Science News that Advocates Can Use: Gay and lesbian parenting and child well-being

In 2009, when the legislature in my state, Maine, was considering legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples, I wrote a version of the following as an opinion piece for our local paper. Since the op-ed is no longer accessible online, I thought I would excerpt it here on my blog with the hope that it might prove useful to those who are working to make marriage legal for all citizens. Apologies to those expecting a piece on framing – I’m being selfish here by using this space to restate the conclusions from science on what constitutes a healthy family environment. 

As the legislature considers expanding civil marriage to all adults, regardless of sexual orientation, the public discourse on the issue should be informed by a fair rendering of the extant social science research on the relationship between policy and family functioning. Understanding that relationship helps us to create the systems of opportunity and equality fundamental to our values.

What do we know about optimal environments for child development? Nurturing, supportive, stable and responsive interactions with caring adults are what children need. What is bad for children’s development is exposure to violence, chronic stress, and social isolation.  And what does the social science literature attest, as regarding children born to or adopted by gay and lesbian parents? Healthy development and psychological well-being of children is unrelated to parents’ sexual orientation.

It is stress and conflict in the home that can disrupt children’s development, not parents’ sexual orientation. In a 2004 summary of research on lesbian and gay parents, the American Psychological Association asserted that, “results of research suggest that lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.” The research also confirms that children of gay and lesbian parents are as likely to thrive as children of heterosexual parents.

It is not surprising, given the research findings, that the APA determined that children raised by a same-sex couple benefit from legal ties to each parent. Given the thousands of federal and state laws in which marital status is a factor in the determination of benefits (from those involving health care decision-making, property rights, retirement benefits, pensions and inheritance) the APA also concluded that it is discriminatory to deny civil marriage to same-sex couples, as any lesser status simply does not confer equivalent legal rights, benefits and privileges.

What the APA decisions remind us is that families’ health and well-being are affected by the legal, political and cultural contexts in which families live. And the climate of public opinion about social issues certainly affects us all. That is why it is troubling to see anti-gay/anti-lesbian prejudice, which has been a context of development for gay and lesbian citizens and their families, continue to pervade public conversations today.

Certainly, the decisions churches and other private institutions make about how best to serve their communities are private decisions, and are qualitatively different from the decisions we make together about the rights that we preserve and defend through policy and our public institutions.  The challenges in family environments that we should seek to address with policy are not based on sex, age, ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation – they are based on differential access to jobs that pay, high quality health care, affordable housing, and healthy communities.

Again, the social science is clear:  When families do not have access to the systems and structures that provide equal opportunity, we put our children’s futures and the well-being of our communities at risk. That is what we should be worried about, what we should seek to address with policy and with due diligence. We all have a stake in overcoming prejudices brought about by living in a world that continues to struggle with understanding. We all have a stake in ensuring equal opportunity for all.

Lynn Davey, Ph.D.
Portland, ME
(The author is a developmental psychologist and a member of the American Psychological Association) 

The Challenge of Communicating About Income Inequality

While scrolling thru my FB feed one morning, I saw a link posted to this piece on Mother Jones, “It’s the Inequality, Stupid. Eleven charts that explain what’s wrong with America” 

Here’s the first chart posted, showing average family income by income group.

This chart communicates striking inequality in income, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t say why this is the case. When data are left uninterpreted, when communicators fail to tell a story, they leave it to the reader to deduce, “What does this MEAN?”  And in that search for meaning, the reader relies on beliefs, values, and assumptions about how the world works to make sense of the data.  Take the chart above as an example – you looked at it, and you probably scanned it or studied it in an attempt to answer, “What does this mean?” What values shaped your thinking? Fairness? Self-direction? Opportunity?

The impact of values on political thinking is not news, and has been well documented in a variety of disciplines (social and political psychology, developmental psychology, sociology, political science, communications). That’s why it is a bit startling to see how frequently political communications fail to consider that sweet old news. Recently, Jonathan Haidt (see his recent book, The Righteous Mind and your for more) has offered a wealth of evidence that conservatives and liberals rely more or less heavily on some values than others to help shape their political impressions.

What does Haidt’s work suggest about the values-based stories that liberals and conservatives are likely to rely on to explain these income inequality data? Conservatives, who strongly endorse values of self-reliance and individual liberty, are likely to look at these data and conclude, “Some people work harder, earn more, reap what they sow, and that’s the way it should be. That is, in fact, fair.” It is far easier to draw that conclusion when data are about inequality in outcomes, as opposed to inequality in opportunity. Liberals strongly endorse values of social justice, and are likely to look at these data and conclude that the system is rigged, that inequality of opportunity is the cause of inequality in outcomes. But the data don’t necessarily tell that story. Not by a long shot.

