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Upshot sells Wilcox, but I’m not buying

David Leonhardt at the NYTimes Uphsot has a piece up on the rate of children living with married parents across states. It’s superficial and unhelpful, based as it is off a blog post by Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Zill.

It reads, in part:

When it comes to family arrangements, the United States has a North-South divide. Children growing up across much of the northern part of the country are much more likely to grow up with two parents than children across the South. … These patterns — which come from a new analysis of census data — are important because evidence suggests that children usually benefit from growing up with two parents. It’s probably not a coincidence, for instance, that the states with more two-parent families also have higher rates of upward mobility.

And there is this map:

leonhardtmapLeonhardt really should spend more time looking at maps of the racial distribution. Anyway, he doesn’t quote the Wilcox & Zill conclusion, which is this:

The relationship is modest but statistically significant. For every ten-point increase in the Red State Index, the proportion of teens living with both parents rises by one percentage point. This suggests that red state family culture is associated with increased odds of being raised in an intact, married family.

That is an impressive level of wrong, and overreach, based on an analysis at the state level with 5 variables (% with BA, 5 Black, Hispanic, and Asian, and a red/blue voting index).

States do “matter,” of course, and there is a literature going back decades on regional variation in family demography and inequality. Sorry I don’t have time this morning to make a lit review — feel free to put links in the comments. But for whether or not a child lives with both married parents, race/ethnicity and education — indicators of America’s unique brand of inequality — explain the pattern much better than some amorphous “state family culture.”

Leonhardt likes to be very post-racial, for example happily repeating Chetty results for single-motherhood effects on mobility that don’t control for race (see here). And he does that again here:

Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill also point out that two-parent families tend to be more common in states with predominantly white populations. But race is hardly the only explanation for the patterns. White single-parent families have become much more common in recent years. And in the Deep South, single parenthood is common among both whites and blacks.

But that’s facile and misleading. Who would say race is “the only explanation”? And “common among both whites and blacks” doesn’t mean close to equal.

Anyway, doing this at the state level is not optimal (although it is the kind of thing I have done plenty when I’m being superficial or illustrating something I know is actually true). White college graduates in the South look a lot more like White college graduates in the North, when it comes to family structure, than they do to poor Blacks in the South. And if states “matter,” it’s much more through their legacies of racial inequality and educational underinvestment. To illustrate this, I put the following regression table on Twitter, reflecting an entire half hour of work — from data download through table construction — partly to show how superficial as well as wrong the Wilcox/Leonhardt analysis is. It shows that if you know the race/ethnicity and education of a child’s parents, further knowing the state they live in gives you virtually no better chance of predicting whether their parents are married.

ols-state-gold

That R-squared tells you the variance explained, and it moves less than 1% when you add the state fixed effects (though it gives you a full 1% when there are no other variables in the model).

As I said on Twitter, maybe the most common problem in bivariate data-science journalism is mistaking visual descriptive power (e.g., state map) for explanatory power. The alternative is to read some more, then spend a little more time with the data, and consult with honest experts.

Sorry I don’t have more time to write this morning.

NEXT MORNING ADDENDUM:

Someone on Twitter said I should talk about effect sizes instead of variance explained. That’s reasonable. To illustrate this I added an interaction term between state and parent-BA, and calculated marginal effects. The education effect on having married parents is 39% overall, and ranges from 27% to 50% across states. On the other hand, states have a range of 13% for kids with a BA-holding parent, and 28% for kids with a BA-holding parent. To illustrate what this means: There is only only state move that would lead to a bigger difference in predicted chance of parents being married than the smallest education effect. So moving from Maine or Rhode Island to Utah — for kids without BA-holding parents — has a bigger predicted effect than having your parents get a BA in Utah. Except for that comparison, having a BA-holding parent has a bigger predicted effect than any state move.

Here’s a figure:

little leonhardt thing.xlsx

I didn’t do race effects across states, but for comparison: the overall Black effect is 31%.

Tip to Wilcox: See how all those high-marriage New England states actually have low predicted marriage rates net of education? If you want to talk about “marriage culture,” it would be smarter to look at state marriage rates net of within-state education and race/ethnicity effects.

