Tag Archives: national marriage project

The latest get-married-young thing tells you all you need to know

Just a quick note for people wondering about this new thing by Nicholas Wolfinger on Brad Wilcox’s blog. He says it used to be (before 1995) that getting married young increased the odds of divorce. Since then, however, he says getting married either before or after age 32 raises the odds of divorce.

Why is that? His explanation — in his very own words, from his very own post: “my money is on a selection effect.” In other words, do not follow the advice in the headline, which is: “Want to Avoid Divorce? Wait to Get Married, But Not Too Long.” Because if the mechanism is selection, then changing your behavior to ride that curve will not work.

I’m not getting into the methods, which are not revealed, despite a link for “more information” — there is no paper, no tables, no code or data. However, something is off, and the post is off-gassing a discernible essence of Wilcox’s influence. In the new blog post, they show this graph:

wolfinger1Wow, that’s a pretty big boomerang effect. If it weren’t a selection effect, it might really be relevant for personal decision-making. But when you follow the link for “more information” you see this graph:

wolfinger2

The upward swing here is hardly enough to get your marriage promotion lather up. Clearly, something had to be improved from Wolfinger’s post from April and his post for Wilcox’s site in July. That’s the kind of data leadership we expect from this site. (Also, get rid of those dots, which show you the all those people with really low divorce odds at higher ages.)

Related:

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To tell the truth (right-wing front edition)

lyingcross

The mission of the Institute for Family Studies is “strengthening marriage and family life, and advancing the well-being of children, through research and public education.” As of this morning, this includes not a single use of the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “same-sex” anywhere on their website, according to Google. They routinely post links to articles and research “of note,” that might interest readers who believe in their mission. So, why never mention the gay?

Or — dramatic pause — is that really their whole mission? The IFS website lists seven “senior fellows.” Don’t tell the others, but W. Bradford Wilcox is the only one getting paid $50,000 per year (in 2013). Their 2013 fundraising included $50,000 from the Bradley Foundation, which also supported Wilcox’s effort to fund the Regnerus study; and $20,000 from the Vine and Branches foundation, which lists the purpose of the donation as “religious” (the foundation’s eligibility criteria include, “Christian organizations that overtly express their faith through programming”).

So, do you really believe this?

As a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, and not-for-profit institute committed to the study of family life, IFS works with scholars, writers, and supporters without regard to academic discipline, party, or ideology.

The only thing that bothers me about this, besides the values, is the blatant, routine dishonesty. Why do respectable people just tolerate that?

Not to get into minutiae, but also, would it kill him to have any women among the nine officers of his shadowy, bogus non-profit foundation?

Note: I first wrote about IFS here, but only some of that info is still accurate.

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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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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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Regnerus responds

Photo by carnagenyc from Creative Commons.

Photo by carnagenyc from Creative Commons.

Note: Corrected May 3 to reflect that these documents are about post-tenure review, not promotion to full professor. The blogger regrets the error, and thanks the tipster.

The news, reported in The Daily Texan, with documents retrieved via public records request, is that, in the face of conflicting views about Mark Regnerus’s promotion to the rank of full professor post-tenure review,  UT’s Dean of Liberal Arts, Randy Diehl, commissioned a report on the scandal by sociologist Marc Musick. The report is an excellent review and summary of the affair, and provides ample evidence for declining the promotion. And for the rest of us, it had the beneficial effect of flushing out Regnerus, who wrote his most detailed response yet to the accusations against him — a response he may or may not have realized would become public. (The new documents are linked in the Texan article; for my coverage, you can start here for a review with links.)

It’s difficult to try to draw a line, as Musick does, apparently at the dean’s request, between ethical misconduct and bad research. It’s really where the two are combined that Regnerus causes trouble. More on the promotion issue later.

Musick was entirely correct when he wrote:

Based on these [media] appearances and his [court] testimony, it is self-evident that Professor Regnerus has used his research in the debate over same-sex marriage in direct contradiction to the statements he made in the NFSS article and response to commentaries. When combined with clear evidence that he colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study, it leads to the appearance that the post-study behavior was an extension of the political work that was happening prior to the study. In light of all of this activity, it appears that the statements he made in the article could certainly be seen as misleading at best and an outright fabrication of his intentions at worst.

