Home stretch

Marriage equality may have rounded the last turn today in its race through the US legal system.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Jamison Wieser

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Jamison Wieser

When the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals set up the question in Kitchen v. Herbert this way, there was no possible outcome other than a strong decision affirming the lower court, in favor of a right to marry for same-sex couples:

May a State of the Union constitutionally deny a citizen the benefit or protection of the laws of the State based solely upon the sex of the person that citizen chooses to marry?

Sure enough, the decision is a thorough trashing of the state of Utah’s defense of its same-sex marriage ban:

Having heard and carefully considered the argument of the litigants, we conclude that, consistent with the United States Constitution, the State of Utah may not do so. We hold that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry, establish a family, raise children, and enjoy the full protection of a state’s marital laws. A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union.

This is a federal appeals court — higher than the federal courts that have been overturning state laws left and right — and the first to rule that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. After this, it’s on to the Supreme Court. Here are some more highlights from the decision.

The decision states that the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision (which I discussed here) is “not directly controlling, but adds that “the similarity between the claims at issue in Windsor and those asserted by the plaintiffs in this case cannot be ignored.” That is teeing up the Supreme Court’s future decision for Windsor author Justice Kennedy, and confirming the conclusions of many that Scalia was right in his Windsor dissent:

As far as this Court is concerned, no one should be fooled; it is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe. By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.

The decision today also explains that extending the right to marry to same-sex couples does not constitute creating a new right, but merely recognizing that the prohibition against arbitrary denial of rights to marriage — which has been expressed in broad terms in the past — applies to same-sex couples as well. For example, the Casey decision explains about Loving v. Virginia (which overturned interracial marriage bans):

[m]arriage is mentioned nowhere in the Bill of Rights and interracial marriage was illegal in most States in the 19th century, but the Court was no doubt correct in finding it to be an aspect of liberty protected against state interference by the substantive component of the Due Process Clause in Loving v. Virginia.

That is, Loving and other decisions described the “freedom of choice to marry” broadly enough that it can now be extended without a finding that the Supreme Court intended to extend it to same-sex couples: “the Supreme Court has traditionally described the right to marry in broad terms independent of the persons exercising it.” And they quote from a dissent in a prior case, Hernandez v. Robles: “Simply put, fundamental rights are fundamental rights. They are not defined in terms of who is entitled to exercise them.”

They also address Utah’s specious claim that marriage rights are really about the right to procreation by citing precedents that protect the right not to procreate (e.g., the Eisenstadt and Griswold cases on contraception), and the right of parents to raise their children (not just bear them), as in the Carey decision and others on parenting rights, and decisions protecting the rights of adoptive parents.

On the idea that Utah should be able to ban same-sex marriage because it has an interest in furthering the idea of procreation within marriage (which I discussed here), the decision is dismissive:

Among the myriad types of non-procreative couples, only those Utahns who seek to marry a partner of the same sex are categorically excluded from the institution of marriage. Only same-sex couples, appellants claim, need to be excluded to further the state’s interest in communicating the link between unassisted biological procreation and marriage. As between non-procreative opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples, we can discern no meaningful distinction with respect to appellants’ interest in fostering biological reproduction within marriages. The Equal Protection Clause “is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” Extending the benefits and protections of a civil society to some but not all similarly situated families violates this critical guarantee.

Interesting here the judges are not arguing about a couple’s right to marry, but rather about an individual’s right to marry someone of the same sex. That’s a harder right to deny.

And on the whole idea that gay marriage threatens straight marriage:

We emphatically agree with the numerous cases decided since Windsor that it is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of the love and commitment between same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples.

On the comparison to no-fault divorce, which supposedly undermined marriage generally, an extended riff on hypocrisy:

We cannot accept appellants’ claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry is analogous to a law that permits married couples to divorce. The former causes an increase in the number of married individuals, whereas the latter decreases the number of marriages in a state. … Setting aside the implausibility of the comparison, we observe that Utah has adopted precisely the no-fault divorce regime that appellants decry in their briefing. … Through its no-fault divorce statute, Utah allows a spouse—the bedrock component of the marital unit—to leave his family whenever he wants and for whatever reason moves him. It is difficult to imagine how the State’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage undercuts in any meaningful way a state message of support for marital constancy given its adoption of a divorce policy that conveys a message of indifference to marital longevity.

Further, on the idea, so revoltingly disgorged by Hawkins and Carroll in the Utah case (as I discussed here), that gay marriage would make straight men love their children less:

We cannot imagine a scenario under which recognizing same-sex marriages would affect the decision of a member of an opposite-sex couple to have a child, to marry or stay married to a partner, or to make personal sacrifices for a child.

