Screen shot 2013-03-30 at 8.50.51 AMRemember how I said it was the worst spring break ever? Well, I’m usually not one to dwell on the dismal, but sometimes circumstances dictate the mood. I’m speaking, of course, of Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment in the Supreme Court hearings on the U.S. law defining marriage that “there’s considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not.”
(Truth be told, my surly disposition may also have something to do with the fact that my disappointing spring break turned into a nasty stomach flu this week, thus causing me to miss all of the annual Midwest sociology meetings in Chicago—one of my favorite associations in one of my favorite cities. But that’s making the personal a bit more public than may be appropriate.)
Back to Scalia. There are several disturbing aspects about Scalia’s assertion. First and most basic, sociologists aren’t actually divided on this matter. Here’s the official American Sociological Association‘s statement:

The claim that same-sex parents produce less positive child outcomes than opposite-sex parents—either because such families lack both a male and female parent or because both parents are not the biological parents of their children—contradicts abundant social science research. Decades of methodologically sound social science research, especially multiple nationally representative studies and the expert evidence introduced in the district courts below, confirm that positive child wellbeing is the product of stability in the relationship between the two parents, stability in the relationship between the parents and child, and greater parental socioeconomic resources. Whether a child is raised by same-sex or opposite-sex parents has no bearing on a child’s wellbeing. The clear and consistent consensus in the social science profession is that across a wide range of indicators, children fare just as well when they are raised by same-sex parents when compared to children raised by opposite-sex parents.

Pretty clear, huh? No disagreement. No division or dispute. The research shows that children do just as well when raised by same-sex parents as they do when raised by two parents of the opposite sex.

How did Scalia miss that? Good question. Especially because it turns out that this paragraph summarizing the state of social scientific research and knowledge on the topic wasn’t published in an academic journal or buried in press release or anything like that. It’s from the amicus curiae brief that the ASA filed in the very case Scalia was commenting on. In other words, as Ezra Klein put on March 29:

[T]he official organization representing American sociologists went out of their way to provide the Supreme Court with their “consensus” opinion on the effect of same-sex parents on children. And yet, when struggling for a “concrete” harm that could come from gay marriage, Scalia went with “considerable disagreement among sociologists.”

So this is the second disturbing dimension of Scalia’s comment. Klein explains further what is so troubling:

So we’ve gone from a weak claim— “considerable disagreement” over harm is not the same thing as actual harm—to an explicitly wrong claim. Scalia offered no details or evidence of this considerable disagreement among sociologists, and it’s hard to believe he’s a better judge of the profession than the ASA, whose brief he notably declined to mention.

That’s all unfortunate enough. But what really has me thinking and brought me down into the depths is the larger, cynical message about social science that is being sent. For Scalia and his ilk, there is no real knowledge in the social sciences, no authority. Not even any real data or useful information. Just a lot of disagreement and differences of opinion. This disturbing message and implication compounds the frustrations and concerns about (lack of) public understanding of the significance, importance, and value of the social sciences I expressed last week in my little commentary on the Congressional attacks on NSF funding for political science.  More to say here, obviously, much more, though I’m not sure I’ve got stomach for it right now.

(If you skipped the link above, here it is again: The ASA’s amicus curiae brief.)