This is the heart of the ethics side of the complaint: his bad research was part of a covertly-organized political effort, and he lied about it to cover that up. Regnerus simply asserts this isn’t true, but to believe his self-serving description of his own intentions is to be made a fool of. It’s just not plausible that,

I did not intend to utilize the results for any political or legal purpose, and stated so when I completed work on the manuscript in late February 2012. My interests, from the outset of participation in this project up through December 2012, lay squarely in the social science question that gave rise to the study.

Only God can truly see into the unlit depths of Regnerus’s heart — but the rest of us can be pretty sure he’s lying based on his actions.

Regnerus claims that as he became immersed in the subject he grew convinced that same-sex marriage is a bad policy, and began “to worry about esteeming the systematic severance of children from their biological origins.” But he was part of the “coalition” (his word!) against gay marriage from before the study was even fielded. His email to Brad Wilcox, prior to conducting the study:

I would like, at some point, to get more feedback from Luis [Tellez] and Maggie [Gallagher] about the ‘boundaries’ around this project, not just costs but also their optimal timelines (for the coalition meeting, the data collection, etc.), and their hopes for what emerges from this project, including the early report we discussed in DC.

What pure interest in “the social science question” involves planning an “early report” with the leading activist against gay marriage, Maggie Gallagher?

Lots of research is as poor quality as Regnerus’s. It’s in combination with the rotten ethics that we see the more serious problem — it’s how the research fits in with his diabolical political plans and his reprehensible moral views. That is, the research was not just bad, it was bad in a purposeful direction. That’s not discernible from a reading of the single, (not really) peer-reviewed article.

Cause and effect

The issue of causality is described in the report as one of methods, but I think it’s really an ethical issue.

Regnerus has been having this both ways from the beginning, and it highlights the challenge of (and for) public intellectuals who speak to multiple audiences. In the original paper he wrote, “I would be remiss to claim causation here.” So that is his cover (and he quotes again here). But in presentations to friendly audiences he is much less guarded. As I reported earlier, in a talk he gave at Catholic University:

He first described in some detail the “standard set of controls” he used to test the relationship between having a father or mother who ever (reportedly) had a same-sex romantic relationship and his many negative outcome variables. And then he proceeded to present bivariate relationships as if they were the results of those tests. He didn’t say they were adjusted [for the controls], but everyone thought the results he showed were controlling for everything. For example, to gasps from the crowd, he revealed that 17 percent of “intact bio family” kids had ever received welfare growing up, compared with 70 percent for those whose mother (reportedly) ever had a same-sex romantic relationship. If you don’t realize that this is mostly just a comparison between stable married-couple families and single-mother families, that might seem like a shockingly large effect.

The causal story at that talk was hammered home in two other ways. First, he presented the results as evidence of a “reduced kinship theory,” under which parents care less about their children the less biologically related they are. Second, he said his “best guess” about why he found worse outcomes for children of women who ever had a lesbian relationship than for those whose fathers ever had a gay relationship was that the former group spent more time with their mothers’ lesbian partners. Both of these descriptions are based on a causal interpretation of his findings.

Anyway, on to the political machinations.

Regnerus lies about Brad Wilcox’s lies

Regnerus complains that Musick brings up the “tired ethical complaint” about Brad Wilcox, who, Regnerus claims, “held an honorific position with the Witherspoon Institute.” And he offers this: “In my interactions with him, he never acted with authority, only advice suggestive of his own opinion.” Regnerus no-doubt thinks he is using a clever legalism, as if Wilcox did not have literal signing authority for dispersing Witherspoon funds and therefore did not offer anything beyond “his own opinion.” But it’s clearly wrong.

Just to be clear how ridiculous this hair-splitting is, here is the email exchange that they no-doubt both now regret (which Musick quoted as well). Regnerus writing, Wilcox answering in bold caps:

Tell me if any of these aren’t correct.

  1. We want to run this project through UT’s PRC. I’m presuming 10% overhead is acceptable to Witherspoon. YES
  2. We want a broad coalition comprising several scholars from across the spectrum of opinions… [goes on to discuss individuals]. YES
  3. We want to “repeat” in some ways the DC consultation with the group outlined in #2. … [details of how the planning document will be crafted] YES
  4. This document would in turn be used to approach several research organizations for the purpose of acquiring bids for the data collection project. YES

Did I understand that correctly?