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New data on gender-segregated sociology

Four years ago I wrote about the gender composition of sociology and the internal segregation of the discipline. Not much has changed, at least on the old measures. Here’s an update including some new measures (with some passages copied from the old post).

People may (or may not) want to be sociologists, they may or may not be accepted to graduate schools, thrive there (with good mentoring or bad), freely choose specializations, complete PhDs, publish, get jobs, rise to positions of leadership, and so on.  As in workplaces, gender segregation in academic sociology represents the cumulative intentions and actions of people in different institutional settings and social locations. It’s also the outcome of gender politics and power struggles. So, very interesting!

A report from the research folks at the American Sociological Association (ASA) got me thinking about this in 2011. The conversation revived the other day when someone asked ASA Vice President Elect Barbara Risman (a friend and colleague of mine), “What do you make of the fact that increasingly the majority of ASA election candidates tend to be women?” As we’ll see, the premise may be wrong, but the gender dynamics of ASA are interesting anyway.

#1: ASA leadership

The last four people elected president of ASA have been women (Ruth Milkman, Paula England, Annette Lareau, and Cecilia Ridgeway), and the the next winner will be either Michele Lamont or Min Zhou, both women. That’s an unprecedented run for women, and the greatest stretch of gender domination since the early 1990s, when men won six times in row. Here is the trend, by decade, starting with the decades before a woman president, 1906 through the 1940s:

sociology segregation.xlsx

Clearly, women have surpassed parity at the top echelons of the association’s academic leadership. ASA elections are a complicated affair, with candidates nominated by a committee at something like two per position. For president, there are two candidates. In the last nine presidential elections, six have featured a man running against a woman, and the women won four of those contests. So women are more than half the candidates, and they’ve been more likely to win against men. That pattern is general across elected offices since 2007 (as far back as I looked): more than half the candidates are women, but even more women win (most elections have about 36 candidates for various positions):

sociology segregation.xlsx

The nominating committees pick (or convince) more women than men to run, and then the electorate favors the women candidates, for reasons we can’t tell from these data.

These elections are run in an association that became majority female in its membership only in 2005, reaching only 53% female in 2010. That trend is likely to continue as older members retire and the PhD pool continues to shift toward women.

#2: Phds

Since the mid-1990s, according to data from the National Science Foundation, women have outnumbered men as new sociology PhDs, and we are now approaching two-thirds female. (The data I used in the old post showed a drop in women after 2007, but with the update, which now comes from here, that’s gone.)

sociology segregation.xlsx

Producing mostly-female PhDs for a quarter of a century is getting to be long enough to start achieving a critical mass of women at the top of the discipline.

#3: Specialization

These numbers haven’t been updated by ASA since 2010. The pattern of section belonging at that time showed a marked level of gender segregation. On a scale of 1 to 100, I calculate the sections are segregated at a level of .25.

sociology segregation.xlsx

#4: Editors and editorial boards

Finally, prestigious academic journals have one or more editors, often some associate editors, and then an editorial board. In sociology, this is mostly the people who are called upon to review articles more often. Because journal publication is a key hurdle for jobs and promotions, these sociologists serve as gatekeepers for the discipline. In return they get some prestige, the occasional reception, and they might be on the way to being an editor themselves someday.

Journal leadership is dragging behind the trends in PhDs, ASA members, and ASA leadership. I selected the top 20 journals in the Sociology category from the Journal Citation Reports (excluding a few misplaced titles), plus Social Problems and Social Forces, because these are considered to be leading journals despite low impact factors. The editors of these journals are 41% female (or 40% if you use journals as the unit of analysis instead of editors). Here is the list in two parts — general journals and specialty journals — with each sorted by impact factor. For multiple editors I either list the gender if they’re all the same, or show the breakdown if they differ:

Book12

It looks like the gender gap is partly attributable to the difference between journals run by associations and those run as department fiefdoms or by for-profit publishers.

For editorial boards, I didn’t do a systematic review, but I looked at the two leading research journals — American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology, as well as two prestigious specialized journals — Sociological Methods and Research, and Gender and Society (which is run by its own association,Sociologists for Women in Society, whose membership includes both women and men). Here’s the update to my 2011 numbers:

sociology segregation.xlsx

I removed a couple board members I know to have died in the last year, so these lists might not be that up to date.