And finally, in the category of burying the Regnerus-Wilcox agenda to support with social science the bans on same-sex marriage in the name of children’s wellbeing (here’s the whole history):

We cannot embrace the contention that children raised by opposite-sex parents fare better than children raised by same-sex parents—to the extent appellants continue to press it—in light of their representations to this court. Appellants’ only reasoning in this regard is that there might be advantages in one parenting arrangement that are lacking in the other. On strict scrutiny, an argument based only on pure speculation and conjecture cannot carry the day. Appellants’ tepid defense of their parenting theory further highlights the looseness of the fit between the State’s chosen means and appellants’ asserted end.

I hope this means Regnerus and his ilk have cashed their last expert-witness check in this cause.

For us non-legal types, the writing judges do when they’re defending fundamental rights is surely their most compelling (and in this genre I highly recommend Judge Walker’s 2010 decision on California’s Prop 8). Overall, it’s an eloquent decision, and worth reading.

But, getting ahead of ourselves a little, it’s also worth pointing out that the 10th Circuit decision contributes to the de-radicalizing of the marriage rights movement with this quip:

Plaintiffs seek to enter into legally recognized marriages, with all the concomitant rights and responsibilities enshrined in Utah law. They desire not to redefine the institution but to participate in it.

Right! Wait… what?



Filed under In the news

Nicholas Wade followup, deeper dive edition

I’m very happy with the editing and fact-checking they did at Boston Review for my review of Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, and I don’t want to undermine their work (thanks to managing editor Simon Waxman and associate web editor Nausicaa Renner). If you only have time to read 4,000 words on it, their version is what you should read. It’s up here for free.

But in the thousands of words that ended up on the cutting room floor, there were a few ideas I’d like to post here, for the very interested reader.

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by epSos.de

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by epSos.de

Human bones

A number of critics have said that Wade’s early chapters are good, and the book only gets crazy-racist in the second half when he starts attributing social behavior to races and tracing global economic disparities to evolution by natural selection. But I did want to stress that he’s got plenty wrong in the early part of the book as well. In particular, I highlighted the question, why did human bones get thinner in the millennia before they settled down? This isn’t something we worry over much, but I think it’s an important clue to his biases and assumptions. From the published review:

To establish that genes determine social behavior, Wade looks to ancient history, when humans first settled in agricultural communities. “Most likely a shift in social behavior was required,” he writes, “a genetic change that reduced the level of aggressivity common in hunter-gatherer groups.” Of course, many elements were involved—climate change and geography, population pressure, the presence of various plants and animals, advances in tools and weapons, and human biological evolution—but there is no evidence that a behavioral genetic change was required.

I actually spent a fascinating few hours reading the scientific literature on evolution and bone structure, and saw no mention of the reduction in human aggressive behavior as a cause of human bones becoming weaker. To elaborate, Wade thinks natural selection gave people genes for thinner bones because strong bones became less necessary for survival as people fought each other less. He thinks genetic change in behavior led to genetic change in bones. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see any literature at all to back this up (Wade doesn’t cite any).

In fact, if I read it right, we might have thinner bones today than people did 50,000 years ago even though our bone genetics haven’t changed much, as a result of diet and lifestyle changes alone. How is that possible? When the bones of young people bear less weight they don’t grow as thick when they’re adults. This is the issue of tool use and the declining “habitual loads” on human limbs. It might also extend to our skulls because we’re not grinding pre-agricultural superfoods with our teeth all day long. Biological anthropologist Christopher Ruff writes: “In a few years, the strength of a person’s bone structure can change as much as the total average change over the past 2 million years of human evolution.” He cites classic research showing the bones of tennis players’ arms are thicker on the side they hold the racket. There is an alternative view that genetic adaptation did drive changes in bone size, having to do with climate change (here is some of that debate). But nothing about aggression I could find.

This point about the bones not-so-subtly underlies his later argument about Africa’s poverty, which he attributes in part to the genetic propensity toward violence among its people. Rather than aggression being an asset as society evolved, Wade speculates that, in the centuries leading up to the first settlements, “the most bellicose members of the society were perhaps killed or ostracized” (again, no evidence). Cue footage of UN peacekeepers landing in Africa.

Anyway, it’s potentially an important lesson in the malleability of human bodies through life experience rather than (only) through genetic change. The implication is that each generation may still be genetically ready to have thick bones again, but we just keep lucking out and being born into societies with tools and soft foods, so we don’t need to grow them. I find that amazing. I don’t want to push it too far, but I imagine that a lot of behavioral things are like that, too. Evolution has brought us to the point where we have vast potential to grow in different ways, and huge differences between people can emerge as a result our life experiences.

More on the “warrior gene”

In the review I included some discussion of the MAO-A studies:

Wade devotes considerable attention to MAO-A, the gene that encodes the enzyme monoamine oxidase A, which is related to aggression. He singles out studies showing that a rare version of the gene is associated with violence in U.S. male adolescents. Out of 1,200 young men surveyed in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, eleven particularly violent young men carried the 2R version of MAO-A, subsequently known as the “warrior gene.” Nine of those eleven were African American, comprising 5 percent of the black male adolescents in the study.

