'New Atlantis' Authors Follow in Fraudulent Footsteps of Paul Cameron, George Rekers, Mark Regnerus
The New Civil Rights Movement's Robbie Medwed recently called attention to a new anti-LGBT “study” that appeared in The New Atlantis, which describes itself as a “Journal of Technology and Society,” and which is published by the anti-gay Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Roman Catholic organization.
As Medwed reported, the “study” — “Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences,” by Lawrence S. Mayer and Paul R. McHugh (pictured) — purports to show that there is no evidence that people are born gay, or that transgender kids are more successful when treated with compassionate and inclusive care.
After documenting the long record of anti-gay activism of its authors and publishers, Medwed points out that the new “study” comes with a slick video, which suggests that “far right-wing monied interests are behind it.”
Indeed, the “study” has already been widely publicized in right-wing circles, from The Federalist and The National Review to The Daily Signal and Breitbart, and has been acclaimed by homophobic ideologues such as Matt Staver of Liberty Counsel, who sent out an email promoting it, absurdly proclaiming that, “Scientific Research Debunks LGBT Propaganda.”
Actually, the "study" has little to do with real scientific research. Rather, it is a prime example of anti-LGBT pseudoscience.
The purpose of the “study” is not to further knowledge or advance scientific understanding. It would never have been accepted by a respectable academic journal.
This kind of publication has no influence on real science, for despite its accoutrements of scholarship — graphs, footnotes, bibliography, etc. — it is actually a parody of real research. Its conclusions were reached before the investigation even began. The researchers cherry-picked evidence, which they then assembled to support the preordained conclusions.
The purpose of this kind of junk science is not to persuade the scholarly community, which will immediately note its sloppy methodology and dismiss it out of hand. Instead, it is produced to provide naïve readers some quasi-respectable justifications for their prejudices and to fuel social conservative political chatter. (Any "study" that is simultaneously acclaimed by the likes of Matt Staver, Ryan Anderson, Austin Ruse and Maggie Gallagher may safely be presumed to be dishonest.)
The pseudoscience produced by right-wing ideologues is targeted toward people who are more interested in the confirmation of their biases than in the truth. They live in a fact-free world and lack the willingness or ability to distinguish real science from propaganda dressed up to look like science.
This kind of junk science also serves the purpose of providing other producers of junk science something to quote and cite as they also manufacture facsimiles of scholarship.
Thus, the Mayer-McHugh “study” will soon be quoted with approval on the National Organization for Marriage blog and the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) website (which has recently and cynically been renamed the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity), as well as by the “experts” at such hate groups as the American Family Association, Focus on the Family and Family Research Council as they prepare their own anti-LGBT pseudoscience to be circulated in the same echo chamber that is the conservative blogosphere.
The Status of Anti-LGBT Pseudoscience
Traffic in anti-LGBT pseudoscience has a long and ignoble history, but it has existed in a curious and increasingly defensive position since the work of UCLA psychologist Evelyn Hooker in the 1950s and 1960s challenged the assumption that homosexuals are necessarily psychiatrically disordered. Her research demonstrated that the patterns of homosexuality are as varied and as complex as those of heterosexuality and that one cannot distinguish homosexuals from heterosexuals on the basis of emotional and psychological adjustment.
Although the research studies by Hooker and colleagues who reached similar conclusions were fiercely contested by those who had a great deal invested in the sickness theories of homosexuality, her position prevailed and eventually became the accepted scientific view. It ultimately led to the rescinding of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders in 1973.
Since then a host of other scientific studies have replicated Hooker's conclusions and extended them in a variety of areas. For example, numerous studies have verified that same-sex couples are as capable parents as opposite-sex couples. They have also documented the failure and dangers of attempts to change sexual orientation.
In reaction to the scientific consensus that emerged in the 1970s and has solidified ever since, anti-LGBT professionals retreated from mainstream scientific organizations and formed their own groups, such as NARTH and the deceitfully named American College of Pediatricians (as distinguished from the American Academy of Pediatrics, a major professional organization).
In addition, in response to the modest political gains made by the early gay liberation movement, an entire industry of anti-LGBT hate groups emerged. Often affiliated with the Christian right or with particular religious denominations, they often cloak their anti-LGBT agenda by adopting names that include “Christian” or “family” or “children” or “marriage.” They raise money by defaming LGBT people and are often aligned with more established and well-financed right-wing groups such as the Heritage Foundation.
These organizations are the principal purveyors of anti-LGBT pseudoscience in the United States. They perpetuate myths and stereotypes and lies in the name of religion, the preservation of "traditional values," and conservative politics.
Three producers of pseudoscience — Paul Cameron, George Rekers, and Mark Regnerus — are profiled below. Their modi operandi help illuminate how this genre of deceit is manufactured and the obstacles posed by pseudoscience to the pursuit of equality.
One of the leading practitioners of anti-LGBT pseudoscience is the charlatan Paul Cameron, who has made a career of gay-bashing. Not only does he campaign against LGBT rights and call for the criminalization of homosexual acts, but he also attempts to buttress his dark view of homosexuality with “studies” that link homosexuality with child abuse and a reduced life expectancy.
