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Directions In "Research"
March 26, 2014 - Evan Reid
While reading Judge Bernard Friedman’s ruling on the recent challenge to the Michigan Marriage Amendment, I was struck by the language used to describe the “New Family Structures Study,” a “research study” helmed by sociologist Mark Regnerus.
Random population-based sample, third-party funder, survey data collection project... these phrases bring terror to my heart.
In the summer of 2012 I worked at a company called Directions In Research in Grand Rapids. As a “research specialist” at DIR I sat at a computer that randomly dialed phone numbers and tried to get people to complete surveys. It was a horrible, horrible job but that’s beside the point.
Before working at DIR I was blissfully ignorant of the market research and data collection industry. I left the job with a healthy distrust of any kind of research based on random populatian samples.
The absolute worst survey I was put on at DIR was funded by the Public Religion Research Institute. Some of the questions were so blatantly offensive regarding things like race and sexual orientation that people who initially agreed to participate would hang up.
Most of the people who did complete the survey shared its biases. The questions were clearly geared to get extremely conservative respondents riled up and in defensive mode, and it worked.
Interestingly, the religious content of the survey boiled down to one incredible question: “Do you believe that God has granted America a special role in human history?”
Of course, neither DIR or the Public Religion Research Institute would disclose what purpose the information being collected was ultimately going to serve. However, it was clear that this survey, and every other one I worked on, was attempting to reinforce a conclusion already arrived at by the funder and was not legitimate research.
(Not to mention that respondents often didn’t understand the bizarrely-worded questions, or would purposely answer in an antagonistic manner, regardless of their actual beliefs, because they were angry that they had been called in the first place. Also, research specialists would cut corners and “break script” all the time because they had no respect for a company that treated them poorly. To DIR, a completed survey was a completed survey and that was all that mattered.)
Judge Friedman, referring to the “New Family Structures Study,” writes:
The evidence adduced at trial demonstrated that his [Regnerus] 2012 “study” was hastily concocted at the behest of a third-party funder, which found it “essential that the necessary data be gathered to settle the question in the forum of public debate about what kinds of family arrangements are best for society” and which “was confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study.”
While Regnerus maintained that the funding source did not affect his impartiality as a researcher, the Court finds this testimony unbelievable. The funder clearly wanted a certain result, and Regnerus obliged.
Friedman’s ruling is available here.
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