Note on the journals that SMR and AJS are fiefdoms with no accountability to anyone outside their cliques, so it’s not surprising they are decades behind. ASR and G&S, on the other hand, are run by associations with majority-female memberships and hierarchies, in the case of G&S with a feminist mission. (ASA demands reports on gender and race/ethnicity composition from its editors.) AJS has no excuse and should suffer opprobrium for this. SMR might argue they can’t recruit women for this job (but someone should ask them to at least make this case).

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Marriage promotion and the myth of teen pregnancy

First some context, then some data.

Ruth Graham has a story in the Boston Globe about how liberals and conservatives — researchers as well as policy advocates — are starting to agree that marriage is good and policy should promote it. I’m quoted, but apparently as an example of what Andrew Cherlin refers to as someone standing at “a line some liberal sociologists won’t cross, that line of accepting marriage as the best arrangement.” This is part of a spate of stories in which journalists look for a new consensus on marriage. Previous entries include David Leonhardt in the New York Times saying liberals are wrong in attributing the decline of marriage to economics alone, and Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post reporting that Isabel Sawhill has given up on “trying to revive marriage.” The narrow consensus in policy terms involves a few things, like increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit and reducing marriage penalties in some parts of the safety net, along with trying to improve conditions at the low end of the labor market (see this Center for American Progress report for the liberal side of these policies).

From teen births to marriage promotion

The idea of a cultural revival of marriage has been the futile bleat of the family right for decades, most recently retooled by David Blankenhorn. And in recent years these ideologues have taken to using as an example the supposed success of the cultural intervention to reduce teen pregnancy, to show how we might increase marriage and reduce nonmarital birth rates. This has been a common refrain from Brad Wilcox, quoted here by Graham:

As evidence of his optimism, Wilcox points to teen pregnancy, which has dropped by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s. “Most people assumed you couldn’t do much around something related to sex and pregnancy and parenthood,” he said. “Then a consensus emerged across right and left, and that consensus was supported by public policy and social norms. … We were able to move the dial.”

I think that interpretation is not just wrong, it’s the opposite of right, as I’ll explain below.

I don’t know of any evidence that cultural intervention affected teen birth rates. Cultural intervention effects are different from cultural effects — of course cultural change is part of the trend in marriage and birth timing, but the commonly cited paper showing an apparent effect of 16 and Pregnant on teen births, for example, is not evidence that the campaign to reduce teen pregnancy was successful. There was a campaign to end teen pregnancy, and teen pregnancy declined. I think the trend might have happened for the same set of reasons the campaign happened — the same reasons for the decline in marriage and the shift toward later marriage. The campaign was one expression of shifting norms toward women’s independence, educational investment, and delayed family formation.

The myth of teen pregnancy

I’ve been trying to say this for a while, and it doesn’t seem to be taking. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not giving up yet. So here goes again.

If you had never heard of teen pregnancy, you would see the decline in births among teenagers as what it is: part of the general historic trend toward later births and later marriage. I tried to show this in a previous post. I’ll repeat that, and then give you the new data.

First, I showed that teen birth trends simply follow the overall trend toward later births. Few births at young ages, more at older ages:

It doesn’t look like anything special happening with teens. To show that a different way, I juxtaposed teen birth rates with the tendency of older women (25-34) to have births relative to younger women (20-24). This showed that teen births are less common where older births are more common:

In other words, teen births follow general trends toward older births.

Today’s data exercise

Here’s a more rigorous (deeper dive!) into the same question. I show here that teenage women are less likely to have a birth if they live in place with higher age at marriage, and if they live in a place with lower marriage rates. That is, lower teen births go along with the main historical trend: delayed and declining marriage.

So if you think declining teen births are an example of how a policy for “cultural” intervention can reverse the historical tide, you’re not just wrong, you’re the opposite of right. The campaign to reduce teen births succeeded in doing what was happening already. This is not a model for marriage promotion.

