If the National Marriage Project told you it was going to rain, would you bring an umbrella?

Why do academics and journalists lend legitimacy to the National Marriage Project?

The Centers for Disease Control: You bought that.
The Centers for Disease Control: You bought that.

I today’s New York Times Week in Review, Andrew Cherlin offers this:

Having a child outside of marriage has also become common. According to a report by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, 47 percent of American women who give birth in their 20s are unmarried at the time.

It took me 3 minutes to find the the 2010 report on birth data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a branch of the Centers for Disease Control, and another 1/2 minute to locate the table with this information, which is table 15. Because of my weakness in algebra, it took me another 5 minutes to turn the number of babies born to unmarried women in the age range 20-24 (600,833) and in the age range 25-29 (384,865) and the percent unmarried that those represented (63.1% and 33.9%, respectively), into the total births to women in their 20s (2,087,487) and the percentage of all those to unmarried women (47.2%).

The New York Times paid for that statistic through taxes, which its government has provided. So why publish an essay by a sociologist with a named chair crediting the National Marriage Project, a right-wing front run by the discredited Brad Wilcox on behalf of big-money Christian conservatives? (In other news, the Heritage Foundation reported that the unemployment rate in February was 7.7%).

Maybe the media establishment simply doesn’t know a simple government statistic when they see one. But they see the university label and fancy website, and guy with the (implied) elbow patches, and they think the number is more complicated than it looksRather than hire a qualified unpaid intern to check facts and credit them to their actual sources, maybe they just trust the experts they rely on. (This is the David Brooks strategy.)

With resources for journalism and social science research on the decline, and foundation money playing a growing role in providing information to the media, this is predictable – but still lamentable.

8 thoughts on “If the National Marriage Project told you it was going to rain, would you bring an umbrella?

  1. Good catches, Philip. As I have been saying about Wilcox vis-a-vis James Wright and the publication of the Regnerus packages, the Committee on Publication Ethics Code of Conduct for Journal Editors, 2.1 stipulates that editors are supposed to make full disclosure of a funder’s role in a study.

    Because Wilcox is on Wright’s Social Science Research editorial board, he as much as Wright has an ethical responsibility to acknowledge in full his role in the study and to publish it on the journal site. Neither Wright nor Wilcox have ever done that.

    [snip]…removing more material about the Regnerus study and controversy not on point for this post -pnc…[/snip]


  2. It was “on point” in the sense that Wilcox should be stopped from his deliberate misinformation campaigns.


  3. Prof. Cohen:
    Why are you so *obsessed* with the NMP, Wilcox, etc?
    Do they really deserve so much of your time / so many of your posts?
    I guess you disagree with many other things in this world, but this one seems to be particularly sensitive for you, given the amount of time you spend writing against it… and how easily you recur to labels to refer to those guys / institutions. To the external observer, there seems to be something personal here. Just thinking out loud.


    1. Yes, but, see this, from the same article (by Prof. Cherlin in NYT):

      “According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, 88 percent of 35- to 44-year-old women with four-year college degrees have married, compared with 79 percent of those without high-school diplomas”.

      Those stats can also easily be obtained directly from publicly available sources. The exact same thing Prof. Cohen is complaining about is done twice in the same article he cites. But in this second case Prof. Cohen doesn’t say a word. Maybe the NCFMR falls in Prof. Cohen’s ideological blind spot, so the paragraph above didn’t call his attention. Or, as I suggested, he is just obsessed with the NMP.

      In the end, the fact is that he is selective in only denouncing one of the two instances of the exact same thing in the same article. And the “modus operandi” of both conservative and liberal think tanks are quite similarly in all respects, each one with its own bias. If those practices are bad, he should denounce them when they come from progressive places too.


      1. NCFMR is a public entity funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services and Bowling Green State University with a mission of research, training and information dissemination. The National Marriage Project has the goal of “strengthening marriage” and it is funded by private sources.


  4. Taking your question at face value, I think one reason why journalists rely on sources like the NMP (or, for that matter, on academics) is that finding and “analyzing” primary data isn’t part of their training. In order to calculate the birth statistics for yourself, you have to know that the relevant data are collected by the CDC/NCHS (gov sites tend not to come up at the top of the list in google searches), you have to know what tables to look up, and, often, you have to be able to think through how to get from the data in the tables to the statistic you want to present. Yes, it took you (Phil) 10 minutes, but someone who doesn’t play with government data for a living might have to invest an hour or more.

    IMO, basic data retrieval and analysis skills should be required of anyone receiving a degree in journalism. It’s always seemed odd to me that police and correctional officers learn more about crime statistics (through criminology courses) than journalists learn about social statistics. Realistically, the majority of correctional officers don’t need to know basic crime statistics in order to do their jobs well, whereas an innumerate journalist is downright dangerous.


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s