12 June 2010

Crackpot Saturday: Common Sense, Reality, and Terminal Fools

CNN has a report on a study of 78 families where lesbian parents raised children over more than 24 years, with the results being that those children's scores on a standard test of behavior and psychological health are better than the average for children in "nonlesbian families".

Wanting to offer a skeptic's view as well as that of researchers, CNN get a few quotes from Wendy Wright, whom they identify as "president of the Concerned Women for America, a group that supports biblical values" (presumably they don't pick and choose the "biblical values" they support, since that would be nothing more than using your favorite Bible quotes to support what you'd believe anyway, with or without the Bible, so they're probably similar to A.J. Jacobs, except they actually believe it all).

It's good journalism to have scientific studies commented on by crackpots.  Very fair and balanced, that.

CNN notes that "Funding for the research came from several lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy groups, such as the Gill Foundation and the Lesbian Health Fund from the Gay Lesbian Medical Association."  Wright pounces:
"That proves the prejudice and bias of the study," she said. "This study was clearly designed to come out with one outcome -- to attempt to sway people that children are not detrimentally affected in a homosexual household."
 Well, no.  I'm all for noting where funding comes from and looking closely at research to see if it's more designed to please funders than contribute scholarship.  But funding itself does not prove prejudice or bias.  Even if we went with the worst case scenario, though, and posited that the funders deeply influenced the study, that doesn't necessarily lead to the crackpot's conclusion.  It's entirely possible that the funders of this research really did want to know whether there was evidence that children of gay parents struggle and suffer more.  After all, if you grow up in a family that is considered by many people to be an abomination against the Flying Spaghetti Monster or some other entity, well, there might be some bad psychological side-effects that go along with that and need to be dealt with.  (I don't mean to slander the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  She told me last night that she's all for lesbians and their families.)  Lots of families face various obstacles to happiness, but that's not a reason for considering those families illegitimate and evil.  The funding organizations might want to find ways to alleviate some of the specific challenges that not-entirely-hetero families face, and to do that they'd first need to identify the challenges.

Later, we hear again from the crackpot (which is not, I know, an objective term; I do not desire to use objective terms for crackpots. William S. Burroughs once said, "Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill. Tell them firmly, 'I am not paid to listen to this drivel. You are a terminal fool.'"  I might amend that slightly to "Do not listen to crazy anti-intellectual non-scientist ideologues" rather than "Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill," because I think Burroughs's choice of the word "sympathy" is unfortunate there, and I am happy to offer sympathy to the mentally ill; I just don't want to base my perception of the world on their judgments):
Wright questioned the objectivity of Gartrell's research, saying the author can "cherry pick people who are involved and the info they release."

"In essence, this study claims to purport that children do better when raised by lesbians," she said. 
Well, again, no.  I know that Biblical values people need to believe in essences, and they and I can probably agree to disagree on that one, but what's happening here is what often happens when people try to sum up somewhat complex and even perhaps a little bit nuanced studies into soundbites -- 78 people who were studied for 24 years is not exactly cherry picking, but it is definitely a small sample of the many lesbian parents out there.  (This does not, in and of itself, mean it's an unrepresentative sample, however.  To make that judgment would require way more research than I'm willing to do right now.)

Notice how the researchers themselves describe the "lessons" of the study:
The children "didn't arrive by accident," [Dr. Nanette Gartrell, the author of the study] said. "The mothers were older... they were waiting for an opportunity to have children and age brings maturity and better parenting."

This also could have occurred because "growing up in households with less power assertion and more parental involvement has been shown to be associated with healthier psychological adjustment," Gartrell wrote in the study.
This is rather different from "Lesbians make better parents!  Kill all men!" (I know I know I know -- the crackpot didn't portray the study as concluding, "Kill all men!", but in essence it's what she claims the study claims to purport.)

Continuing:
Studies have shown that children thrive having both a mother and a father, Wright said. 
Well, okay.   Citing some of those studies would be helpful, but I'll go with the Biblical value of having faith, and I'll even be generous and say that what Wright probably meant was children thrive having a mother and father who live together and are happily married and participate in their children's lives.  Sure.  That makes sense.  Children thriving in such a situation does not, though, mean that children in other situations cannot also thrive.  People who eat spinach and broccoli a lot also probably thrive, especially in comparison to people who live on Swedish Fish.  This does not mean people who eat apples and tofu do not thrive, especially in comparison to people who live on Swedish Fish.

The fair and balanced reporter of CNN (Madison Park, who I'm assuming is an individual, though may, with such a name, be a corporate entity, something with trees and benches and plenty of targeted advertising) ends the article by giving the crackpot the final words:
"You have to be a little suspicious of any study that says children being raised by same-sex couples do better or have superior outcomes to children raised with a mother and father," she said. "It just defies common sense and reality."
Well, no.  And, by the way, Madison Park, this is not good journalism -- this is hooey.  Endings matter.  Endings create emphasis.  They are a method of implication.  The implication here is that the research is nonsensical and unreal.

The crackpot doesn't even get the basics of the research right.  It's not a "study that says children being raised by same-sex couples do better or have superior outcomes to children raised with a mother and father" but rather a study that compares the responses to a basic measurement by the children of 78 lesbian couples over 24 years to the responses of what is probably a much larger general sample of "children of nonlesbian families".

Common sense and reality can be different things.  It is, for instance, common sense that the sun moves around the Earth.  This is not, however, reality.

The reality of the study is that the children of 78 families raised over 24 years scored, on the whole, better than the average on a basic and common measurement of psychological health and adjustment.  The reality of the study suggests that good parenting is less a matter of the parents' sex than a matter of how prepared they were to be parents and how involved they are in their children's lives.

If that's not at least somewhere in the vicinity of your common sense, then, well, you are a terminal fool.

4 comments:

  1. It's difficult whenever we find facts that contradict what we believe. This study could certainly have gone the other way, I suppose.

    For it to come with evidence that children fare better in same-sex households than they do in opposite-sex household surprised me. I assumed we were all just about equally good when it came to raising children.

    I hope someone else is doing another, similar study. And I hope the reporters covering it will have the ability to read it themselves so they don't have to rely on "experts" to explain its methods and conclusions.

    I'm a dreamer.

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  2. Madison Park is a well known sender of spam emails, or, at least is one of their nom-de-plumes.

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  3. I think an important clue about the way the children were raised comes from the fact that they were planned births (and maybe that the parents studied were recruited in bookstores!).

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  4. Thanks for pointing me to this article. Good news I can tell my LESBIAN MOTHER while I'm on vacation from graduate school.

    Yeah :P.

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