Sometimes in genetics there is some gene or coding that produces some measureable effect, and that’s how most people seem to think about genetics most of the time – there is “a gene for” something. In the days before today’s genome-wide association (GWA) studies, before scientists had the means to investigate hundreds of thousands of genetic markers at a time, they often looked for effects of such “candidate” genes. This approach was valuable, especially when the role of specific genes was known (as in the case of the BRCA1 gene, associated with higher risk of breast cancer). However, with most diseases, and even more so with behavior, which is presumed to be more complicated than single-gene mechanisms, candidate gene studies were (are) often fishing expeditions, with a high risk of false-positive results, amplified by selective publication of positive findings. It is quite possible that’s at least part of what happened with MAO-A and aggression.

Most studies about MAOA have been gene-environment interaction studies, where some version of MAOA has a statistical association with a behavior only in the presence of a particular social factor, such as a history of child abuse (e.g., this one). This kind of study is tricky and offers a lot of opportunity to fish around for significant effects (which I’m specifically not accusing any particular person of doing). The MAO-A 2R studies he cites weren’t interaction studies. But a couple of cautions are important. First, that 2R version of MAO-A is very rare, and the two studies Wade cites about it (here and here) both used the same sample from Add Health – 11 boys with the variant. Two studies doesn’t mean two independent results. You could never get a drug approved based on that (I hope). Second, as far as I can tell there was no strong reason a priori to suspect that this 2R variant would be especially associated with violence. So that’s a caution. I have to say, as I did in the review, that it may be correct. But the evidence is not there (and you shouldn’t say “not there yet,” either). Those two studies are the entire evidentiary basis for Wade saying that genes that shape social behavior vary by race (“one behavioral gene … known to vary between races”.) I didn’t find any other studies that show MAO-A 2R varies by race (though maybe there are some).


Yao Ming and Ye Li

Yao Ming and Ye Li

Modern evolution

Does natural selection still apply to humans? Of course. But I can’t see how it works very efficiently in modern societies, because our demography seems like a poor launching pad for genetic revolutions. Most threats to our survival now occur after we’ve had the opportunity to have children. And it’s getting worse (which means better). The decline in child mortality and the extension of life expectancy beyond the childbearing years means that relatively few people are left of out of the breeding community. That’s how I was raised to understand natural selection: individuals with stronger, better traits breed more than those with weaker, worse traits. In the U.S. today, 97.8% of females born live to age 40, and 85% of those have a birth, so 83% of females born become biological mothers. And a good part of modern childlessness is voluntary, rather than the consequence of a genetic weakness. Even as recently as 1900, in contrast, Census data and mortality statistics show that only 53% of females born lived to be age 40 and had a surviving child. So I don’t know how evolution is working today, but except for really bad health conditions I’m skeptical.

Of course, we have selective breeding producing subpopulations that have concentrations of genetic traits. Yao Ming’s parents were both basketball players, and his wife is 6′ 3″. So they’re on their way to producing a subpopulation of really tall Chinese people. But most social divides we have are not like that — they aren’t based on genetic traits. So I don’t see that being very effective either. To take Wade’s example of Jews and math ability (a chapter I didn’t write about because I was already 3,000 words long), you would need to have Jews not only have good math genes, and only reproduce with each other, but they’d also have to cast out those kids who were relatively bad and math and put the boys and girls who were relatively good at math together. That could happen, but it would be inefficient and very slow, and next thing you know some historical event or trend would come along and mess it all up.

Even the much-discussed increasing tendency of college graduates to marry each other — which gives us about three-quarters of couples today being on the same side of the college/non-college divide — is just sloppy and slow by selective-breeding standards. Maybe it could produce a race of people who like baby joggers and The Economist, but given the low levels of isolation between groups and the length of human generations I just think any progress in that direction would be so slow as to be swamped by other processes pushing in all different directions.


Wade used Australia to argue against Jared Diamond, whose account of world history, Guns, Germs and Steel, dismisses genetic evolution as an explanation, making him the villain in Wade’s story. How is it, Wade wonders, that Paleolithic Age native Australians were unable to build a modern economy, but Europeans could waltz onto the continent and be successful so easily? He writes:

If in the same environment … one population can operate a highly productive economy and another cannot, surely it cannot be the environment that is decisive … but rather some critical difference in the nature of the two people and their societies.

That’s one of the worst head-scratchers in the book. Does Wade really think that Europeans just dropped in to Australia on an equal footing with the local population, and had to figure out how to thrive there on their raw genetic merits, proving their superiority by their relative success? It can’t be that “the nature of the two people and their societies” means the boats, weapons, technology and modern state social organization the Europeans possessed, because then he has made Diamond’s point. So the “nature” he’s referring to must be genetics. To the reader who has a passing familiarity with modern social science, this is just jarring.

Does cancer genetics help?

