Gawking at the Y: Taking BYU Seriously

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Local

BYU has an image problem, but it doesn’t seem to know it. Or maybe it just doesn’t care.

On the university’s home page recently — as well as in the alumni email I got earlier this month — I read about a new study by professors Jason Carroll and Brian Willoughby that argues that waiting until marriage to have sex benefits couples later on. The study was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

The study was probably legit. It was published in a reputable journal, and my experience as a student at BYU (for more years than I care to admit) was that professors genuinely try to do serious scholarly work.

But whatever the study actually included, the uber-popular news website Gawker discovered it and expressed suspicion over how the scientific research “hews so closely to the Mormon church’s position on sex before marriage.”

All organizations draw some flack from time to time, but the point Gawker makes is one worth taking seriously. After all, if BYU wants to be a top tier school, an example to other institutions, and a leader in the sciences, perception does matter. And Gawker, though not the biggest media portal out there, is a major news player. In reality, many more people have undoubtedly read the Gawker piece than have or will read the study itself.

Whether or not the professors behind the study were actually influenced by official LDS policy is beside the point. (As is the argument some in the LDS community might make that in this case science merely confirmed “truths” religion had already indentified.) The reality is that Gawker is right to be suspicious — after all scientists at BYU clearly have a conflict of interest when researching issues the LDS Church describes as “moral.”

And as in any situation, a conflict of interest doesn’t automatically preclude honest investigation, it just raises suspicions. Could the researchers have published contrary results if they had them? What role does the church take in BYU research? Do scientists at BYU feel pressure, either explicitly or implicitly, because they’re being funded by an organization that is openly partisan on some issues? In what ways does LDS culture and policy inform the methodology these professors used?

The questions could go on and on, but unfortunately BYU has been raising these kinds of suspicions for a long time. There are a lot of people out there that look at the LDS Church’s stance on gay marriage (and consequences some BYU professors have faced by supporting it), BYU’s lack of diversity, speakers the school invites (Dick Cheney, for example), the hegemony of the Republican Party in Utah, etc., and think that BYU couldn’t possibly produce objective research.

They look at the fact that BYU is currently censured by the American Association of University Professors for issues relating to academic freedom, and that the school has occasionally engaged in (multiple) firings of professors for publishing controversial research. When they see these things, some people see a school that is aberrantly restrictive for the scholarly world. In the end, if the Gawker article was the first time these suspicions were raised they could probably be ignored, but sadly this sort of thing comes up again and again.

As an alumnus of the school, I choose to believe that, despite these concerns, BYU can still produce valid research. I don’t think the school is a joke. And, in reality, true objectivity is a myth and all fields are rife with subtle conflicts of interest.

But if BYU’s level of perceived objectivity is significantly lower than that other institutions, its opportunity to do good in the world is diminished. It’s research is less influential. No one doubts the school’s ability to produce great athletes or MBAs, but in the sciences — and in my field, the humanities — politics, ideology, and associations matter.

None of this is to say that BYU needs to forfeit its values or give up research. But the school needs to recognize that its reputation isn’t perfect. When publishing research that seems to strongly tow the party line, BYU needs to be aware that it’s fighting an uphill battle to be taken seriously. The school needs to tackle that reality head on. Ignoring it won’t change anything, but acknowledgement might.

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