The Shaky Science Behind George Will’s Column On Same-Sex Marriage

The Washington Post published an opinion piece Friday by conservative pundit George Will called “The shaky science behind same-sex marriage.” Though Will has admitted there is an “emerging consensus” for same-sex marriage and predicted that the issue will prevail in the Courts, he highlights a brief from Maggie Gallagher’s Institute for Marriage and Public Policy that argues against equality by suggesting that the social science research currently available is not a sufficient rationale for that victory:

A brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the California case by conservative professors Leon Kass and Harvey Mansfield and the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy warns that “the social and behavioral sciences have a long history of being shaped and driven by politics and ideology.” And research about, for example, the stability of same-sex marriages or child-rearing by same-sex couples is “radically inconclusive” because these are recent phenomena and they provide a small sample from which to conclude that these innovations will be benign.

Unlike the physical sciences, the social sciences can rarely settle questions using “controlled and replicable experiments.” Today “there neither are nor could possibly be any scientifically valid studies from which to predict the effects of a family structure that is so new and so rare.” Hence there can be no “scientific basis for constitutionalizing same-sex marriage.”

The brief does not argue against same-sex marriage as social policy, other than by counseling caution about altering foundational social institutions when guidance from social science is as yet impossible. The brief is a preemptive refutation of inappropriate invocations of spurious social science by supporters of same-sex marriage.

Will endorses two arguments here, both of which are unsupportable. The first is that any social science that supports a liberal position shouldn’t be trusted because social science already has a liberal bias. The second is that it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s impossible to measure anything that hasn’t been legalized, even if legalizing it is the only way to test it. Together, these form a tautological argument that social science is only valid and useful if it supports keeping things the way they already are, which is not only a very narrow dismissal of the work social scientists already do, but also a philosophy that inherently prevents change.


Will then proceeds to demonstrate just how susceptible he is to conservatives’ fraudulent interpretations of what science is available:

For example, a district court cited Michael Lamb, a specialist in child development, asserting that the “gender of a child’s parent is not a factor in a child’s adjustment” and that “having both a male and female parent does not increase the likelihood that a child will be well-adjusted.” The conservatives’ brief notes that, testifying in the trial court, Lamb “had conceded that his own published research concluded that growing up without fathers had significant negative effects on boys” and that considerable research indicates “that traditional opposite-sex biological parents appear in general to produce better outcomes for their children than other family structures do.”

This is the old “fatherless” canard, in which the conclusions from studies about single mothers are used to argue against committed lesbian parents, even though not one of these “fatherless” studies included a same-sex couple. If Will had thoroughly read the full decision he cites here (notably via a link on the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom’s website), he would have seen that Lamb clarified this very point in his testimony.

While it’s true that the full impact of same-sex marriage cannot be measured until same-sex marriage is actually allowed, this is largely irrelevant, because millions of children are already being raised by committed same-sex couples across this country — Will refers to this as “rare.” It doesn’t require social science to assess how those families would automatically benefit from the freedom to marry. Moreover, ample research about same-sex parenting has been accumulating for years, as was explained in a brief supported by all major medical organizations in this country. And the American Sociological Association took extra care in a separate brief to debunk the Regnerus study, which conservative groups manipulated specifically so they could use it to argue against same-sex parenting in the courts.

It seems that the only “premature social science conclusions” being made about same-sex parenting are by conservatives like Will who simply haven’t read up on the subject.