Same-sex marriage opponents misrepresent the facts

Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.

As a self-proclaimed geek and former math teacher, I love this quote. I have a great deal of respect for researchers and statisticians who help us better understand our lives, through the most beautiful language in the world — mathematics.

But while numbers don't lie, they can be twisted to represent almost anything we want. Most of the misinformation — intentional and accidental — can be traced to the reader or reporter.

And that's exactly the fate that befell Family Research Council's Peter Sprigg in his recent op-ed in The Sun ("Same-sex marriage is contrary to the public interest," Feb. 1).

There is plenty to counter in his opinion piece, but his proud reference of the National Center for Health Statistics study on Family Structure and Children's Health in the United States (December 2010) is what caught my eye.

I'm used to reading these studies. I've trolled through anti-gay websites, tracking down references that are used to show that I am damaging my child — simply because my partner (a woman) and I decided to bring her into the world.

For years, anti-gay organizations and individuals have touted studies of single parents to promote their beliefs that childrearing is only appropriate for heterosexual couples. I wasn't surprised to see those studies obliquely referenced in Mr. Sprigg's piece. He neatly dismisses — with no credible explanation whatsoever — the studies that actually compare same-sex parents to opposite-sex parents. And I can guess why: They do not support his premise.

Turns out, neither does the NCHS study released in December.

Here's the major point that Mr. Sprigg missed in his review. He failed to reveal, or perhaps understand, the researcher's definition of "nuclear family": "A nuclear family consists of one or more children living with two parents who are married to one another and are each biological or adoptive parents to all children in the family."

There's no mention of the sex of the parents — whether they are a mother and a father or two mothers or two fathers. And that's not all. The researchers never define marriage.

In fact, there is no mention of gay, same-sex or homosexual parents in the entire study. In other words, the researchers either didn't include same-sex parents in their research or didn't make a distinction between same-sex or opposite-sex parents who were either legally married or unmarried.

And since the study includes no definition of marriage, it's not clear if the researchers were referencing both legal and strictly religious marriages. (My partner and I were married in our church in 1994, and so that's the box I check at my daughter's doctor's office, on school forms and in other settings.) Even if the authors mean legal marriage, Massachusetts offered marriage to same-sex couples during the time period of this study (2001-2007), and other states offered domestic partnerships.

Confusing, right?

There are two big rules in statistics and math: Define your terms, and compare like items. Otherwise, you're falling into a deep well of fallacy.

So, here's what this study is actually saying: It looks like kids do better in families headed by parents who are married to one another. And that's the exact opposite of what Mr. Sprigg is arguing. He's saying that same-sex parents shouldn't be married.

Makes me wonder what he means when he says that children matter in Maryland. Whose children?

But there's another tricky catch with this study, a disclaimer that is made at the end of the research: "The findings in this report cannot be used to infer that family structure 'caused' a particular child health outcome or that a child health outcome 'caused' family structure. In fact, previous research has shown that causality may flow in both directions; that is, family structure may have consequences for child health outcomes, while children's health may have consequences for family structure."

In other words, cause-and-effect cannot be proven with this research. Mr. Sprigg cannot assert — as he seems to — that children do poorly because they are not in families with two biological or adoptive parents. These things just aren't that black and white.

But if there is any truth to Mr. Sprigg's interpretation of the NCHS data, it is likely that marriage can potentially be beneficial for all children — including my daughter.

Sadly, this short interpolation of a short opinion piece is just the tip of the iceberg. The Family Research Council website is chock full of misinformation about gays and lesbians based on misrepresented research or studies that are more than 20 years old.

Let's have a discussion about same-sex marriage. Let's talk about how to better care for our children. But let's make a deal: How about if we skip the intentional misrepresentation of scientific data? How about if we agree to be very careful with how we read studies written by people who have devoted their lives to that work? How about if we pay attention to current research? How about if we put aside scare tactics in favor of facts?

Look, not everyone appreciates a long gander at an NCHS study. Very few of us want to look up the research that is reported in our daily newspapers. And that's the biggest argument for honesty.

And isn't that what our kids would expect of us?

Laura Laing is a freelance writer who lives in Baltimore. Her book, "Math for Grown Ups," will be published by Adams Media in July.

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