Here’s what I did. I used the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, distributed by IPUMS.org. For 283 metropolitan areas, accounting for 73% of all U.S. 15-19 year-old women, I calculated the odds of a teenage woman reporting a birth in the previous year, as a function of: (a) the median age of women who married in that area in the previous year, and (b) the proportion of women ages 18-54 that are currently married in that area. I adjusted these odds for age, race/ethnicity, and nativity (foreign born). I didn’t adjust for things that are co-determined with births among teens, such as marital status, education, and living arrangements (in other words there is plenty of room to dive deeper). All effects were statistically significant when entered simultaneously in a logistic regression model, with robust standard errors for metro area clustering.*

The figures show probabilities of having a birth in the last year, adjusted for those factors, with 95% confidence intervals:

teenbirth-agemar

teenbirth-pctmar

To summarize:

  • Teen births are a myth. There are just births to people ages 13 to 19.
  • Teen births have fallen as people increasingly delay childbearing and marriage. Falling teen births are simply part of the historical trend on marriage: rising age at marriage, declining marriage rates.
  • The campaign to prevent teen births coincided with the trends already underway. Any suggestion that this could be a model for promoting marriage — that is, a policy that goes against the historical tide on marriage — is hokum.
  • There remains no evidence at all to support any policy intervention to promote marriage.

* Well, the age at marriage effect is on significant at p=.054 (two-tailed), but my hypothesis is directional — and that cluster adjustment is brutal! Anyway, happy to share code and output, just email me. Here’s the regression table:

teenbirth-logit

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Who’s your marriage market?

Richard Florida and the CityLab crew have produced some maps showing the relative size of the single male and female populations in metro areas across the country. They run the maps by age group — here’s the one for all single men and women ages 18-64:

180278ee4It mostly shows larger single female surpluses in the South and Northeast, and male surpluses in the West and upper Midwest.

The maps are interesting, but marriage markets aren’t as simple as gender. For example, among White, Black, and Hispanic newlyweds, 87% married someone in the same race/ethnic group, and 77% married someone on the same side of the BA/no-BA education divide. (I previously showed some figures on the relative number of “marriageable” Black and White men, by education, here.)

Just to underscore that point, here are the match rates in more detail. To make this I counted the matches by race/ethnicity (Black, White, Hispanic), education (BA/no-BA), and age (within 5 years) of people who were married in the previous 12 months, in the American Community Survey 2010-2012 (from IPUMS.org).

Here are the match rates, broken down by sex and race/ethnicity:

who they married 2010-2012.xlsxThis shows:

  • Altogether, half the newlyweds match their spouses on all three characteristics, and Whites are most likely to match.
  • Blacks are least likely to match on age.
  • Black women are more likely to match on race than Black men.
  • Hispanics are most likely to match on education (mostly without BAs).

Of course, lots of people don’t match on these traits — maybe even especially those adventurous types who pick up and move when they see a map like this. But whether you’re a matcher or not, before you plan your marriage-seeking move you need to know what you’re looking for (and what’s looking for you).

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Getting serious about promoting marriage to end poverty

This expands on some practice-what-you-preach criticism of conservative marriage promotion, with some numbers. I’m not endorsing the approach described here — I’m saying marriage promoters should adopt this if they are serious about promoting marriage to reduce poverty.

At Demos, Matt Bruenig wrote:

After rigging the institutions to capture the majority of the national income and basically all of the national wealth, segregating themselves residentially, intermarrying almost solely in their rich enclaves, and even sealing off their schools from being accessed by the unwashed masses, these rich social conservatives turn around and implore others to marry people that they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, people they can’t even bring themselves to make even the most minimal of community with.

In response, Sandy Darity tweeted: “I proposed that a marriage antipoverty strategy should have rich white men marry poor black women.” I don’t want to put the onus for ending poverty just on pro-marriage pundits. Instead — as Darity suggests — we should think in terms of broader policy.

Whose norms?

Marriage promotion is mostly about convincing (educating, coaching) poor people to marry other poor people. That follows from the “culture matters” perspective on marriage decline advocated by some social scientists as an explanation for declining marriage rates. For example, in a New Yorker profile of Orlando Patterson, Kelefa Sanneh writes:

[William Julius] Wilson argued that declining professional prospects made some black men less marriageable. Patterson thinks that declining marriage rates had more to do with the increased availability of contraception and abortion, which eroded cultural norms that had once compelled men to marry the women they impregnated.