To help show the dead-end of Wade’s very mechanical view of genetic influence, I drew out an example from cancer genetics (with a little help from my brother-in-law, Peter Kraft, who is not responsible for this interpretation).

What if we found that genetic factors contributed to social behavior in any of the ways Wade imagines? Speculative as that is at present, it is of course a possibility. Most people are concerned about the implications for genocide and eugenics, for good reason. But even if our scientific motives were pure, the functional utility of such information would be questionable.

Consider a comparison to the much better understood genetics of disease. Take prostate cancer, which is known to have a family history component. Genome wide association studies have identified some genetic markers that are significantly associated with the risk of developing prostate cancer, such that a genetic test can identify which men are at highest risk. However, a review of the statistical evidence in the journal Nature Reviews Genetics pointed out that, even among the high-risk group only about 1.1% of men would come down with prostate cancer in a five-year period. That’s much higher than the 0.7% expected in the general population, but what do you do with that information? Invasive procedures, medications, or preventative surgery on millions of men would not be worth it in order to prevent a small number of cases of prostate cancer – the side effects alone would swamp the benefits. On the other hand, we don’t need any genetic tests to tell smokers to quit, or urge people to eat better and exercise.

This is just one example. Risk factors for this and other diseases are the subject of intense research, and there are actionable results out there, too. But I suspect that genetic influences on social behavior, if discovered, would present an extreme version of this problem: slight genetic tendencies implying tiny increases in absolute risks – and interventions with huge costs and side effects – all while more effective solutions stare us in the collective face.

To complete the analogy: In other words, if – big if – we could identify them, should we incarcerate, surveil, or segregate a subpopulation with a small increased odds of committing crime – thereby preventing a tiny number of crimes while harming a large group of innocent people? And should we isolate and elevate the children of some other subpopulation because of their slightly higher odds of success in some endeavor? Or should we instead devote our resources to improving education, nutrition, employment and health care for the much larger population, based on the well-established benefits of those interventions? We know lots of effective ways to affect social behavior, including against “natural” inclinations.

I’m really not against scientific exploration of behavioral genetics. But the risk of exaggerated results and inflated importance seems so high that I doubt the research will be useful any time soon.


Filed under Me @ work

Reviewing Nicholas Wade’s troublesome book


I have written a review of Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, for Boston Review. Because there already are a lot of reviews published, I also included discussion of the response to the book. And because I’m not expert in genetics and evolution, I got to do a pile of reading on those subject as well. I hope you’ll have a look: http://www.bostonreview.net/books-ideas/philip-cohen-nicholas-wade-troublesome-inheritance


Filed under Research reports

Deciphering a well-told data story, cars are good for kids edition

Brad Wilcox has written up his best case for how marriage protects women and girls from violence. I discussed his initial post earlier, but the blowup has prompted me to provide more general advice for the critical data citizen — reader, writer, and editor — who has to decide what to believe when someone comes at them with a data story.

I have some tips about that at the end, but first this elaborate setup.

The information in this section is true

Consider three stories:

  • When Melanie Thernstrom’s toddler, Kieran, first ate cheese, he immediately had a massive allergic attack. His face swelled, his skin turned red and scaly, and he started gasping for breath. They jumped in their car and rushed to the hospital, where doctors were able to save him.
  • Chicago mother Tynisha Hilliard had six children in the car when someone opened fire. “Mommy, I’m shot,” said her nine-year-old boy from the back seat. Hilliard immediately sped to the nearest hospital. “My reaction was to save my son. That’s all I can do, save my son,” she said. After emergency surgery for a gunshot wound to the chest, the boy was expected to survive.
  • When Dodgers catcher A. J. Ellis’s wife, Cindy, went into labor, they hopped in the car and headed for NYU hospital, normally a 35-minute drive. Despite racing through traffic with a police escort, they didn’t make it in time – the baby was born in the back seat – but they arrived at the hospital moments later, met by an emergency crew that whisked mother and child to care and safety in the hospital.

What do these stories have in common? Children’s lives saved by cars.

Is this part of a wider phenomenon? I know what you’re thinking: The pollution from cars hurts children, the vast resources devoted to infrastructure for cars could be spent instead in ways that help children, the need for gas causes wars all the time, and the individualism promoted by car culture contributes to social isolation instead of community efficacy.

Maybe. But let’s theorize a little. Here are three ways cars might be good for children’s health:

  • Kids whose families have cars can get them to doctors in an emergency. Considering that in modern societies a lot of what kills children is various kinds of accidents and medical emergencies, this could be a major advantage.
  • Say what you want about individualism, but it’s emerged as a modern character trait in tandem with the cultural shift that brought us the view of children as priceless individuals. Car culture is a major prop of individualism, so it’s reasonable to hypothesize that people who drive individual cars are more totally devoted to their priceless individual children’s well-being (rather than, say, the well-being of children in general).
  • Being able to transport oneself at will — any time, any place — may create a sense of self-efficacy, of mastery over one’s environment, which makes people refuse to accept failure (or illness or death), and thus devote themselves more confidently to their survival and the survival of their children.

