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Why Conservatives Believe in Anti-Gay Pseudo-Science

The anti-gay-rights movement's claims about homosexuality are based on the worst kind of junk "science."

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On May 8, North Carolinians will vote on a constitutional amendment that defines a marriage between a man and a woman as the “only domestic legal union” the state will recognize -- thereby barring LGBT marriage equality. The amendment  would also ban civil unions, and end domestic partner benefits, like prescription drug and health care coverage, for the partners and children of public employees. At its deepest level, this issue is about fairness for everyone under the law. But less mentioned is that it is also about science, and what’s factually true.

Many voters who go to the polls to support Amendment One will do so believing outright falsehoods about same-sex marriages and civil unions. In particular, they hold the belief that such partnerships are damaging to the health and well-being of the children raised in them. That is, after all, one of the chief justifications for the amendment.

According to the pro-Amendment One Vote for Marriage NC, for instance, “the overwhelming body of social science evidence establishes that children do best when raised by their married mother and father.” If marriage is defined as anything other than the union between man and woman,  the group adds, we will see “a higher incidence of all the documented social ills associated with children being raised in a home without their married biological parents.”

“Overwhelming body of social science evidence”? “Documented social ills”? Is this really true? Are same sex marriages and civil unions bad for kids?

Well, no. Indeed, as I report in my new book  The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality, the claim that the kids won’t be all right in same sex marriages or partnerships now rates up there with a number of other hoary old falsehoods about homosexuality: the assertion that people can “choose” whether to be gay; the notion that homosexuality is a type of disorder; and the wrong idea that it can be cured through “reparative” therapy. All of these claims are  explicitly disavowed by the American Psychological Association (APA).

In a moment, I want to explore the underlying psychology behind how conservatives, especially religious ones, can believe such falsehoods. But first, let’s dismantle, on a substantive level, the idea that research shows that kids fare worse when raised by two parents who are of the same gender.

According to the APA, the relevant science shows nothing of the kind. “Beliefs that lesbian and gay adults are not fit parents…have no empirical foundation,” concludes a  recent publication from the organization. To the contrary,  the association states, the “development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents.”

So how can Christian conservatives possibly claim otherwise?

Well, one favored approach is literally citing the wrong studies. There is, after all, a vast amount of research on kids in heterosexual two parent families, and mostly these kids do quite well—certainly better than kids in single-parent families (for obvious reasons). Christian conservatives then cite these studies to argue that heterosexual families are best for kids, but there’s just one glaring problem. In the studies of heterosexual two-parent families where children fare well, the comparison group is families with one mother or one father—not two mothers or two fathers. So to leap from these studies to conclusions about same sex parenting, explains University of Virginia social scientist Charlotte Patterson, is “what we call in the trade bad sampling techniques.”

But wait: Don’t Christian conservatives want to be factually right, and to believe what’s true about the world? And shouldn’t a proper reading of this research actually come as a relief to them, and help to assuage their concerns about dangerous social consequences of same-sex marriage or civil unions? If only it were that simple. We all want to be right, and to believe that our views are based on the best available information. But in this case, Christian conservatives utterly fail to get past their emotions, which powerfully bias their reasoning. Indeed, science doesn’t just demonstrate that the kids are all right in same-sex unions. It also shows how and why some people reason poorly in highly politicized cases like this one -- and, in the case of the anti-gay views of Christian conservatives, rely on their gut emotions to come up with wrong beliefs. Here’s how it works.

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