Whether the proximate cause is men’s reduced economic prospects or changing norms, the fact is that if poor people changed their attitudes (norms, culture) about marriage — if they put more priority on the importance of marriage and worried less about the economic qualities of the match — there would be more marriage and, they say they believe, less poverty, inequality, violence, and abuse).

An obvious problem with this whole enterprise is that the marriage boosters assume the next marriage they generate through marriage promotion will be as economically beneficial to the participants as the average existing marriage observed in the population. But if one of the reasons for non-marriage is poor economic status, then it follows that the next marriage generated will on average be much less beneficial economically than the average marriage (I expanded on this here). So the plan to reduce poverty by promoting marriage among the poor is running uphill. Or, it would be running uphill if it was running at all, but of course (ridiculous research shenanigans notwithstanding) their billion dollars spent has yet to generate a marriage, so this is really all very generous speculation.

If they really wanted to change “the culture”

For several decades, marriage promoters have been complaining that “the culture” isn’t pro-marriage enough. The latest version of this, from David Blankenhorn and colleagues, seeks to “restore a marriage culture among the less privileged.” But, although it’s true that poor people (especially poor Black people) have seen a faster drop in marriage rates, that’s not where the biggest anti-poverty gains are to be had. If you really want marriage to reduce poverty, and you really think policy can change “the culture” to make more marriages, then what you really need is (as Darity said) some rich (mostly) White men to marry some poor (disproportionately) Black women.

Why not? Is it really more far-fetched to imagine you could change rich White men’s attitudes toward poor Black women than it is to suppose you could “restore a marriage culture” among the poor? Why? Maybe one reason policies to increase marriage among the poor haven’t work is because the economic benefits aren’t great enough. If you were the kind of person that goes in for this sort of policy (which, again I am not), you’d have to assume poor people would be more receptive to the idea of marrying rich people — that’s one important premise of Wilson and Patterson’s perspective. So the problem is rich people don’t want to marry them.

How difficult can this be? Just to put some numbers to the idea, I did the following simple exercise. Take all the poor single mothers — specifically, non-married women living in their own households with their own children, with family incomes that put them below the federal poverty line — and match them up with rich single men.

How many rich single men do you need? With this definition, I get 3.5 million poor single mothers. I started with the richest single man, and went down the income ladder till I had enough to solve the single-mother poverty problem. It turns out you only have to go down to $80,000 per year in income. Here’s the matching, with the race/ethnicity of the two groups shown:

rich men marry poor women.xlsxIf the problem is that poor women are too economically choosy to marry the poor men in their lives, then we could easily lift these 3.5 million single mothers — and the 7.1 million children in their families — out of poverty simply by changing the anti-marriage views of these selfish, rich, single men. Of course, we’d have to reduce racist attitudes also, but not entirely — only a third of the non-Black rich single men would need to open their minds to the possibility of marrying a Black woman. You would have to be creative with the incentives for these men, including consciousness-raising and parenting classes, as well as, for example, Starbucks gift cards and subscriptions to the Economist.

Now, no one thinks you can socially engineer — through shame or tax incentives — the marital behavior of entire populations, so this strategy couldn’t be expected to completely eliminate the problem of single mothers and their children living in poverty. But it couldn’t be less effective than the marriage promoters have achieved with the last billion dollars they spent.

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Santa’s magic, children’s wisdom, and inequality

Eric Kaplan, channeling Francis Pharcellus Church, writes in favor of Santa Claus in the New York Times. The Church argument, written in 1897 and barely updated here, is that (a) you can’t prove there is no Santa, so agnosticism is the strongest possible objection, and (b) Santa enriches our lives and promotes non-rationalized gift-giving, “so we might as well believe in him.” That’s the substance of it. It’s a very common argument, identical to one employed against atheists in favor of belief in God, but more charming and whimsical when directed at killjoy Santa-deniers.

All harmless fun and existential comfort-food. But we have two problems that the Santa situation may exacerbate. First is science denial. And second is inequality. So, consider this an attempted joyicide.