Don’t take a theoretical word for it, though — let’s go to the data. Here are three small studies.

Cars and children’s health across countries

First we examine the relationship between the number of passenger cars per capita and the rate of child malnutrition in 110 countries (all the countries in the World Bank’s database that have measures of both variables in the last 10 years — mostly poor countries). The largest — India, China, Brazil, and the USA — are highlighted (click to enlarge).


This is a very strong relationship. This single variable, cars per capita, statistically explains no less than 67% of the variation in child malnutrition rates.

But, you liberals object, cars are surely more common in wealthier countries, so this relationship may be spurious. Sure, income and cars are positively correlated (r=.86, in fact). But when I fit a regression model with both per capita income and per capita cars, cars still have a highly significant statistical association with malnutrition (p<.001). (All the regression models are in the appendix at the end.)

Cars and child death rates across US states

Second, we take a closer look within the United States.  Here there is a lot less variation in both the number of cars and the condition of children. Still, there is a clear relationship between private cars per person and the death rate of children and teenagers: Children are substantially less likely to die in states with more privately owned passenger cars (click to enlarge).


Again, there is less variation in income between U.S. states than there is between countries of the world. But to make sure this is not just a function of state income, I fit a regression model with cars and a control for median household income. The statistical effect of private cars remains significant at the p<.05 level, confirming it is unlikely to be due to chance.

Car commuting and children’s disabilities within the US

Third, let’s go still further, not just comparing US states but comparing children according to the car-driving habits of their parents within the US. For this I got data on children’s disabilities (four kinds of disability) and the means of transportation to work for their parents using the 2010-2012 American Community Survey, with a sample of more than 700,000 children ages 5-11.

Sure enough, children who live with parents who drive to work are substantially less likely to have disabilities than those who don’t live with a parent who drives to work:


Again, could this be because richer families are more likely to include car-driving parents? The regressions (below) show that, although it is true that children in richer households are less likely to have disabilities, the statistical effect of parents’ commuting method remains highly significant in the model that includes household income.

In summary: Children are less likely to be malnourished if they live in a country with more cars per person; they are less likely to die if they live in a state with more cars per person, and they are less likely to have disabilities if they live with parents who commute to work by car. All of these relationships are statistically significant with controls for income (of the country, state, or family). These are facts.

One interpretation

Compare this analysis to the question of marriage and violence. In their piece for the Washington Post (discussed here), Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson wrote about #YesAllWomen:

This social media outpouring makes it clear that some men pose a real threat to the physical and psychic welfare of women and girls. But obscured in the public conversation about the violence against women is the fact that some other men are more likely to protect women, directly and indirectly, from the threat of male violence: married biological fathers. The bottom line is this: Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father.

With the facts above I can accurately offer this parallel construction:

Some cars pose a real threat to the health and safety of children. But obscured in the public conversation about auto safety, pollution, and environmental degradation is the fact that some other cars are more likely to protect children, directly and indirectly, from threats to their health and safety: cars driven by their own, responsible, caring parents. The bottom line is this: Children in places with more cars — and in families where parents commute by car — are notably healthier than peers without cars.

At the end of his followup post, Brad concludes:

Of course, none of these studies definitively prove that marriage plays a causal role in protecting women and children. But they are certainly suggestive. What we do know is this: Intact families with married parents are typically safer for women and children. … That’s why the conversation about violence against women and girls … should incorporate the family factor into efforts to reduce the violence facing women and girls.

I am equally confident in my conclusion:

Of course, my brief studies don’t definitively prove that cars plays a causal role in protecting children’s health and safety. But they are certainly suggestive. What we do know is this: Societies and families with cars are typically safer and healthier for children. That’s why the conversation about children’s well-being should incorporate the car factor into efforts to reduce the harms too many children continue to experience.

Another interpretation

Both the marriage story and the car story are misleading data manipulations that substitute data volume for analytical power and present results in a way intended to pitch a conclusion rather than tell the truth.

When is a non-causal story “certainly suggestive”? When the person giving you the pitch wants you to believe the conclusion.

Please do not conclude from this that all data stories are equally corrupt, and everyone just picks the version that agrees with their preconception. Not all academics lie or distort their findings to fit their personal, political, or scientific conclusions. I may be more motivated to criticize Brad Wilcox because I disagree with his conclusions (and there may be people I agree with who use bad methods that I haven’t debunked), but that doesn’t mean I’m dishonest in my interpretation and presentation of evidence. Like a real climate scientist debunking climate-change deniers, I am happy that discrediting him is both morally good and scientifically correct (and I think that’s not a coincidence).

