Fake News Drawn from a Flimsy Study


A recent study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics has caused a lot of buzz in the press. The study claims to trace the “Association Between State Same-Sex Marriage Policies and Adolescent Suicide Attempts” among LGBT youth and is being presented by the media as "proof" that gay marriage saves lives.

But like much of the fake news coverage this study has generated, the study itself leads people to a  fake conclusion: that somehow the enactment of same-sex marriage results in reduced teen suicide attempts, especially for  LGBT teens. In fact, the study proves nothing of the sort. Indeed, some data in the report suggest the opposite may be true in states that have had experience with same-sex marriage the longest.

The study begins with the presentation of its conclusions as if they were facts proven by the study. The report opens with a tidy summary and easy to swallow conclusion: Same-sex marriage enactment is associated with reduced teen-suicide attempts. The authors' biases don't become evident until the reader dives into the actual report, including the astonishing statement that, "Policies preventing same-sex marriage constitute a form of structural stigma because they label sexual minorities as different and deny them legal, financial, health and other benefits that are associated with marriage." This is a political statement, not a statement of established scientific fact. As we will discuss further down, it is also subject to question because the study authors don't look at things like civil union and domestic partnership laws that were in place in some states and for all intents and purposes treated same-sex unions exactly the same as opposite-sex ones. This is especially true in states like California.

Further, the authors' conclusions neatly presented on Page 1 and upon which all the fake media coverage is based give no hint of the inherent unreliability of the study that the authors themselves acknowledge, but notably only deep in the body of the report: "The analyses on the association between implementation of same-sex marriage policies and adolescent suicide attempts among those identifying as sexual minorities should be interpreted with caution."

This is like burying the lede: the fact is that the entire study should be viewed cautiously.

In a brief and insufficient acknowledgement, also rather buried within the text, the authors admit that while they have traced a correlation between redefining marriage and reduced teen suicides (in some states), they cannot affix a causal relationship between the two: "[O]ur analysis does not allow us to understand the mechanisms through which implementation of same-sex marriage policies reduced adolescent suicide attempts."

The reality is that the conclusions of the study are subject to numerous and significant warnings throughout the text itself that the results may not be reliable. For example, "it is unclear what drives greater rates of suicide attempts among adolescents who are sexual minorities"…"[we] emphasize that these estimates are subject to bias"…"complex survey design"…"The analyses on the association…should be interpreted with caution."

Furthermore, there is data in the study that actually undercuts and shows the opposite of the conclusions reported. For example, in Figure 2, data from some of the states that implemented same-sex "marriage" before 2013, suicide attempts appear to have risen after this implementation. The mean also appears to have risen in recent years, and may be the same or only exceedingly tiny percentage below where it started. In other words, there may be little to no difference, and in some states like New York there seem to be rising rates of teen suicide attempts, since same-sex 'marriage' was enacted.

It is also questionable, as we mentioned earlier ,whether the authors haven't mis-categorized certain states, like California, by putting them in the category of "Wave 2" (i.e., states that implemented same-sex 'marriage' in 2013/14). The authors say, "We defined the exposure as a state-level policy granting same-sex marriage rights as opposite sex couples." If, as the authors state, teen suicide attempts are attributable to "stigma" caused in part by denying them "legal, financial, health and other benefits that are associated with marriage," it would be instructive to look at state data for states like California which for many years have had expansive domestic partner or civil union legislation eradicating any legal distinction between couples. The study's authors say that California courts provided for same-sex 'marriage' in 2013, but fail to mention that California has been a domestic partner state since 2004, with policies benefiting gay couples that are "associated with marriage" that meant there was no legal difference as to how the state treated opposite-sex married couples compared with same-sex couples in a domestic partnership. The same is the case for states that had expansive civil union laws.

It would be interesting to look at the state-by-state data of actual teen attempted suicide numbers by year, so that we could compare states like California that for a long time have provided expansive benefits to gay couples vs those that do not. Unfortunately, the study does not provide that data to examine, leaving us to rely only on the authors' representations.

Most fundamentally, though, the key point is this: that even given all the cautionary notes, biases, etc., there is nothing in the report to show that same-same 'marriage' causes a reduction in suicide attempts among teens. The authors acknowledge this deep in the body of the report, but fail to note it in presenting their now highly-publicized conclusions. There is simply an alleged correlation between two things -- teen suicide attempts and same-sex marriage -- and not any proof that one is impacted by the other.

In the classic logical fallacy -- since "A" happened, followed by "B" happening, "B" was caused by A" -- readers are led to a conclusion that is not established by the evidence. Such is the case with the JAMA report.  What other correlations could be used to advance a similar conclusion, one wonders? Obamacare was passed in 2010. Are changes in attempted teen suicide rates associated with Obamacare? What about the enactment of DACA, which was created in 2012? What about Dodd Frank, which was enacted in 2010? Or the stimulus plan enacted in 2009?

We do not pretend to understand the authors' motivations for presenting their study in the way they did, and we don't intend to impugn them personally or professionally. But the simple truth is that the authors have presented a study that leads people to a fake conclusion that is not established by the facts. There is no evidence whatsoever in this report that passage of same-sex 'marriage' reduces teen suicide attempts. The authors admit this in the report. The fact that the mainstream media has run with this study as "proof" just shows their own bias.

Copyright 2017