The Scandalous Academy: Social Science in Service of Identity Politics

Thanks to the work of sociologist Mark Regnerus, a prominent peer-reviewed journal has retracted a deeply flawed study on how social stigma affects the life expectancy of sexual minorities. This failure of peer review isn’t an isolated case: the more social science research supports the dogmas of identity politics, the less closely it is examined, and the more enthusiastically it is promoted.

More Americans than ever before are skeptical about the integrity and value of a university education. This is for good reason. Today’s universities are betraying their mission, and the corruption gets deeper every year. The scientific fields, especially when their research touches on matters of sexuality and public policy, are being bent in the service of the left’s political and cultural project.

Consider this case. In 2014, Professor Mark Hatzenbuehler, medical sociologist at Columbia University, was lead author of a paper titled “Structural Stigma and All-Cause Mortality in Sexual Minority Populations” in the journal Social Science & Medicine. The study began with the observation that sexual minorities, such as homosexuals, had a significantly lower life expectancy (twelve years, on average) than the rest of the population. Hatzenbuehler and his coauthors argued that lower life expectancy for sexual minorities happened because they lived in communities with high levels of anti-gay prejudice.

This work was promoted in major media outlets. It was cited prominently in an amicus brief in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission as part of the “large and growing body of evidence showing that discriminatory social conditions have severe negative health impacts on LGBTQ people.” Advocates seized on this supposedly scientific study to show that prejudice, in the form of thinking differently and acting accordingly, causes grave harm to sexual minorities. Therefore, advocates concluded, states like Colorado were right to crack the whip on the Christian baker.

Sociologist Mark Regnerus thought this didn’t pass the sniff test. He sought to replicate the findings of Hatzenbuehler’s study. But he could not replicate the findings using a variety of methods, and his devastating critique, entitled “Is Structural Stigma’s Effect on the Mortality of Sexual Minorities Robust? A Failure to Replicate the Results of a Published Study” was published in the same journal in November 2016. More than a year later, Social Science & Medicine issued first a “corrigendum” and then, still later, an all-out retraction of the original study.

Peer Review and Retractions

Double-blind peer review is the “gold standard” of academic publishing. Under double-blind review, reviewers do not know who has written a manuscript, and the person who writes the manuscript does not know who reviews it. That Hatzenbuehler’s study made it through the peer-review process itself is a crime against academic honesty. Its substantive measures of prejudice were fickle and subjective, and its key concepts were unexplained. The authors made dubious decisions, all of which contributed to overstating the presence and influence of “social stigma.” Once corrected, the influence of social stigma waned in the statistical analysis.  It is hard to know how the article could have survived a minimally critical eye in the review process.

Let us not ignore the most disturbing finding: that men who have sex with men are expected to live twelve years less than those who do not. This mirrors other studies conducted in British Columbia (which see an eight- to twenty-year difference) and Denmark (which sees a smaller difference of four to twelve years). M. Ryan Baker’s “Gay and Lesbian Health Disparities: Evidence and Recommendations” in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice yielded similar results. To put that in perspective, smoking decreases life expectancy only ten years.

Why is life expectancy among gays lower than among the rest of the population? A look at the surrounding literature suggests that the peer-review process in this case, as in so many others, was an example of telling one’s peers what they want to hear, both on the claim about life expectancy and in responding to the deep desire to vindicate their prejudices against supposed discrimination. The peers believed that only homophobia could be the cause of this astonishingly high disparity.

Regnerus’s critical work led to the retraction. Retractions occur, in Social Science & Medicine, when there are “infringements of professional ethical codes, such as multiple submission, bogus claims of authorship, plagiarism, fraudulent use of data or the like.” In this case, the authors and editors seemed to think that there was an erroneous if not fraudulent use of data. Online watchdog Retraction Watch gives a blow-by-blow account, including some sympathetic comments about the good intentions of the scholars from Mark Regnerus.

But not all scholars have such good intentions. A 2015 study in Science published by Michael LaCour of UCLA and Donald Green of Columbia University, initially peddled as pathbreaking, was also retracted for failure to provide supporting and reproducible data. The study had purported to find that homosexual canvassers could sway voters to the pro-same-sex marriage position by building empathy through personal contact.

Similarly, a 2017 response article in Contraception was recently retracted. The original study published by Elard Koch et. al. found that maternal health improved with “less permissive abortion laws.” The published response, purportedly aimed at “maintaining rigor in research,” was later shown to contain numerous errors, including a simple confusion of a plus-sign with a minus-sign, which skewed the results into showing that permissive abortion laws contributed to maternal health. Oops. The original conclusion, namely that less permissive abortion laws contribute to maternal health, stood vindicated.

In a more humorous vein, several academic provocateurs invented hoax stories that hewed to the left’s politically correct line. Three hoax studies earned publication in peer-reviewed journals. “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon” was published in Gender, Place & Culture in May 2018, arguing that dog parks were a major purveyor of America’s rape culture. It was later retracted when the hoax was made widely known.

Such retractions and the deep corruption they reveal clearly demonstrate that many academics in positions of influence bend to the prevailing vision of identity politics.

The Leftward List

How widespread is this problem? There is no way to know exactly. It is possible, to paraphrase Michael Kinsley, that the scandal is not what is retracted but what passes for social science. Studies show that peer review is “unnervingly inconsistent.” Peer review processes can expose methodological errors, but only when peers are predisposed to be curious and critical about the methodologies. As the professoriate becomes more domineering in its zeal to explain everything as caused by discrimination, the peer review process is bound to suffer and is suffering. Many peer-reviewed articles are based on dubious, easily manipulated data. All the findings fit to print, so long as they confirm academic prejudices!

Peer review processes can expose methodological errors, but only when peers are predisposed to be curious and critical about the methodologies.

Many social science methodologies certainly are open to such manipulation. Attachment to identity politics prevents scholars, who in other contexts can be quite skeptical, from seeing it.

The same methodological manipulation takes place regarding suicide rates, where academic research is based on estimates of estimates. No one actually counts the number of suicides in Utah, for instance, and identifies the number who were homosexual. Nor do we know who has attempted suicide with any degree of certainty. The sexual minority rate is assumed into the suicide rate. Despite these problems, the Journal of Homosexuality article contains eight pages of references almost all arguing or implying that anti-bullying legislation, civil rights extensions, and other reforms are essential to end the scourge of discrimination, which (estimates show!) lingers. Sound science proves the left’s political agenda. Or so goes the conclusion.

At the very least, public policy cannot be based on such farfetched assumptions. It is risibly simplistic to think that death rates, or suicide rates, or any social phenomenon are caused predominantly by a single factor. From a social science perspective, every complex factor has many causes. Scholars may buy such complexity in the abstract, but they forget themselves when their findings touch the sacred principles of identity politics.

The fact that so many of these studies are published by peer-reviewed journals, while other efforts to actually count deaths among sexual minorities are ridiculed as inhumane and unscientific, is also part of the scandal. Several prominent social scientists, including the founders of Quillette, have taken to publicizing the biases and pathologies endemic to the modern university. Each day, one can breakfast on academic bias.

Good and interesting work still gets done in the social sciences. But the closer scholarly matters are to the beating heart of identity politics, the harder it is to win a fair hearing. The closer one’s findings are to the reigning orthodoxy of the academy, the easier it is to see them in print and to enjoy better job prospects.

Only diversity of thought can save the university from itself, but that is one quality that is in short supply. Studies confirm it!

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