There are two main problems with both the cars story and the marriage story. First is selection into the independent variable condition (marriage and car ownership). People end up in these conditions partly because of their values on the dependent variable. For example, women in marriages are less likely to be raped on average because women don’t want to marry men who have raped them, or likely will rape them — the absence of rape causes marriage. In the case of children with disabilities, there is evidence that children’s disabilities increase the odds their parents will divorce (which means at least one of the parents isn’t in the household and so can’t be a car-commuting parent in the ACS data).

The other main problem is omitted variables. Other things cause both family violence and children’s health, and these are not adequately controlled even if researchers tell you they control for them. Controlling for household income (and other easily-measured demographics) does not capture all the benefits and privileges that married (or car-owning) people have and transfer to their children. For tricky questions of selection and omitted variables, we need to get closer to experimental conditions in order to provide causal explanations.

Tips for critical reading

So, based on Wilcox’s car story and my car story, here are practical tips to help you avoid getting hoodwinked by a propagandist with a PhD — or a data journalist looking at a mountain of data and a tight deadline. These are some things to watch out for:

Scatter plot proof

Impressive bivariate relationships; they may be presented with mention of control variables but no mention of adjusted effect size. That’s what I did with my scatter plots above. If you have adjusted results but don’t show them, it’s selling a small net effect with a big unadjusted label. (Wilcox examples here; Mark Regnerus does this, too.)

Axis truncation

A classic example is the Obama food stamp meme, but Wilcox had a great example a few years ago when he wanted to show the drop in divorce that resulted from hard times pulling families together during the recession. If you assume divorce is always going up (it fell for decades), this looks like a dramatic change (he called it “the first annual dip since 2005″):

No head-to-head comparison of alternative explanations

This is a lot to ask, but real social scientists take seriously the alternative explanations for what they observe, and try to devise ways to test them against each other. Editors often see this as a low-hanging fruit for removal, because cutting it both shortens the piece and strengthens the argument. In the rape versus marriage story, Wilcox nodded to the alternative explanation that “women in healthy, safe relationships are more likely to select into marriage” — which he called “part of the story” — but he offered nothing to help a reader or editor adjudicate the relative size of that “part” of the story. This connects to the next red flag.

Greater than zero proof

Sometimes just showing that something exists at all is offered as evidence of its importance. That’s why I included three anecdotes about children being saved by private passenger cars — it happened, it’s real. The trick is to identify whether something matters in addition to existing. Here’s a Wilcox example where he showed that a tiny number of people said they didn’t divorce because of the recession; here’s an example in which Nate Cohn at the NYTimes Upshot said that 2% of Hispanics changing their race to White was “evidence consistent with the theory that Hispanics may assimilate as white Americans.” Neither of these provide any comparison to show how important these discoveries were relative to anything else — other reasons people delay divorce? other reasons for race-code changes? — they just exist. This is reasonable if you’re discovering a new subatomic particle, but with social behavior it’s less impressive.

Piles of studies

The reason I presented the car results as the three separate “studies” was to make the point that you can have a lot of studies, but if none of them prove your point it doesn’t matter. For example, in his post Wilcox linked to a series of publications about how children whose parents weren’t married were more likely to be sexually abused, but none of them handle the problem of selection into marriage I described above. Similarly, a generation of research showed that women who have babies as teenagers suffer negative economic consequences, but those effects were all exaggerated because people didn’t take selection into account (women with poor economic prospects are more likely to have babies as teenagers).

Describing one side of inequality as a social good

Let’s say that, in street fights, the person with a gun beats the person with a knife more than 50% of the time. Do we conclude people should have more guns? Some benefits are absolute and have no zero-sum quality to them. (I can’t think of any, but I assume there are some.) Normally, however, we’re talking about relative benefits. The benefits of marriage, or the economic benefits of education, are measured relative to people who aren’t married or schooled.

The typical description of such a pattern is, “This causes a good outcome, we should have more of it.” But we should always consider whether the best thing, socially, might be to reduce the benefit — that is, solve the problems of the people who don’t have the asset in question — rather than try to increase the number of people with the asset.

The benefit of cars that comes from being able to get to the hospital quicker may only be relative to the poor suckers stuck in an ambulance while your personal cars are blocking up Manhattan.

Ambulance stuck in Manhattan, by Philip Cohen

Ambulance stuck in Manhattan, by Philip Cohen

Appendix: Regression results



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Movie dimorphism udpate: How to Train Your Dragon 2 edition

In the kids’ movie sexual dimorphism saga, we have a new entrant: How to Train Your Dragon 2.

The posts so far include Frozen and Brave (which includes data on real hand size differences), Tangled, and Gnomeo and Juliet. The objections to complaints, and some counter examples, are in this post.