Cameron has the distinction of having his work condemned by the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association and the Canadian Psychological Association, among others.
Cameron's Family Research Institute, located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, takes as its mission the generation of “empirical research on issues that threaten the traditional family, particularly homosexuality,” though its research is merely the repackaging of his prejudices.
A number of real scholars have demonstrated how Cameron has manipulated his data in various ways to reach the dubious conclusions that he asserts.
Because of Cameron's “continued demonization of LGBT people and the shoddy and suspect research methods he uses to advance his claims,” the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Family Research Institute an “anti-gay hate group.”
In 2012, Cameron appeared on David Pakman's talk show to discuss President Barack Obama's support for same-sex marriage and to spew a great deal of misinformation.
Despite its having been condemned by mainstream academic associations, and thoroughly discredited by legitimate researchers, Cameron's junk science is routinely cited by anti-gay authors and crusaders as they compile their own pseudoscience. It has even been cited in court decisions, as in a dissent in the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, and in the majority decision by the Florida Supreme Court that upheld the state's prohibition on adoption by same-sex couples in 2004.
Another practitioner of pseudoscience who has recently been exposed is George Rekers, who was one of the founders of Focus on the Family, a viciously anti-gay activist group, and a former officer of the ex-gay organization, NARTH.
Rekers has published a number of books extolling reparative therapy and received large funds for his anti-gay testimony as an “expert witness” in a number of high-profile court cases in which he testified that homosexuality is destructive and that gay people are unfit parents.
Rekers' fall came in 2010, when he was discovered to have employed a male escort as a traveling companion on a trip to Europe. Although he protested that the escort was his “baggage handler,” when it was revealed that the young man was hired from the Rentboy website, Rekers' reputation was destroyed. An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Rekers was exposed as a hypocrite. His fellow bigots in the anti-gay and ex-gay movement quickly distanced themselves from him.
But the biggest exposure of Rekers as a purveyor of pseudoscience (rather than merely a hypocrite) came later that year.
In a riveting example of investigative journalism, Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin excavated the heartbreaking real story of Kirk Murphy, who as a 5-year-old effeminate boy was subjected to treatment by Rekers when he was a graduate student at UCLA.
Rekers later used the story of his “successful” treatment of Murphy as the basis of his doctoral dissertation and, indeed, of his career. He frequently cited it as proof that homosexuality can be “cured” and used it to justify the practice of reparative therapy.
The story of “Kraig,” as Kirk Murphy was referred to in Rekers' publications, was offered again and again as an example of how early intervention with “sissy boys” could prevent the development of homosexuality in them.
Burroway, however, discovered that Murphy had committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 38 after a life-long struggle with his sexuality. Far from having been “cured” of homosexuality, as Rekers and other reparative therapists had repeatedly claimed, Murphy was tormented by the treatment he received as a child.
A homosexual who was never able to form a lasting relationship with anyone, Murphy suffered depression and anxiety as a result of his experience.
The story of Murphy not only exposed the fraudulent claims made by Rekers and other therapists who profess to cure homosexuality, but it also graphically illustrated the lasting damage inflicted by such dangerous therapy.
Burroway's investigation was the inspiration for a story featured on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 called “Sissy Boy Experiments,” which reached a large audience and served to discredit the ex-gay movement.
One of the most audacious examples of anti-LGBT pseudoscience is sociologist Mark Regnerus' 2012 “study” titled “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships? Findings of the New Families Structure Study,” which was published in Social Science Research and purported to prove that the children of gay and lesbian parents have adverse outcomes.
Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, had achieved something that most purveyors of pseudoscience these days do not. He managed to place his work in a supposedly peer-reviewed journal.
The “study” was immediately embraced by opponents of same-sex marriage, but serious scholars noted its flawed methodology and quickly dismissed its conclusions.
They also became suspicious that the “study” was not just poor scholarship, but, rather, a desperate and deliberate attempt to smear gay and lesbian parents and thereby provide a “rational” justification for courts to deny equal marriage rights.
That suspicion was stoked not only by the obvious methodological problems but also by the article's unusually quick acceptance by the journal — five weeks from submission to acceptance, while submissions typically take over a year to be accepted — and by its unusually generous funding by anti-gay sources.
The “study” was funded to the tune of almost $800,000 by the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, both organizations actively opposed to marriage equality. The notorious Princeton philosophy professor Robert P. George, who drafted the Manhattan Declaration and is a founder of the National Organization for Marriage, sits on the boards of both institutions.
As a result of loud protests by social scientists, some 200 of whom signed a letter alleging that the paper could not have survived a rigorous review process, the editor of Social Science Research, James D. Wright, was pressured to appoint an auditor to review the way the paper was handled before being accepted for publication.
The auditor, Darren E. Sherkat, a member of the journal's editorial board, found that “the peer-review process failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems” with the paper. He also found conflicts of interest among the reviewers; stated that “scholars who should have known better failed to recuse themselves from the review process”; and criticized the author's use of scholarship to push a political agenda.
