they don’t need access to every little social good or policy benefit if there’s a chance their hobby will someday be shown to harm children.

    All that means, BTW, that Kennedy was brilliant to bring up the harm done to children in California by *not* letting their parents marry. Somehow that had not been raised as an issue in the case before. That was something.


    1. I think Philip asks exacty the right question: “So what is the relevant standard for policy or the law — no proven harm, or proven non-harm?”

      It’s important to recognize that that’s not really a sociological question. I’d argue that the standard cultural doctrine since the Civil Rights Movement has been “prove why you need to discriminate,” not “prove why we shouldn’t discriminate,” but that’s neither a legal standard nor, frankly, honored much in the practice. But the bottom line is: if you think you need scientific proof in order to *allow* a legal change, that standard isn’t met. If you think you need scientific proof in order to *prevent* the expansion of personal liberties, that standard probably is.


  4. Regarding Scalia on adoption, what struck me that nobody else seems to have mentioned (but I have not been reading widely) is that gay people HAVE been adopting children for at least 20 years now. The fight about whether single adults could adopt children happened a generation ago and it was followed by a shift in many places to allow unmarried people whose love interests were of the same sex to adopt. Lots of children have gay adoptive parents. My town is full of them and by now quite a few of them are young adults. The only thing non-marriage is doing is preventing them from having TWO adoptive parents instead of one. It sounds like Kennedy is implying that point. But Scalia’s statement is ignoring the reality of the status quo.


    1. Ya. In fact, in the category of Justice-Ginsburg-doesn’t-miss-much, she interrupted Scalia to point out that CA not only allows single people to adopt, but already allows gay couples to adopt, so his point is irrelevant in that state.


      1. Uh, not “irrelevant in that State” as Justice Kennedy noted. From Time:

        Kennedy interjected: What about the roughly 40,000 children of gay and lesbian couples living in California? “They want their parents to have full recognition and full status,” Kennedy said. “The voice of those children is important in this case, don’t you think?”


  5. Thanks, everyone!

    Andy: We’ve rejected the hypotheses, but that’s distinct from proving the null hypothesis.

    Right. But, in a sense, I think that’s more of a criticism of the limits of frequentism.

    Or, I guess within frequentism, you could have a notion of what would constitute a “trivial effect,” and then as null effects pile up, one could eventually reject the hypothesis that the true effect is not larger than what constitutes a trivial effect.

    Neal: Thanks for the quote. I can see where one could say there might be “differences,” but that there are particular dimensions that would be policy-relevant, and there’s no difference in those. Also, would be interesting to see a graph of the rise and fall of the adjective “lesbigay.”

    Phil, OW: that Kennedy was brilliant to bring up the harm done to children in California by *not* letting their parents marry

    Agreed. Plus it’s both (a) a real live counterfactual and (b) the counterfactual that pertains directly to what the case is about.


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