In Dragon, the young hero, Hiccup, and his friend Astrid are about the same size:

dragon-kidsSo file that under not extreme dimorphism. But there isn’t a lot of romance between them. I wouldn’t have made an entry for the film if not for a few tender moments between Stoick the Vast and his wife, Valka (Hiccup’s parents).

stoick-valkaTrue to form, it is during the tender moments that the greatest sexual dimorphism is displayed. Here are their hands from the scene where their love is (spoiler alert) rekindled (sorry for the image quality – it was dark):


I actually don’t see how her tiny fingers can reach all the way across his hand like that. Ouch! Anyway, the point is the size difference. Please don’t say, “Of course his hands are huge, his name is Stoick the Vast”! It’s fiction. They could have done whatever they wanted. That’s why some of the Vikings have Scottish accents, and there are flying dragons (still not enough magic to get any people of color into the frozen North, though — except the foreign arch villain, Drago Bludvist).

Anyway, here are the previous pictures in the series:




Gnomeo and Juliet


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Final proof there is no human tragedy Brad Wilcox will not exploit in order to promote marriage

I’m not going to dignify this with a thorough debunking, but here’s a quick note to highlight the evil that walks among us in academic robes.

Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson wrote a piece for “Post Everything” at the Washington Post that was originally titled like this:


The post didn’t specifically say what’s in the headline, but in this case I have to give credit to the overreaching headline writer for accurately capturing the basic message of the piece. What Brad wants to do is make people think that without exactly saying it. Erin Gloria Ryan on Jezebel wrote a good alternate headline for it, too: “Violence Against Women Will End When You Sluts Get Married, Says WaPo.”

Their audience is married people who feel superior to women who aren’t married, who want to coerce women into marriage — or cast them out. The friendly side of this is paternalistic shaming, the unfriendly side is violent shaming; both are expressions of patriarchal outlook. Their conclusion:

And, most fundamentally, for the girls and women in their lives, married fathers provide direct protection by watching out for the physical welfare of their wives and daughters, and indirect protection by increasing the odds they live in safe homes and are not exposed to men likely to pose a threat. So, women: if you’re the product of a good marriage, and feel safer as a consequence, lift a glass to dear old dad this Sunday.

I can’t help reading this without hearing a voice that says, “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

After the interwebs’ head exploded over the headline, Brad tweeted, “Working to match title w text,” and then a new headline appeared:


The new headline is supposed to be less offensive, I suppose, but it amounts to the same thing. And it’s based on the same correlations in the post. There is still nothing in the post to show that adding marriage to a random relationship would reduce the odds or level of intimate partner violence. So the implication is the same: shame on you.

On Twitter, Marina Adshade pointed out that marriage rates and violence rates have both been falling for several decades. Brad’s response was, “Fair enough. But the question is this: Would they have fallen even more if marriage was stronger?” That’s a question he should probably have asked before writing the piece.

Can you imagine what he would do if he had the opposite result to work with — an increase in violence during a period of decreasing marriage?

We don’t have to imagine, actually, because he and his marriage-promoting compatriots at the National Marriage Project were all over that in the 1990s. To choose one example I have handy, William Galston, who sits on Brad’s board of advisors at NMP, wrote in 1991 in the New Republic (12/2/91) that, “The American family has changed dramatically in the past generation, and it is children who have paid the price.” We needed, he said, to “relegitimate the discussion of the links between family structure and a range of social ills.” Indeed, “theft, violence, and the use of illicit drugs are far more prevalent among teenagers than they were thirty years ago.” Now, as “revolution in the American family” has reached unprecedented levels, crime has fallen for two decades. <Crickets>

As a spoof — but with real data — I illustrated Adshade’s point. Here is the relationship between marriage prevalence and intimate partner violence rates:


That curvilinear statistical relationship explains 84% of the variance in intimate partner violence rates. If you add the linear time trend, the variance explained jumps to 92% and the effects of marriage remain highly significant.



If I were like Brad on the other side of this debate, the news story would read like this:

“We had reason to believe marriage was harmful, on average,” said Prof. Cohen. “But I was surprised by the strength of the relationship, especially the fact that the effect seems to accelerate at higher levels of marriage, as if marriage feeds off itself in a violence loop.” Although further research will be needed to confirm the findings, he added, the statistical association is very strong. “The bottom line is that intimate partner violence is much less common in years when marriage is more rare.”

However, I am not seriously suggesting that the decline in marriage has caused the decline in violence (although reduced exposure of women to men in general may be one factor). In fact, if you add the curvilinear effect of time, the variance explained rises to 95% — and marriage effects disappear. But the fact that violence has dropped so much while marriage has plummeted means Brad has a steeper hill to climb to make his case. It’s not enough to say, maybe violence would have declined even more. This is not one of those random spurious correlations, these are two large social trends affecting whole swaths of the population, and the correlation directly contradicts his theory. When there is a plausible connection, or the trends at least affect the same people, the burden is on the one going beyond the existing evidence to reconcile the hypothesis with the available circumstantial evidence.

But none of this matters to Brad*, or, apparently, Robin Fretwell Wilson. Their conclusion is predetermined. There is nothing that would lead them to conclude that society would not be improved by more marriage. It’s just a case of picking a subject in the news, picking some facts, and repeating their conclusions. And I think it’s appalling.