And per your instruction, I should think of this as a planning grant, with somewhere on par of $30-$40k if needed. YES

Regnerus may now say, indignantly, “Professor Wilcox did not — and does not — speak on behalf of Mr. Tellez,” the Witherspoon president, but he certainly understood Wilcox as speaking for Witherspoon in that exchange. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he ask Tellez these organizational questions directly?

In a 2012 blog post on the now-defunct (and deleted, but preserved) Family Scholars blog hosted by the Institute for American Values, Wilcox wrote that he never served as an “officer” of Witherspoon. He was, on the Witherspoon website as preserved by the Internet Archive, listed as “director” of the institute’s Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy from late 2008 to mid-2010. That program still exists on the website, incidentally, but it no longer mentions any director — Wilcox is the only director ever listed in the Internet Archive pages. As of last month, Wilcox’s CV doesn’t mention this position.* (I don’t understand the purpose of an honorific position if you’re not proud of it.)

And then there’s the Wilcox email where he refers to the study as “our dataset.”

Campaign, or coincidence?

Regnerus tells a story of coincidences. For example, Tellez may have (in his words) wanted the research done “before major decisions of the Supreme Court,” but that had nothing to do with Regnerus’s goals, which were to finish his report by January 2012 “for no other reason than I wished to finish it and move on to other projects.” At the time the research was funded, Regnerus says, he did not share Tellez’s political goals. Coincidentally, they both happened to want to project completed in the same time frame. And then, in another coincidence, Regnerus later came around to joining in Tellez’s opinion that same-sex marriage must be stopped. Is this a more plausible story than the simpler one in which Tellez, Wilcox, and Regnerus were all on the same page all along? The evidence for the conspiracy is pretty robust, considering Regnerus, Wilcox, David Blankenhorn, Maggie Gallagher and other anti-gay marriage activists planned the research at a meeting in Washington hosted and paid for by the Heritage Foundation. On the other hand, the evidence for the coincidence is Regnerus’s solemn word. This conspiracy is a theory kind of like evolution is a theory — it’s the only plausible explanation for a known series of events.

In the coincidence story, the survey was delayed, so Regnerus would have to keep working on it beyond January 2012. However, he nevertheless just “decided to give a journal submission a shot” in November 2011 anyway. Not that he was aiming for Tellez’s Supreme Court deadline. Just because. So he “contacted [Social Science Research editor] Professor James Wright to ask if he’d consider reviewing a manuscript on a study like this one,” before the data were even collected. You social scientists out there — have you ever asked a peer-reviewed journal editor if they would consider publishing something “like” what you were working on before you even had the data collected?

In fact, this “give a journal submission a shot” idea came from Wilcox, who in the email mentioned above suggested sending it to SSR because Wright was (the late) “Steve Nock’s good friend” and “also likes Paul Amato,” whom they had secured as a consultant. In the end, Wright would use both Wilcox and Amato as reviewers.

The coincidences Regnerus speaks of also include the meeting he had in August 2011 in Denver with Wilcox, Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family, and Scott Stanley, after which (he wrote to Tellez at the time), “we feel like we have a decent plan moving forward” for “public/media relations for the NFSS project.” In his response to Mucisk, Regnerus now writes, “Denver was a convenient stop on the way back to Austin from the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Las Vegas, and I took the opportunity to meet socially with a few peers.” That includes Stanton, who “lived about an hour’s drive of where we met.” (I’m not sure why you need a “convenient stop” from Las Vegas to Austin, which is a short nonstop flight.)

See, no campaign. Sure, he also arranged for the study to be shared with “some conservative outlets” before publication, attended a “short function hosted by the Heritage Foundation” about the study just before it was published, and “another such function … at the offices of the Institute for American Values.” But he doesn’t even know, “frankly,” “how such groups came to be apprised of the impending study release.”

Then, after describing, literally, how he colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study, Regnerus concludes, “This hardly merits the accusation that I ‘colluded with politically-motivated organizations prior to the publication of the study.'”

And oh, sure, on closer inspection (he actually says, “I see now…”) he did use the “media training” document that Heritage provided, which he has falsely testified he “largely ignored,” in his own promotion of the study. In his post on Patheos.com (here), he wrote:

Q: So are gay parents worse than traditional parents?

