People with a religious aversion to marriage equality sometimes offer up secular reasons against it. I’ve seen this one many times:
- Premise: Legalizing same-sex marriage will increase homosexual activity.
- Premise: Homosexual activity is inherently harmful to one’s physical health.
- Conclusion: Therefore, legalizing same-sex marriage is public health hazard.
You can argue with the truth of either premise, and you can dispute the logic of the conclusion, but I’d like to go another direction and point out that marriage equality states turn out to be the healthiest states.
The United Health Foundation has just released health rankings of the 50 states. The top 5 are:
- New Hampshire
4 out of the 5 of the healthiest states are marriage equality states! That’s all the more striking when you remember that only 6 states in the country have legalized same-sex marriage. And all 6, by the way, are in the top of half of the health rankings.
Now don’t go all Yee-haw! on me yet. You could raise a slew of objections to this, including:
- Correlation does not imply causation.
- The gay and lesbian population is too small to affect such a crude and broad measure as national rankings.
- Same-sex marriage has not been in place long enough for its effects to appear.
- Other factors — such as education, income, and demographics — could be responsible for these results.*
- For all we know, those healthy states might even be healthier if they banned same-sex marriage.
Of course, this blade cuts both ways.
Politicians and business leaders have argued that banning same-sex marriage can hurt a state’s economy. They offer clear, causally-based arguments. For instance, bans do harm because they make it hard for businesses in that state to attract the best talent. An executive with engine manufacturer Cummins, Inc., testified that a such a ban “jeopardizes our ability to be competitive in global markets.”
And how do opponents of marriage equality respond? With the same, bogus argument-by-ranking I derided above. For instance, Maggie Gallagher writes that same-sex marriage bans can’t possibly hurt a state:
The top five states for income growth in that decade [1999-2009] are: Wyoming, North Dakota, Louisiana, Montana and Oklahoma. Four of the five states with the fastest income growth per capita have state marriage amendments, and none have gay marriage.
I laughed at Maggie’s naivete when I read that. The objections above to the physical health argument apply nearly word-for-word to her economic health argument. Maggie wondered, Why would a reputable company like Cummins Inc. embarrass itself in public by making such a ludicrous claim? (by “ludicrous claim,” she’s referring to a causal argument based on direct experience that she hasn’t bothered to refute). In fact, Maggie’s the one who should be embarrassed. And sadly, it’s not just Maggie. Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-MN) recently offered up the same flawed reasoning, too.
So how should this analysis work? Social science is tricky because controlled experiments are often impossible to conduct. Instead, scientists use statistical analysis to try and isolate the impact of possible variables. My own training in econometrics has left me skeptical of this approach unless you’ve got mountains of data to work with. I don’t think we’re there yet.
Alternatively, you could deveop causal hypotheses to explain an interesting observation, and then test those hypotheses. For instance, if you’re trying to determine whether same-sex marriage promotes public health you could test whether:
- Married partners support each other’s personal health in ways unavailable to a single person.
- It’s easier for married partners to both get health insurance than it is for a single person (i.e., spousal benefits).
- Marriage can provide a stable and secure environment conducive to mental and physical health.
In fact, these and other causal factors have some empirical support — support that Maggie Gallagher herself has written about in a book she titled, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (which makes her adamant opposition to marriage equality all the more distressing).
How about the claimed economic benefits of same-sex marriage? We’ve already seen one causal hypothesis above. There are others, too, also with some empirical support. And yes, Maggie has written about those as well.
By the way, Maggie’s coauthor on that project supports same-sex marriage. It’s a bit of a shame — and quite revealing — that Maggie is willing to ignore her own research in favor of this new lame argument-by-ranking. I suppose she’s working with what she’s got, and tossing the rest.
Despite all this, I suggest you keep these health rankings in mind. You’ll be able to shoot down anybody repeating Maggie’s bogus logic:
Your opponent: The states with the healthiest economies have banned same-sex marriage!
You: The states with the best physical health allow it.
And when your opponent argues that things are more complicated than that, you can simply reply: Exactly.
*You could add access to health insurance to the list, but our conservative opponents probably wouldn’t highlight that.