For Father’s Day, W. Bradford Wilcox wrote a piece for Slate, “Daddy’s Home: Fatherhood transforms men. But only if they live with their kids.” Raising the question: what if Slate checked the facts they published? Oh, right.
Anyway, people who publish what Wilcox writes by now have been duly notified of his dishonesty, data manipulation, and incompetence in the service of ideological (and financial) ends. But I do this as an exercise in critical thinking and research, and to help people who want to be informed understand these shenanigans.
So here we go, on the specific claims only. Bogus claim-inflating spin between claims ignored. For each claim, the source, interpretation, and Veracity Score™ from 0 to 10.
The claim: “For many men, the transformative physical power of fatherhood first manifests itself when the pounds start piling up. One recent survey found that the average father puts on more than 10 pounds while waiting for baby to arrive.”
- The source: A Motherlode post that links to a BBC news story that reproduces a press release from a marketing firm. No information on the research methods. The marketing firm, Onepoll, has no information about the poll on its website. Does this supposed weight gain of fathers-to-be reflect the evolutionary draw of wedded fatherhood? Said a spokesperson for Onepoll (who we are listening to why?): “So if the kitchen cupboards are suddenly brimming with snacks and food, it’s no wonder blokes are tempted to tuck in as well.”
- Veracity Score: 2 (Maybe fathers gain weight during their partners’ pregnancies. This is “transformative physical power”?)
The claim: “Studies suggest that after the arrival of a baby men’s testosterone falls…”
- The source: This paper measuring testosterone level in a sample of Filipino men at two points four years apart. Those who were married with children four years later had larger drops and lower levels. This seems like a legitimate finding. Why wouldn’t men’s hormone levels change in response to such changes in their environment and behavior? It seems a little dicey that the men took their own saliva samples, since other research (from the same study) shows levels change dramatically in the first half hour after people wake up. Although they supposedly took the samples right when they woke up, and recorded the time, it seems possible sleep is the issue here (although they controlled for a simple indicator of “sleep quality.”)
- Veracity Score: 6
The claim: “Studies suggest that after the arrival of a baby men’s… prolactin levels rise.”
- The source: Unsourced claim from a parenting advice book.
- Veracity Score: 0 (Maybe true, who knows? No evidence here.)
The claim: “But these hormonal changes don’t just happen for any father; they appear to be most likely for men who are living in a long-term relationship with the mother of their children.”
- Source: The link is to the same Philippines study. There, the authors write: “Because this sample is drawn from a cultural setting in which it is rare for men to become new fathers outside of stable romantic partnerships or to file for divorce, there were few single new fathers (n = 12) or divorced men (n = 9), who therefore were excluded from longitudinal analyses.”
- Veracity Score: 0 (the study specifically said not that)
The claim: “Moreover, research by anthropologist Peter Gray indicates that drops in testosterone are most pronounced among men engaged in ‘affiliative pair bonding and paternal care.’”
- Source: This paper that measured testosterone levels at one point in time among 126 men in Beijing, 30 of whom were fathers (all conveniently having exactly one child). The fathers had lower testosterone levels. The paper doesn’t have a longitudinal design, however, so it can’t make causal claims – and does not mention drops in testosterone. Also, among the fathers there was no difference between those with younger children and those with older children, which is not good for the hands-on-nurturing effect theory.
- Veracity Score: 2 (some association, no causal connection, bogus description of “drops” by Wilcox)
The claim: “Fathers who live with their children are significantly less likely to be depressed, and more likely to report they are satisfied with their lives, compared to childless men.”
- The source: This paper using the National Survey of Families and Households. The paper did not use longitudinal data, and the authors wrote, “Before we can be confident that fatherhood is causally associated with the outcomes we observed, we must address this possibility [of selection effects], probably with longitudinal data.” Is it just possible that happier men are more likely live with their children, rather than the other way around? I’d consider it. Further, they entered some statistical controls for marital status, income, and race/ethnicity. They wrote:
- Once a number of controls were entered, however, especially marital status, these effects of fatherhood largely disappeared. The two exceptions were that men with children living elsewhere remain somewhat more likely to have depressive symptoms than men who were currently living with their children, and men with older children were slightly more satisfied. For the most part, however, fatherhood does not appear to be independently associated with psychological and physical health.
- To clarify: (a) those living with children over age 19 were slightly more likely than those with younger children to be satisfied with their lives! (b) those living apart from their children were slightly more likely to be depressed than those living with their children. This does not require evolutionary rocket-science to predict.
- Veracity Score: 0 (would be 1 for the partial effect, but he loses a point for gross exaggeration and misstatement of the findings.)
The claim: “After the arrival of a baby, new fathers tend to work more hours and pull down more money.”
- The source: The link is to a 1998 book by the late Steven Nock. I don’t have the book, but more recent research by Rebecca Glauber (using the same data) confirms this. Glauber suggests the effects could be the result of the gender division of labor within marriage or employers’ preferential treatment (or other unobserved factors).
- Veracity Score: 8 (true statement, but doesn’t address whether “fatherhood is socially transformative for men.”)
The claim: “By contrast, men who have children outside of wedlock, Nock found, are less likely to be employed, earn less, and have higher rates of poverty compared to their peers who did not father children outside of wedlock.”
- The source: This paper by Nock. When you are talking about a group of men who are poor on average to begin with, it’s hard to know if unmarried fatherhood made them poorer. The paper reports that these negative outcomes are associated with men who father children outside of marriage. However, the paper also reports (grudgingly) that the effects are no longer significant when prior conditions are controlled or when brothers are compared with each other. Thus, there is no causal effect found for men having children outside of marriage.
- Veracity Score: 1 (“less likely” is true, but the non-causal nature means it offers no support for the claim that “fatherhood is socially transformative for men.”)
The claim: “men who live apart from their children attend church infrequently and drink more frequently, much like their peers without children.”
- The source: This paper again. Quick check of the tables shows that alcohol and drug abuse is no different between men who live with children versus without once a few basic demographic variables are controlled, so that’s wrong. As for church, the paper shows the association in the cross section but makes no causal claim.
- Veracity Score: 1 (association for 1/2 the claim, no causal effect.)
You will note some of these claims have Veracity Scores > 0. I didn’t ignore those claims because that would have been misleading (however, if I’m wrong and the testosterone stuff is wronger than I thought, please let me know).
To some blog editors, claims come and go. You might balance them out by posting something from someone who disagrees. Hanna Rosin, a founder of Slate’s XX, dismissively calls this “data wars.” More clicks for them. One alternative would be to not publish the bogus stuff in the first place.
h/t Neal Caren for suggesting this.