A: The study is not about parenting per se. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible straight parents. The study is, among other things, about outcome differences between young adults raised in households in which a parent had a same-sex relationship and those raised by their own parents in intact families.

The Heritage talking points (from Musick’s report) included this:

Whether gay parents are worse than traditional parents.The study is not about parenting. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible traditional parents. The study is about outcome difference between young adults raised in a same-sex household and those raised by their own parent in intact families.

Well, he says now, “I very likely did use a few lines” from the document. “So be it.” Nevertheless, “to suggest I received extensive media training — and leaned on it in a comprehensive campaign — is out of touch with my lived reality.” (Who’s a phenomenologist now?) It’s tempting, after reading his response, to assume that whatever Regnerus specifically denies is exactly true.

On the labeling issue

I noticed something new in reviewing material for this post. If you’ve made it this far, bear with me here on this detail.

The infamous Regnerus article was published with the title, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?” In the article he referred to the adult children who reported that their mother ever had a same-sex romantic relationship as “LM” for “lesbian mother,” along with “GF” for “gay father.” In the rebuttal to his critics, published later in 2012, he acknowledged these were the wrong terms:

Concern about the use of the acronyms LM (lesbian mother) and GF (gay father) in the original study is arguably the most reasonable criticism. In hindsight, I wish I would have labeled LMs and GFs as MLRs and FGRs, that is, respondents who report a maternal (or mother’s) lesbian relationship, and respondents who report a paternal (or father’s) gay relationship. While in the original study’s description of the LM and GF categories I carefully and accurately detailed what respondents fit the LM and GF categories, I recognize that the acronyms LM and GF are prone to conflate sexual orientation, which the NFSS did not measure, with same-sex relationship behavior, which it did measure.

But he insisted this was just a question of confusing terms, not an attempt to actually label these parents according to their sexual orientation. He added:

The original study, indeed the entire data collection effort, was always focused on the respondents’ awareness of parental same-sex relationship behavior rather than their own assessment of parental sexual orientation, which may have differed from how their parent would describe it.

This came up in the Mucisk report, and Regnerus responded:

As noted in Professor Musick’s assessment, the problem of locating an optimal acronym here is something to which I have already confessed … It remains a significant regret. And yet the distinction between a woman’s same-sex relationship (to use Professor Musick’s acronym) and a woman’s “lesbian” relationship (as I assert by using the MLR acronym) is no doubt a narrow one. As ought to be obvious, I use the term “lesbian” as an adjective here, not a noun [emphasis added]. It describes a relationship, not a self-identity.

But did Regnerus really intend to use “lesbian” as an adjective? No, he did not. I know this because, in the email exchange between Social Science Research editor James Wright and Brad Wilcox (in which Wilcox lied by omission and which Wright later misrepresented), we can see the original title of the article Regnerus submitted, which is not the title subsequently published. The original title was, “How different are the adult children of lesbian mothers and gay fathers? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Clearly, Regnerus’s original intention was to describe the parents of the people he surveyed as “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” — using nouns referring to the people, not adjectives referring to their romantic relationships. It was not a matter of confusion; it was an attempt to create a false impression of the study’s implications.

Promoting Regnerus

In our department, promotion to full professor requires “an exemplary record in research, teaching, and service” which has made the candidate “widely regarded as a scholar.” However, these terms are not defined, and no quantities of research or citations are included. These things are left vague, and much rides on the interpretation of the experts consulted, who are considered the best judges of academic merit. So, what if a professor brings scandal and disrepute to himself and the institution? What if he expresses views that are morally reprehensible? What if he lies about his work, including in his work?

I don’t envy my colleagues in the excellent department of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin (about this case — I do envy them in other ways). Their directory lists 39 professors, only one of whom is disgraceful in those ways. It’s not a simple matter, denying a tenured professor a promotion (even though this is only post-tenure review, it’s the promotion issue that looms). It’s a personnel decision governed by laws, and it’s wrapped up in the tenure system, which is important for academic freedom.

In the case of Regnerus I’ve already expressed my opinion.

