Last year Brad Wilcox gave a talk at Saint Vincent College, a monastic college just 8 minutes from the glass-lined tanks of old Latrobe. The talk was structured as a critique of Stephanie Coontz and her decadent view that marriage should be freely chosen.
I was skipping through it looking for his current definition of the “Gold Standard” family (“intact, married, biological family”), when I found this amazing piece of sophistry masquerading as incompetence (or maybe the other way around, hard to know). To lighten things up around here, I thought I’d share it.
This is the clip (It’s here on the full video), followed by the transcript:
Stephanie Coontz, who is a very prominent, progressive author, writer and scholar, has argued that ‘marriage has become more joyful, more loving, more satisfying.’ So what’s the evidence tell us about what actually happened? Well, looking just at those folks who were married, from the 70s to the 80s, and the 90s, and actually the 2000s [he’s looking up at his own graph here], there’s no evidence that marriage is becoming more joyful or more loving among those folks who managed both to get married, and in this case, to remain married. So we see a decline. It’s actually particularly precipitous for women, from the 70s to the 2000s. And when you factor in the fact that fewer and fewer folks were getting married, that’s particularly interesting. What’s this is telling us is that a smaller and smaller share of American adults both men and women were in a very happy marriage from the 70s to the 2000s. So, I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to sort of back up her idea that sort this newer, post-70s model, this more contingent model, was more successful.
Here’s a screengrab of the slide he’s looking at:
Wow, that sure makes it seem like the percent of adults in a very happy marriage is a lot lower than it used to be, although rebounding strongly this decade. It also just doesn’t look anything like the many graphs of marital happiness I have seen, and made, from the General Social Survey, which is the data he’s using here. So, how exactly is Brad Wilcox completely wrong this time?
Two amazingly incompetent and/or disingenuous ways. First, he included people who aren’t married in his denominator, so the decline in “happy marriage” he shows is due to the decline in marriage altogether, not to any change within marriage. That’s like saying the percentage of people who love reading handwritten parchment scrolls has plummeted since the Middle Ages.
Second, that huge drop in the 2000s he shows is entirely due to the fact that most people weren’t asked the question in survey years 2002, 2004, and 2006, and he included them as not in “very happy” marriages. Brad could just as accurately have said the 19,000 happily married people in the GSS are the only happily married people on earth.
Here is the actual trend, with what he showed (which is trivially easy to reconstruct), showing the individual years instead of the decade grouping he used:
I can’t think of something better to say than just showing this. (I didn’t bother with the gender breakdown, which isn’t the point.)
I hope this helps. Please stay at home if you can, and support those who can’t stay home as best you can.
Update: Stephanie Coontz writes on Facebook:
Thanks to Philip Cohen for showing how Brad Wilcox misuses data to criticize my claim that modern marriages are “more loving, more satisfying” than in the past. What I actually say is that when they work WELL, modern marriages are more intimate, fair & loving than marriages of the past. When they DON’T work well, they are more disappointing and seem less bearable because of our higher expectations. This makes our current crisis especially challenging, because we have to expect more of our partners, and can expect less from others, than usual.