The role of research

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s a nice article about the 22-year-old daughter of a lesbian couple. They suggest that she’s one of the oldest children deliberately conceived and raised by a homosexual couple (as opposed to having been born before one of their parents came out). This seems plausible to me — I grew up in Greenwich Village, and attended what is probably the only public elementary school in the US that is next door to a gay bookstore, but to the best of my knowledge, none of my classmates had gay or lesbian parents.

However, the part of the article that caught my attention the most was this comment by Judith Stacy, a sociologist who rejects the conventional wisdom that the children of gay and lesbian parents are no more likely to be homosexual than the children of heterosexual parents.

”My position is that you can’t base an argument for justice on information that’s empirically falsifiable in the long run,” she said. ”If your right to custody is based on saying there are no differences, then research comes along and says you’re wrong, then where are you?”

This point has wide applicability beyond the specific question raised in the article. One example that comes to mind is child care. The research at this point is pretty darn inconclusive. There’s some evidence that kids in child care have better cognitive skills, some evidence that they are more aggressive (although within the range of normal kid behavior), some evidence that very long hours of child care in the early months may have negative effects, especially for shy kids. It’s all based on observations, rather than on rigorous evaluations, so anyone who says that they have proof of causation is lying. (For a solid review of the data, my favorite recommendation is Working Families and Growing Kids, by the National Academy Press.)

But let’s say a report came out next week that had solid clear findings suggesting that children who spend their first two years in child care have worse outcomes than children who spend them in primarily parental care. What would we do? Would we ignore the findings, saying that they’re just another way to beat up on working mothers? Would we demand higher quality child care? Would we demand that the government provide childrens’ allowance to enable low- and moderate-income parents to cut back on work? If no possible research findings would change the policies and practices that we support, we should acknowledge that they are based on our normative values rather than on facts.

5 Responses to “The role of research”

  1. amy Says:

    I think many of us do.
    As for the scenario you suggest…I think it would touch off a hell of a firestorm, not just because of the perceived SAHM/WOHM battle lines, but because social service agencies have an enormous interest in getting low-income and otherwise at-risk kids into group care. That’s where a good part of screening and intervention happen. And once that interest is exposed, there’s a serious, mean fight waiting to happen regarding class and ability to parent.

  2. Jen Says:

    Is the argument here that a sense of justice or fairness emanates from somewhere within, and cannot (or should not) be altered by facts? I think many of us have thought we understood an issue, but upon getting further information changed our minds … even on very central morality-related issues.
    Many times I’ve found myself in the situation where I cannot articulate why I have a problem with a certain behavior. I will in that case fall back on the obvious fact-based kind of argument mentioned, such as the case for gay parenting. This doesn’t mean the only reason we argue for gay parenting is because the kids turn out the same. It just means this is easy enough for us to point out at the moment.

  3. amy Says:

    Jen, I think by “normative values”, she means that people simply fall back on received ideas and/or whatever they perceive normal, “right” behavior to be. “It’s just weird to do X – it’s weird to even /want/ to do X, therefore it must be wrong” isn’t scientific, but it’s what an awful lot of people go by.

  4. amy Says:

    On third thought, though, I think Judith Stacy’s point is that it’s poor legal strategy for the parents to have GL custody rights based solely on the child’s gay/straight outcome, regardless of what the studies say today or ten years from now. And I think she’s right. When you predicate rights on science that may change overnight, you build those rights on quicksand.
    As for a daycare v. parental-care setup, I think it would also be a mistake to base the rights, norms, etc. entirely on the children’s outcomes, unless there was some risk of actual harm done to the children (say increased rates of crippling social anxiety in shy kids who’d been put in daycare — which leads to another can of worms: testing). The reason is that the children aren’t the only ones involved. You might compare it to the formula v. breastmilk debate, where babies can thrive on formula, but there are some real, clinically verifiable advantages to breastmilk and breastfeeding. There may also be serious disadvantages for the mother, and she also has to be taken into account. The result in this case has been increased government and pediatrician support for breastfeeding, and public-education campaigns, but not penalties for parents who feed their babies formula.

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    Thanks, Amy, that’s what I was trying to say. Although it’s also probably a bad idea to let stand without argument some of the crazy pseudo-scientific claims that get thrown around.
    I love your example of breastfeeding v. formula. I may borrow it for a future post.

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