Honest social scientists do not combine these activities: (1) secret meetings with partisan activist groups to raise money and set political agendas for their research; and, (2) omitting mention of those associations later. If Regnerus, Wilcox, Allen, and Price, had included acknowledgements in their publications that described these associations, then they would be just like anyone else who does research on subjects on which they have expressed opinions publicly: potentially legitimate but subject to closer scrutiny (which should include editors not including people from the same group as reviewers). Failure to disclose this in the publication process is dishonesty.

Based on that — more than based on the morally reprehensible views — I would vote against Regnerus’s promotion. But I am not privy to the process at UT, to their reviews and other materials, and I haven’t been asked for my opinion or advice.

* Is it unethical to take academic activities off our academic CV if they make you look bad? It emerged in one of the gay marriage trials that Brigham Young economist Joseph Price, testifying as an expert against gay marriage, took a grant from the Witherspoon Institute off his CV. In this case I don’t see that Wilcox ever had Witherspoon on his CV, but he was listed as a director on their website.

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Policy, politics, and promoting education versus marriage

Here are three ideas I disagree with:

1. Most people aren’t smart enough to make going to college worth it.

Maybe the best-known purveyor of this idea is Charles Murray, who argued in his 2008 book Real Education (offshore bootlegged copy here) that the “consensus intellectual benchmark” for understanding real college-level material is an IQ of 115, which by definition is only 16% of the population — but probably only 10% are really, truly smart enough (and efforts to improve education at lower levels to prepare more people for college are futile, so don’t even think about spending more on education, because so many people are “born lazy“).

2. We’ve done so much for poor people, it’s time for them to do something for themselves.

This is clearly related to idea #1, insofar as the government spends billions of dollars educating people for college — and subsidizing the colleges they attend — who could instead just work hard and enjoy life in a job requiring less education. But it extends to all kinds of social welfare and anti-poverty programs, as illustrated by the exasperated people in the policy establishment from Brookings to Heritage.

3. Poor women should get married before they have children.

This idea is pervasive, as I’ve discussed many times under the single mothers tag, in response to people blaming single mothers for rising inequality, poverty, low upward mobility, and crime.

One response

Here I offer one response to these three ideas combined. It is possible to increase access to college education, which would increase stability and opportunity for poor people and their children.

In demography, there is a long-running debate over whether there is a biological limit to human longevity, and whether and how fast we may be approaching it. Regardless of the ultimate answer, so far it’s clear that projections based on an inevitable tapering off of increases in life expectancy have repeatedly proved wrong (here’s a review and a recent paper). The same might be said of college education. Here is the trend in 25-34 year-old U.S. civilians with at least a BA degree, from Census numbers:

college completion trends.xlsx

There was more talk about hitting the limits of college access 10 years ago, but even then it was increasing rapidly among women. Yes, we can and should improve college education. But I see nothing here to suggest a ceiling approaching. Still, people keep assuming that expanding education isn’t feasible.

For example, while Murray holds forth on the intelligence limitations among the poor, his colleague Brad Wilcox argues for a cultural press on those with less than a college degree:

They can go down the road of not having marriage as the keystone to their family formation, family life, or we can hold the line, if you will, and try to figure out creative strategies for strengthening marriage in this particular middle demographic in the United States.

In addition to upscaling their deficient values, however, couldn’t we also move them out of the less-than-college category altogether? Not so fast, says Wilcox in a recent interview:

On the education front, the U.S. spends a ton of money and devotes unparalleled attention to college. But the reality is that only one-third of adults, even today, will get a college degree, a B.A. or B.S. We can do a lot better in both funding and focusing on vocational education and apprenticeship training.

Really, America, be reasonable: Our “ton of money” is “unparalleled.” Don’t set your sights too high. Who do you think you are, anyway, Poland (college graduation rate: 53%), Ireland (46%), or Portugal (41%)? From OECD numbers:

college graduation rates OECD.xls

I know expanding college access (the real kind, not the for-profit kind) suggests expanding a broken financial aid system, and the economic returns aren’t guaranteed, but for my purposes it’s not just about getting a better job. People who go to college — and those who know they are going to go to college before they do — usually delay having children, not because some moralizing think tank tells them it’s wrong, but because they’re trying to rationally sequence their lives. Of course, married couples have relatively low poverty rates, but even for parents who aren’t married, higher education sure helps. From the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org:

H8.xlsx

Trying to get more poor people to get married is both offensive and useless. But increasing access to higher education is both uplifting and useful. The choice between early birth with low education and later birth with higher education is not hard to make, but unless it’s feasible — with a readily apparent, practical, path toward completion — there is no choice to make.