Science

From Pew Research comes this Christmas news:

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened.

Here are the details:

PR_14.12.15_Christmas-05

So the Santa situation is not an isolated question. We’re talking about a population with a very strong tendency to express literal belief in fantastical accounts. This Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism. For the past 20 years, the General Social Survey GSS has found that a third of American adults agrees with the statement, “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” versus two other options: “The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”; and,”The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” Those “actual word of God” people are less numerous than the virgin-birth believers, but they’re related.

Using the GSS I analyzed the attitudes of the “actual word of God” people (my Stata data and work files are here). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, political ideology, and the year of the survey, they are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

  • Agree that “We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith”
  • Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
  • Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
  • Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”

This isn’t the direction I’d like to push our culture. Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

Children’s ways of knowing

A little reading led me to this interesting review of the research on young children’s skepticism and credulity, by Woolley and Ghossainy (citations below were mostly referred by them).

It goes back to Margaret Mead’s early work. In the psychological version of sociology’s reading history sideways, Mead in 1932 reported on the notion that young children not only know less, but know differently, than adults, in a way that parallels social evolution. Children were thought to be “more closely related to the thought of the savage than to the thought of the civilized man,” with animism in “primitive” societies being similar to the spontaneous thought of young children. This goes along with the idea of believing in Santa as indicative of a state of innocence.

In pursuit of empirical confirmation of the universality of childhood, Mead investigated the Manus tribe in Melanesia, who were pagans, looking for magical thinking in children: “animistic premise, anthropomorphic interpretation and faulty logic.”

Instead, she found “no evidence of spontaneous animistic thought in the uncontrolled sayings or games” over five months of continuous observation of a few dozen children. And while adults in the community attributed mysterious or random events to spirits and ghosts, children never did:

I found no instance of a child’s personalizing a dog or a fish or a bird, of his personalizing the sun, the moon, the wind or stars. I found no evidence of a child’s attributing chance events, such as the drifting away of a canoe, the loss of an object, an unexplained noise, a sudden gust of wind, a strange deep-sea turtle, a falling seed from a tree, etc., to supernaturalistic causes.

On the other hand, adults blamed spirits for hurricanes hitting the houses of people who behave badly, believed statues can talk, thought lost objects had been stolen by spirits, and said people who are insane are possessed by spirits. The grown men all thought they had personal ghosts looking out for them – with whom they communicated – but the children dismissed the reality of the ghosts that were assigned to them. They didn’t play ghost games.

Does this mean magical thinking is not inherent to childhood? Mead wrote:

The Manus child is less spontaneously animistic and less traditionally animistic than is the Manus adult [“traditionally” here referring to the adoption of ritual superstitious behavior]. This result is a direct contradiction of findings in our own society, in which the child has been found to be more animistic, in both traditional and spontaneous fashions, than are his elders. When such a reversal is found in two contrasting societies, the explanation must be sought in terms of the culture; a purely psychological explanation is inadequate.

Maybe people have the natural capacity for both animistic and realistic thinking, and societies differ in which trait they nurture and develop through children’s education and socialization. Mead speculated that the pattern she found had to do with the self-sufficiency required of Manus children. A Manus child must…

…make correct physical adjustments to his environment, so that his entire attention is focused upon cause and effect relationships, the neglect of which would result in immediate disaster. … Manus children are taught the properties of fire and water, taught to estimate distance, to allow for illusion when objects are seen under water, to allow for obstacles and judge possible clearage for canoes, etc., at the age of two or three.

Plus, perhaps unlike in industrialized society, their simple technology is understandable to children without the invocation of magic. And she observed that parents didn’t tell the children imaginary stories, myths, and legends.

I should note here that I’m not saying we have to choose between religious fundamentalism and a society without art and literature. The question is about believing things that aren’t true, and can’t be true. I’d like to think we can cultivate imagination without launching people down the path of blind credulity.

