Social research remains centerpiece in trial challenging same-sex rights

DETROIT - Attorneys for the state of Michigan continued to wield scholarly critique as their weapon of choice Wednesday in the trial challenging Michigan’s restrictions on same-sex couples.

Tuesday’s proceedings began with an aggressive cross-examination of state witness and economist Joseph Price by plaintiff attorney Dana Nessel. She repeatedly challenged Price’s view of gender roles, which the defense blocked with a series of objections.

“I don’t have an expert opinion on that,” became the refrain for much of the cross-examination as Nessel pushed the limits of Price’s expertise.

The case, now in its second week, has relied heavily on expert testimony from social scientists closely intertwined in the debate around marriage rights. The state’s witnesses have been lauded by conservative groups, but derided by equality advocates in arguments that already have played out on a national scale.

The plaintiffs previously filed a motion to have one of the experts, sociologist Mark Regnerus, barred from testifying, alleging his research on parenting in same-sex households “relies on misleading and irrelevant comparisons in his attempt to contradict the scientific consensus.”

The defense has provided expert witnesses that run counter to a consensus in the scientific community that children raised in same-sex parents households do not face significant disadvantages compared to those raised in heterosexual households.

Recent arguments in DeBoer v. Snyder have hinged upon whether these experts have made valid challenges to a scientific status quo or are merely representing, as the plaintiffs have argued, a limited perspective.

The state’s next witness, Loren Marks, authored an essay in the journal Social Science Research refuting a 2005 brief from the American Psychological Association. The association’s position on same-sex parenting has been submitted as evidence in DeBoer v. Snyder and other cases.

The 2005 brief stated that “not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents.”

Marks said he was “struck by the strength of the language used in the claims,” deeming it absolutist.

Potchen asked Marks if he knew about the concept of “scientific groupthink.” Marks brought up another researcher, Richard Redding, who argued studies like Regnerus’ have received backlash because they provide evidence contrary to the status quo. Marks insinuated the APA brief was an example of groupthink.

His article argued the 59 studies cited in the brief were rife with methodological errors. The defense spent the majority of Marks’ testimony questioning him about the errors, which he said accounted for largely homogenous results in the studies.

Marks brought up numerous issues with the studies, the foremost of which was that none of the studies used a sufficiently representative data sample, because they employed a method known as convenience sampling. He also said many of the studies lacked heterosexual comparison groups and the brief excluded a study that countered its claim.

The plaintiffs countered Marks’ analysis with an examination of his own research, which had in one instance a sampling size of fewer than 300. Marks acknowledged that “it’s tough to move past convenience sampling,” in social science research and also said it’s especially difficult when sampling groups with a history of societal persecution such as same-sex couples.

But Marks’ responses in the cross-examination by attorney for the plaintiffs Carole Stanyar yielded some seemingly unexpected answers, hinting at a viewpoint that was present in the journal but largely avoided in the trial.

In an essay reviewing Regnerus’ and Marks’ studies in the same issue of Social Science Review, Pennsylvania State University sociology professor Paul Amato said he didn’t believe the APA was guilty of serious misrepresentation. Marks on the whole agreed with him.

Both sides in DeBoer v. Snyder seem to tread lightly around the actual content of Amato’s response.

Amato argued in his response that the constitutionality of same-sex marriage is “not one that should be decided on the basis of social science research,” a position that seems misaligned with either side.

“Social science has produced a long list of parental characteristics that are statistically associated with children’s development and well-being ... but we do not restrict the right to marry and raise children on the basis of any of these characteristics,” Amato said.

Amato did acknowledge that evidence and existing studies were “severely limited,” as both Regnerus and Marks had stated in their critiques.

Marks said in the cross-examination it would take more comprehensive sampling for him to form an opinion about childhood outcomes than the data Price or the plaintiff’s main sociological witness, Michael Rosenfeld used. Both experts used data from the same large sample, but drew different conclusions through different methodologies.

“I believe that truth is expensive and we have not paid the required price in this domain quite yet,” Marks said. “If we are working off of social scientists’ consensus opinions ... we are in effect making social science and social scientists the de facto electoral college.”

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