Snake Oil Sociology

Ken Blackwell
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Posted: Mar 27, 2015 12:01 AM
Snake Oil Sociology

The American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Sociological Association (ASA) submitted friend of the Court briefs in the Windsor case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. If the Windsor Court majority relied on those briefs, it was reliant on snake oil, not science.

The APA and the ASA should be the guardians of good science. Instead, they have joined the ranks of the pink panzers of political correctness. Most studies we have seen that claim that children raised by same-sex parents suffer no disadvantages are so seriously flawed that in any other context, the ASA and APA would be the first to point out those methodological flaws

Some of the studies cited in amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in support of same-sex parenting have serious methodological flaws, which are not small but so basic they violate “Stats 101”. The most notable of these is the use of something called an opportunity sample. That error would be committed, for example, if you went to the magazine American Rifleman to ask questions about proposed gun control legislation. American Rifleman is a publication of the National Rifle Association. The results of a reader survey would suffer from volunteer bias. Another flaw is what we call the snowball sample. That would occur if NRA members were invited to enlist friends and family members to be part of the sample and respond to a questionnaire. That only compounds the methodological problem.

There are dozens of opportunity and snowball sample research reports all saying that there is no difference between children raised in same sex households and same-sex marriages and children raised in intact married biological parent households. From these the ASA insists there is a consensus among sociologists and that the matter of no difference is settled. However there could be thousands of such studies and they all would be trumped by one study from a large nationally representative probability study. Just one would do the job and blow the reality of the so-called consensus. In the last two years there have been a few reports from large sample surveys and they come up with very different conclusions.

Rather than “letting the debate begin” by encouraging more diversity and exploration of competing hypotheses in robust surveys the ASA is insisting on consensus, shutting down debate, aiding and abetting the hounding and persecution of those professors who dare to do good big-data research.

Rather than protecting research professors in good standing as researchers, and rather than encouraging exploration of significant questions, the ASA is closing down research just when the country is in a major debate and in need of really good data. . A solution to this culture of academic suppression and oppression is a big problem that we don’t address right here but happily there is a solution to the data problem easily at hand.

The American Community Survey, conducted annually be The Bureau of the Census, is our largest annual survey --- a one percent sample of the US population --- and an indispensable tool for thousands of researchers. The Census Bureau is presently planning to drop some vital questions on marriage and family from the survey. Instead it could exploit what is already there by “tweaking” the present questions in the survey to ensure that they measure:

What are the sexual and marital relationships between all adults in the households sampled and their duration. To whom are the children in the family related to biologically, i.e. who is/are their biological parents or grandparents. These are minor tweaks on two of the four questions already being used in the ACS. Instead the Census looks like it too is engaged in closing down the exploration of the data, by eliminating family questions rather than refining them to take care of a pressing national debate.

With these changes sociology can be rescued from the ASA and the country given a great source by which to flush out what the data say. As a former Chairman of the U.S. Census Board, I will be pressing the Census Bureau to include these important questions, so that it contributes to the national discourse and to ensure it is not part of the ASA’s agenda of closing down data and research.

The American Community Survey is a wonderful tool for researchers studying a broad variety of important social, economic, and educational issues. It should be harnessed to contribute what it can to a question the whole country is debating but the ASA is working hard to make sure there is no good data to inform us.

With these minor tweaks in the ACS our academic institutions and teachers will be very free to continue their search for solid facts and pass them on to the nation and the courts and the classroom. The larger question at issue here is academic freedom. Thomas Jefferson was not only the author of the American Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he was also the father of the University of Virginia. And it was there that he argued most eloquently for academic freedom:

For here we are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead,

Nor to tolerate error, so long as reason is left free to combat it.

Shouldn’t that noble and liberal sentiment guide us in our academic pursuits two hundred years later? The ASA might begin a much needed internal reform by making Jefferson its honorary patron.