Facts are troublesome things. Get them wrong, your argument is lost. Do that often enough and your credibility is lost. Not that our friends on the right really care about any of that.
Anyone who’s engaged in the politics of “social issues”—especially marriage equality, abortion, etc.—has seen that the rightwing generally displays only a nodding acquaintance with facts. One of their favourite political tactics is to misrepresent facts to make them seem to imply something other than what they actually say. This is even more effective than making stuff up (which they have been known to do, too) because it has a veneer of believability.
Recently I’ve been having some Twitter exchanges over the Regnerus study, which the rightwing says “proves” children of same-gender couples fair worse than children of opposite-sex parents. Except, of course, it doesn’t.
The study’s author, Mark Regnerus, admitted that the study wasn’t even about gay parenting. More recently, we’ve learned that the study was intended to sway the US Supreme Court on two marriage equality cases it’s considering.
That hasn’t stopped our friends on the right from constantly using the study, anyway. In fact, New Zealand’s most vocal far right religious opponent of marriage equality has made the study a central part of his political campaign.
As part of an attack on the supposed flaws in a pro-gay study (ironic, considering he holds up the deeply flawed Regnerus study as being unassailable), he wrote: “This is why sociology professor Paul Amato, chair of the Family section of the American Sociological Association and president of the National Council on Family Relations, (no friend of Regnerus!) wrote…” However, Amato was a paid consultant to the Regnerus study. “No friend”? Well, he clearly wasn’t an enemy!
The quote our adversary uses is this: “The Regnerus study is better situated than virtually all previous studies to detect differences between these groups in the population”. The problem is that this is NOT about the study or its conclusions, but about the statistical methodology alone (The quote used is in “Section 2.2 Statistical Power”, “The well-being of children with gay and lesbian parents”, Social Science Research 41 (2012), p722).
What Amato actually said about the study—and the way it’s being used by conservatives (in the US and New Zealand) is quite different. Here’s what Amato wrote that the conservatives don’t want you to know about:
Some observers may believe that the findings from the Regnerus study have implications for issues such as child custody, adoption, and same-sex marriage. Readers should be cautious, however, before deriving policy implications from these findings.
It would be unfortunate if the findings from the Regnerus study were used to undermine the social progress that has been made in recent decades in protecting the rights of gays, lesbians, and their children.
“The well-being of children with gay and lesbian parents”, Social Science Research 41 (2012), p723.
Not at all what New Zealand’s religious rightwing implied he said—not even close! Amato goes on to list all the reasons why the study cannot and must not be used the way the rightwing is using it, concluding, “these findings—and for that matter, any social research findings—should not be used to restrict the civil rights of any group of individuals.”
This isn’t the first time that the rightwing has misrepresented and distorted facts in an increasingly desperate attempt to score political points. As with so many previous examples, their tactics wither when exposed to the harsh sunlight of truth.
We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we’re not entitled to our own facts. Democracy demands that we use facts and not try to spin or distort them. But our friends on the right seem to feel that winning is the only thing that matters, that the end justifies the means, and distorting facts is okay if it advances their political agenda. It’s not.
Facts are troublesome things. In the end, they’re always the undoing of those who would ignore them, as our friends on the right are learning the hard way. Mainstream people, who value truth and facts, will continue to help them learn that lesson.
Read it for yourself: A PDF of Paul Amato’s paper is available online.
Update March 16: Last night, after I published this post, I got into another Twitter exchange about this with New Zealand's leading rightwing opponent of marriage equality. I've decided to add a new post about it, rather than try and cram it all into an update to this one. That post is here.