Modern credulity

For evidence that culture produces credulity, consider the results of a study that showed most four-year-old children understood that Old Testament stories are not factual. Six-year-olds, however, tended to believe the stories were factual, if their impossible events were attributed to God rather than rewritten in secular terms (e.g., “Matthew and the Green Sea” instead of “Moses and the Red Sea”). Why? Belief in supernatural or superstitious things, contrary to what you might assume, requires a higher level of cognitive sophistication than does disbelief, which is why five-year-olds are more likely to believe in fairies than three-year-olds. These studies suggest children have to be taught to believe in magic. (Adults use persuasion to do that, but teaching with rewards – like presents under a tree or money under a pillow – is of course more effective.)

Richard Dawkins has speculated that religion spreads so easily because humans have an adaptive tendency from childhood to believe adults rather than wait for direct evidence of dangers to accumulate (e.g., “snakes are dangerous”). That is, credulity is adaptive for humans. But Woolley and Ghossainy review mounting evidence for young children’s skepticism as well as credulity. That, along with the obvious survival disadvantages associated with believing everything you’re told, doesn’t support Dawkins’ story.

Children can know things either from direct observation or experience, or from being taught. So they can know dinosaurs are real if they believe books and teachers and museums, even if they can’t observe them living (true reality detection). And they can know that Santa Claus and imaginary friends are not real if they believe either authorities or their own senses (true baloney detection). Similarly, children also have two kinds of reality-assessment errors: false positive and false negative. Believing in Santa Claus is false positive. Refusing to believe in dinosaurs is false negative. In this figure, adapted from Woolley and Ghossainy, true judgment is in green, errors are in red.

whatchildrenthink

We know a lot about kids’ credulity (Santa Claus, tooth fairy, etc.). But, Woolley and Ghossainy write, their skepticism has been neglected:

It is perplexing that a young child could believe that his or her knowledge of the world is complete enough to deny the existence of anything new. It would seem that young children would understand that there are many things that exist in the real world that they have yet to experience. As intuitive as this seems, it appears not to be the case. From this perspective, development regarding beliefs about reality involves, in addition to decreased reliance on knowledge and experience, increased awareness of one’s own knowledge and its limitations for assessing reality status. This realization that one’s own knowledge is limited gradually inspires a waning reliance on it alone for making reality status decisions and a concomitant increase in the use of a wider range of strategies for assessing reality status, including, for example, seeking more information, assessing contextual cues, and evaluating the quality of the new information.

The “realization that one’s own knowledge is limited” is a vital development, ultimately necessary for being able to tell fact from fiction. But, sadly, it need not lead to real understanding – under some conditions, such as, apparently, the USA today, it often leads instead to reliance on misguided or dishonest authorities who compete with science to fill the void beyond what we can directly observe or deduce. Believing in Santa because we can’t disprove his existence is a developmental dead end, a backward-looking reliance on authority for determining truth. But so is failure to believe in germs or vaccines or evolution just because we can’t see them working.

We have to learn how to inhabit the green boxes without giving up our love for things imaginary, and that seems impossible without education in both science and art.

Rationalizing gifts

What is the essence of Santa, anyway? In Kaplan’s NYT essay it’s all about non-rationalized giving — for the sake of giving. The latest craze in Santa culture, however, says otherwise: Elf on the Shelf. According to Google Trends, interest in this concept has increased 100-fold since 2008. In case you’ve missed it, the idea is to put a cute little elf somewhere on a shelf in the house. You tell your kids it’s watching them, and that every night it goes back to the North Pole to report to Santa on their nice/naughty ratio. While the kids are sleeping, you move it to another shelf in house, and the kids delight in finding it again each morning.

Foucault is not amused. Consider the Elf on a Shelf aftermarket accessories, like these handy warning labels, which threaten children with “no toys” if they aren’t on their “best behavior” from now on:

elfwarning

So is this non-rationalize gift giving? Quite the opposite. In fact, rather than cultivating a whimsical love of magic, this is closer to a dystopian fantasy in which the conjured enforcers of arbitrary moral codes leap out of their fictional realm to impose harsh consequences in the real life of innocent children.