But Jonathan Haidt has a recommendation for liberals on how to connect the dots:

If the Democrats really want to get moral psychology working for them, I suggest that they focus less on distributive fairness — which is about whether everyone got what they deserved — and more on procedural fairness—which is about whether honest, open and impartial procedures were used to decide who got what. If there’s a problem with the ultra-rich, it’s not that they have too much wealth, it’s that they bought laws that made it easy for them to gain and keep so much more wealth in recent decades. (

The data in the chart call into question distributive fairness, not procedural fairness. In his essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times, The Blurry Line Between Makers and Takers, economist Tyler Cowen takes on the question of the role of politics in income distribution, and in so doing invites reflection on that question of procedural fairness:

 Seven of the 10 most affluent counties in the nation are near Washington, D.C. That means a growing number of educated people are making a very good living advising, lobbying and otherwise influencing the federal government. This is a talent drain. It’s far from obvious that we are getting better policy as a result, and true wealth creation has not kept pace.

As Matthew Yglesias, a columnist for the online magazine Slate, has pointed out, there is also a subtler point about those wealthy Virginia and Maryland counties. They have high per capita incomes, not only because they attract educated, government-oriented professionals, but also because their zoning and building codes limit the supply of low-cost housing. That’s a significant government intervention that hurts lower-income people, who must pay more. Privilege-seeking through government is often most pernicious when it has a tidy front and a well-manicured green lawn.

Infographics are quite the rage. But infographics won’t be effective no matter how clever the design if the data representation does not capture the real story advocates are trying to tell. Until we tell stories, such as Cowen’s above, that paint a clearer picture of the causes of income inequality, we are not improving Americans understanding of this complex issue.

I’ll be looking for examples of data-based messaging that succeeds on this front, and would love to hear from you if you come across effective examples.


From the Framing Fail Files, or How to Reinforce Your Opposition’s Frame

This op-ed authored by a state representative running for re-election is absolutely delicious from a framing perspective. It might just be the best example I’ve seen of how not to frame. Period.

First, the author squanders an opportunity to advance her own frame by reinforcing her opposition’s. She doesn’t just briefly restate the claims she wishes to refute, she willingly relinquishes over 200 words of her op-ed space to quite vividly reconstruct what the opposition is saying about her.  Read the beginning few paragraphs and ask yourself, “What am I now thinking about this candidate and her views on the environment?”


SCARBOROUGH – Now I know how it feels to have your character assassinated.

On Sept. 18, the Press Herald ran an article describing how I was named to a national “Dirty Dozen” list by the League of Conservation Voters (“Conservation group names Scarborough lawmaker to ‘Dirty Dozen'”). The story declared that I was one of “the most anti-environmental state-level candidates in the country.”

Maureen Drouin, Maine League of Conservation Voters president, was quoted as saying, “Rep. Sirocki has voted to damage our environment and natural resources at every turn.”

Then she got to her real point, stating, “There has never been a more urgent need to defeat politicians who stand with corporate polluters and oppose vital environmental safeguards.” She has planned a direct mail campaign into my district.

Then Hannah Pingree got into the act. The former Democratic House Speaker sent out a fundraising letter to “help us hold right-wing Republicans, like Rep. Sirocki, accountable for these dangerous votes.”

Democratic candidates, she wrote, “are working hard to ensure that extreme members, like Heather Sirocki, don’t have the opportunity to vote to weaken environmental protections ever again.”

Given the near-hysterical tone of these comments, you might think I personally went around the state poisoning wells and bulldozing sand dunes.

She then goes on to argue with “facts” in a similarly antagonistic tone:

My real “crime,” however, was voting against the league on 10 cherry-picked bills they selected for its legislative “scorecard.”

She suggests the League has a “hidden agenda,” says their “motives are mysterious,” and characterizes wind and solar as (her quotes), “green” energy sources.

Perhaps the biggest fail is that she never clearly articulates what her views on environmental conservation are. Instead, she stays in the weeds for the remainder of the piece, clarifying her stances on particular bills and, in her closing paragraph, offering claims about collateral damage caused by wind projects.

If I’m a voter, I have a very clear picture of what a non-profit environmental conservation group has said about her views, have evidence of an argumentative approach, and am not exactly clear what she believes or values. She would have been far better off writing an op-ed that advances her views on important environmental issues facing the state. Classic framing fail.

Read the entire piece here