During Tuesday’s Supreme Court deliberations, Justice Antonin Scalia, in another tour de force of equivocation, stated that the social scientific community is divided over the effects of of gay parents on children: “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.”
This might give someone the impression that Scalia has on his hands serious, scholarly work pointing to the deleterious effects of gay marriage on society, but any honest conservative researcher is bound to be disappointed. On a variety of issues over the years, from the environment to birth control, the fringe right has co-opted, misstated, or completely fabricated scientific claims that are then perpetuated by conservative media, elevating the distribution of pseudoscience to an art form. Any undergraduate who’s ever crammed for a research paper will recognize the tools used by conservative advocacy groups who are trying to sound legitimate: cherry-picking evidence, misstating arguments, and citing perused studies with reckless abandon.
In the gay marriage debate, when conservative politicians talk about the potential social harm caused by homosexual parents, they are implicitly referring to the work of an organization called the Family Research Council, whose team of ‘seasoned experts’ advances ‘faith, family, and freedom in public policy.’ The FRC, which was identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate-group in 2010, has presented ‘research’ arguing that the children of homosexual couples are much more likely to suffer from depression, get arrested, and have ‘lower educational attainment.’ In the past, they have called the “It Gets Better” YouTube phenomenon “disgusting,” stated that gay men are far likely to engage in child abuse, and claimed that homosexuality’s true aim is to abolish the age of consent, thus legalizing pedophilia. Of course, their claims have been refuted over the years by organizations such as the American Pediatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Human Rights Coalition, but that has not stopped them from becoming a leading voice in values politics.
Despite having their own team of ‘seasoned experts,’ the Family Research Council does not publish any original research of their own. Their data mostly comes from the misappropriation of other researcher’s key findings, like when they used University of Minnesota Professor Gary Remafedi’s research to argue against support groups for gay teens (which ran counter to Dr. Remafedi’s argument). Failing that, they elevate the disputed findings of isolated, often disgruntled academics who managed to get their studies published, like when they described the work of University of Texas Professor Mark Regnerus as ‘topping all previous research’ because it argued that the children of gay parents fare worse than those of heterosexual parents (the study, despite its claims, had a sample size that included only two gay households).
Unfortunately, it does not matter that the FRC’s claims are quickly disputed by more reputable organizations, or that their findings are so easy to refute, because the FRC, which was founded through a partnership with the Reagan White House in 1980, is a remarkably well-connected media machine. Their refuted findings nonetheless find their way into the news cycle, conservative talking points, and Supreme Court oral arguments. Conservative politicians cover their use of FRC arguments by overlooking their questionable practices or, in most cases, not mentioning them at all, as Justice Scalia failed to do on Tuesday.