Inequality

What does all this mean for inequality? My developmental question is, what is the relationship between belief in Santa and social class awareness over the early life course? In other words, how long after kids realize there is class inequality do they go on believing in Santa? Where do these curves cross?

santaclass

Beyond worrying about how Santa rewards or punishes them individually, if children are to believe that Christmas gifts are doled out according to moral merit, than what are they to make of the obvious fact that rich kids get more than poor kids? Rich or poor, the message seems the same: children deserve what they get. Of course, I’m not the first to think of this:

santapoormeme

Conclusion

I can’t demonstrate that believing in Santa causes children to believe that economic inequality is justified by character differences between social classes. Or that Santa belief undermines future openness to science and logic. But those are hypotheses.

Between the anti-science epidemic and the pervasive assumption that poor people deserve what they get, this whole Santa enterprise seems risky. Would it be so bad, so destructive to the wonder that is childhood, if instead of attributing gifts to supernatural beings we instead told children that we just buy them gifts because we love them unconditionally and want them — and all other children — to be happy?

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First look: 2013 divorce rates show big drop

The 2013 American Community Survey (ACS) is out, and with it the numbers we need to update the divorce rate trend.*

These are the estimates based on the giant sample: In 2013 there were 63,951,934 married men, and  63,619,135 married women. In 2013, 1,071,278 men and 1,197,095 women reported getting divorced in the 12 months prior to their interview. That means the refined divorce rates — divorces per 1,000 married people — were 16.8 for men and 18.8 for women. Wow! Look at the trend now:

divorce rates.xlsxThat’s a very big drop, almost as big as the 2009 drop. What does this mean? It’s too early to say without more investigation, but consider it in light of my analysis of the recession period. Starting with the 2008 data, it looked to me like there was a big drop at the start of the recession — which we figure is related to the costs of divorce (legal fees, real estate, other transition costs) — and then a rebound as the postponed divorces start to materialize.

I didn’t just guess that based on the trends. I used the variables associated with divorce in 2008 (age at marriage, marital duration, education, race/ethnicity, etc.) to predict divorces in the later years, and found that the prediction was higher than the observed number of divorces, suggesting a deficit of realized divorces.

That interpretation might still be true (which is good, because the paper was published less than a year ago). But the ACS marital events (e.g. ,divorce) data only go back to 2008, so it’s difficult to evaluate the 2009 drop in historical perspective. Now we have to wonder: What if 2009 was really closer to the “normal” rate of divorce decline, and really the recession just gave us the 2010-2012 increase, and no drop? I’m not ready to conclude that, of course. My analysis still makes sense. And there is previous research (cited in the paper) that shows declines in divorce during recessions. But 2013 is going to have to be explained somehow.

I have an idea. I’ll just hop over to the government’s official divorce statistics page to compare these ACS numbers with the actual number of divorces recorded. Wait, what?

nodivorcestats

Hm. Well, OK, there’s no “detailed data” from the vital statistics system anymore. But surely there is at least a simple count available? I’ll just click on “National marriage and divorce rate trends,” to get those. Um…

cdcdivrate

So these numbers only go through 2011, and they exclude 6 states, which together account for 20% of all US divorces. Here’s a good data exercise: find another rich country that doesn’t have a count of its own marriages and divorces.

As I have pointed out in increasingly alarmed tones (in this post and earlier), the ACS marital events and marital history questions have been slated for removal by the budget powers that be.** Because if there’s one thing we don’t want to spend money on, it’s information. Why bother? We can just do a Google search or use Big Data to count up #imfinallydivorced hashtags. Yes, I just made that up. But the way things are going we may soon be begging Facebook and Google to tell us what’s going on. As Vonnegut might say, “Good luck, America!”

Notes

* The public use files are up on the IPUMS.org site, and the online analysis tool is available for quick analysis, but for this I used the numbers from the full survey, available on the Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, tables 1YR_B12503 and 1YR_B12001. I realize it’s odd that the rates for men and women here differ (by more than would be possible even if lots of women are divorcing other women). This is a survey question, not a count of legal divorces.

**The information about the planned cuts to the American Community Survey is here: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/10/31/2014-25912/proposed-information-collection-comment-request-the-american-community-survey-content-review-results:

Direct all written comments to Jennifer Jessup, Departmental Paperwork Clearance Officer, Department of Commerce, Room 6616, 14th and Constitution Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20230 (or via the Internet at jjessup@doc.gov).

Comments will be accepted until December 30.

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