* If you’re wondering why I seem to be picking on Brad individually, please rest assured it’s nothing personal. If there was any other sociologist who behaved as poorly as he consistently does I would pick on them, too. For endless details, follow the National Marriage Project tag.


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What a recovery looks like (with population growth by age)

If you don’t account for population growth, I don’t get what you’re saying with these employment numbers. I’ll show a simple example, but first a little rundown on Friday’s jobs report.

Here is how CNN Money played the jobs report:


What does it mean, this loss and gain of jobs, returning finally to where we started? Four paragraphs under that happy headline, CNN did points out:

Given population growth over the last four years, the economy still needs more jobs to truly return to a healthy place. How many more? A whopping 7 million, calculates Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

So what does “Finally!” mean? The Wall Street Journal ran the headline, “Jobs Return to Peak, but Quality Lags.” On 538 it was, “Women returned to prerecession levels of employment in 2013. Men remain hundreds of thousands of jobs in the hole:”


The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed how much better the previous recoveries were:


That’s a good comparison. And CBPP mentioned population growth, too:

…payroll employment has finally topped its level at the start of the recession. Still, with essentially no net job growth since December 2007 but a growing working-age population, many more people today want to work but don’t have a job.

It’s not that no one mentions population growth, it’s that they still lead with the “top line” number. And they all have that horizontal line at the raw number of jobs when the recession started as the benchmark. I don’t know why.

Maybe in some crazy economics world the absolute number of jobs is what really matters for evaluating a recovery, and that explains the fixation on that horizontal line. From a social perspective what matters is the proportion of people with jobs. I could see the logic if you had a finite number of employers that never change, where you could literally count up the jobs at two points in time, and see who added and who subtracted from their payrolls (this is why retail chains report “same-store” trends, so the statistics aren’t confounded by the changing number of stores). But we have zillions of employers, constantly changing and moving around — largely in response to population changes. So that static image seems pointless.

In perspective

So here are some charts to put the recession and recovery in slightly better perspective. These all use the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey from March 2003 to March 2013 (from IPUMS), the household survey used to track the labor force. I use ages 15 and older, and combine people in school (up to age 24) with those employed (not how most people do it, but a lot of people went to school, or stayed in school, because of the bad job market, and it doesn’t make sense to count them as not simply not employed). The survey excludes people in institutions, like prisons, and on-base military personnel.

To show the basic issue, here are the changes in the non-institutionalized population, age 15+, along with the number of them employed or in school — showing absolute changes relative to 2008, the peak employment year.


The 15+ population increased almost 12 million from 2008 to 2013. People employed or in school was not yet back to 2008 levels in March 2013. So a basic population adjustment is the least you can ask for (and we get that from the BLS with the employment-population ratio, which as of May was up less than one percent in the last 3.5 years, but it’s not the headline number).

What about age shifts? You don’t expect extreme age composition changes in 5 years, but there are different employment trends at different ages, so those affect how many employed people we are short. Here are the trends in work/school, by age and sex:


This makes it look like the 30-49s that are getting crushed. The 50+ community’s gains, however,are deceptive — their population is increasing. In fact, the population of people 30-49 declined 5% during this decade, while the population 50+ increased almost 30%. The younger people have increased their schooling rates, but their population has also grown. If you look at the employment/school rates, you see that among men, it is the younger groups that have done worst:


Women clearly are doing better (partly because in the 20-29 range they’re going to school more). It is amazing that employment rates didn’t fall at all over age 60. This could be because the population increase in that group is all in Baby Boomers just hitting their sixties, but I reckon it’s also people delaying retirement compensating for unemployment.

Now that we have age-specific work/school rates, and population changes, we can easily calculate how many people in each age group would have to be in work/school to get to the number implied by applying the peak-year 2008 rates to the population in each year. Sorry this one is so ugly: I made the last bar for each group pink to show the bottom line, where each group stands in 2013 relative to 2008:


Worst off are the 20-something men, down more than a million worker/students in 2013. Interestingly, women are only better off in the 20-something and 50+ ranges.

Finally, if you sum these figures you get the total, age-adjusted losses, by sex since 2008, as of March 2013:


And that’s your bottom line. The job/school losses stood at 3.3 million for men and 2.4 million for women as of March 2013.*

Really, there are no huge surprises here. In fact, the total population change is not a bad rough adjustment, especially for the short term. But there are some interesting nuances here. And with all the data and computers we have these days, let’s adjust for age and sex.

*I don’t say that’s how many “jobs” we need, because I don’t think “jobs” exist — are created, destroyed, shipped overseas, etc. I think there are employed people, people getting jobs, losing jobs, etc. I don’t see how a “job” exists absent a worker in it (and no, a listing is not a job until they fill it). So we don’t need to “create jobs” after a recession, what we need to do is “hire people.” Pet peeve.


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