In an interview, Sherkat described the paper succinctly: “It's bullshit,” he said.
Documents obtained by The American Independent and NCRM contributor Scott Rose through the Freedom of Information Act later confirmed that Regnerus was funded in order to impugn the parenting skills of same-sex couples in judicial proceedings. The documents revealed that the Witherspoon Institute enlisted Regnerus to undertake the “study” in order to influence anticipated Supreme Court deliberations on same-sex marriage.
The documents also revealed that Regnerus had consistently lied about the participation of Witherspoon Institute officials in the “study.”
Regnerus's “study” was indeed cited in briefs filed in the judicial proceedings that ultimately culminated in the Supreme Court landmark Obergefell ruling of June 26, 2015 that led to marriage equality throughout the nation, but by then attorneys for marriage equality could cite the denunciations of the “study” by leading academics and even the American Sociological Association and the Sociology Department of the University of Texas, where Regnerus teaches.
Regnerus himself testified in the Michigan marriage trial, DeBoer v. Snyder, the first full-length trial of fact on the subject of same-sex marriage after Judge Vaughn Walker's historic Proposition 8 trial in 2010.
During the trial, Regnerus was forced to admit on cross-examination that his “study” actually said nothing cogent about the parenting abilities of same-sex couples. He also was forced to admit that his opposition to same-sex marriage was "faith-based" and had nothing to do with whether same-sex couples were good parents.
Moreover, Regnerus's testimony was countered by such leading scholars as Harvard historian Nancy Cott, Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld, UCLA demographer Gary Gates and University of Michigan law professor Vivek Sankaran, scholars who pursue real reseach not pseudoscience.
In his opinion, handed down on March 21, 2014, invalidating Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage, Judge Bernard Friedman eviscerated the testimony of Regnerus, which he found “entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.” The judge not only found Regnerus's fraudulent "study" flawed on its face, but he also correctly perceived it as hack work intended to deceive rather than to contribute to science. “The funder clearly wanted a certain result, and Regnerus obliged,” Friedman observed dryly.
A Dangerous, Ongoing Assault
Pseudoscience is dangerous for many reasons. While it may be tempting to dismiss someone like Cameron as a crackpot, his work, as absurd as it is, has been repeatedly used to confuse and manipulate the naïve and to reassure the bigoted. It is routinely cited in other works of pseudoscience and even in legal briefs. Indeed, as the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, Cameron's "ludicrous statistics are frequently referenced in sermons, news broadcasts, politicians' speeches and even court decisions."
Although now discredited as the hypocrite and fraud that he is, Rekers managed to build a prosperous career on the backs of vulnerable children. As a highly paid “expert witness” in court cases involving the neediest of children—those seeking families to adopt them — Rekers was willing for a price to argue that prospective same-sex parents were necessarily unfit.
The exposure of the tragic consequences of Rekers' “treatment” of “sissy boy” Kirk Murphy should remind us of the real-life consequences of pseudoscience for LGBT people. The number of people who have been driven to depression and even suicide as a result of reparative therapy can only be imagined.
The academic fraud perpetuated by Regnerus and his paymasters may not have succeeded in the way they hoped, but they managed to corrupt the system of scholarly publication, including the peer review process itself. Luckily, Regnerus's “study” was quickly debunked, but neither he nor the editor of Social Sciences Review or those who colluded in the fraud have been held to account for their disgraceful actions.
Moreover, even though the Regnerus "study" has been debunked, it has nevertheless been used to justify discriminatory legislation both in the United States and abroad, including Russia, where it inspired laws prohibiting adoption by LGBT people and a bill mandating the removal of children from the custody of homosexual parents.
Opponents of equality have shown little scruple as they have resorted to behavior that is unethical and disgusting. Their penchant for lying about our lives says far more about them than about us.
It is sad but necessary to observe that many — perhaps most — of the groups and individuals who so regularly produce or promote anti-LGBT pseudoscience are religious. They seem to think that they have a special dispensation to lie about and defame us in the name of their religious beliefs. Quite apart from the fact that "bearing false witness" violates the tenets of their religion, their strategy is self-defeating, for their unethical behavior alienates not only LGBT people but many of their co-religionists as well.
We need to be suspicious of so-called “studies” of homosexuality and LGBT people. We need to ask hard questions about publishers and authors and funding agencies before accepting scholarship as legitimate. As David Hart has observed in his blog The Slowly Boiled Egg, “Research is published to double-blind peer reviewed scholarly journals. Everything else is bullshit.”
The dissemination of anti-LGBT pseudoscience also needs to be seen as part of the larger assault on science that has occurred in the country recently. Corporations routinely attempt to buy influence in the hiring of university faculty and in shaping research agendas by funding pet projects and preventing research in areas like climate change or industrial pollution. Truth itself has increasingly become negotiable as conspiracy theories abound and a gullible public seems willing to believe the most outrageous assertions.