The increase in college education has already helped keep child poverty levels from rising as marriage rates have fallen. Among women old enough to have finished college (ages 22-44) the percentage of babies born to mothers with college degrees (married or not) has increased from 23% in 1990 to 35% in 2010. From the Current Population Survey via IPUMS.org:

H8.xlsx

Promoting marriage among the poor is a moralizing salve for the self-esteem — and anti-tax self-interest — of pious elites, with zero proven success in helping anybody poor. Promoting access to higher education is good policy and good politics.

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Repeated misinterpretation is not causation

The other day I criticized Brad Wilcox and Bob Lerman for claiming that increasing marriage would reduce inequality. In that post I passed up the chance to reinforce a lesson about misleading claims regarding selection and unobserved factors by members of the right-wing family social science community.

Photo by Jonathan Tellier from Flickr Creative Commons.

Which comes first, social advantages or marriage?
Photo by Jonathan Tellier from Flickr Creative Commons.

Passages like the following have become standard for Wilcox when he makes overblown claims regarding the benefits of marriage. Here is the latest:

Notwithstanding this report’s extensive data analysis, we do not claim that the associations we find among family structure while growing up, marriage as an adult, and economic outcomes are definitively causal. … Even after netting out the effects of many observed differences among individuals, both marriage and economic well-being may be the result of some third factor, such as unobserved differences in personality or character … Moreover, most of the evidence in this report is descriptive and does not derive from a causal model. For all these reasons, this report cannot definitively assert that adolescent family structure and adult marital status have a causal impact on individual and family economic well-being. …  Nevertheless, the evidence is widespread and consistent enough to suggest strong, causal positive roles for being raised in an intact family and for current marriage on a range of important economic outcomes for the average American.

So this is the criteria for evaluating whether selection and omitted variables are a problem — whether the “evidence is widespread and consistent enough”? No. The volume of evidence is irrelevant; what matters is what it means. If people with various kinds of advantages and privileges are more likely to get and stay married, then research that fails to take that into account will always show married people doing better than people who aren’t married. The evidence will be “widespread and consistent,” and that does not mean it means marriage is the cause of their advantages.

I think that repeating this over and over, having been corrected on it many times, qualifies as demagoguery, or the practice of a demagogue, as the OED defines it:

…a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator.

It’s appealing to passions and prejudices, and taking advantage of the credulity of the friendly media — and abusing their status as professional researchers, in Wilcox’s case with academic tenure — in the service of their own ideological and material interests.

I made this argument in a previous post, which demonstrated widespread and consistent evidence for an assertion that is probably not true because of obvious selection bias: Cars improve child health. There is no end to the ways you can demonstrate this pattern (and I controlled for income, to show how far that gets you), but the ubiquity of the evidence does not correspond with the veracity of the claim that the relationship is causal.

Real research addendum

If, unlike Wilcox and Lerman, you want to consider this set of issues seriously, I must say I don’t mean to imply that there is no causal effect of marriage on anything. But real research that rigorously takes selection into account usually finds the remaining (probable) effects of marriage are small, if still theoretically important. With earnings, for example, a substantial part of men’s marriage effect is due to selection — that is, men who are either already earning more or who are headed for higher earnings are more likely to get married. For example, this recent study by Christopher Dougherty finds that men’s earnings start rising on average more than five years before marriage. You could attribute this to the cultural power of marriage if you think it shows men getting their act together and earning more because they want or plan to get married, but there’s no evidence for that over the interpretation that marriage is a windfall that follows from other advantages — such as physical or mental traits or health, or social advantages such as rich networks of job and relationship connections (none of which is measured directly in the kinds of data we have for these purposes). Alexandra Killewald and Margaret Gough report a similar pattern, although it’s not the focus of their paper. Killewald, in another good piece, does a lot of selection checking for the positive effect of married fatherhood on men’s earnings, before coming down on the side of  a causal story. But her effect, although important, is not anywhere near large enough to lift poor people out of poverty or substantially reduce income inequality in the unlikely event that marriage increased among low-income parents. That’s a different discussion. As I argued the other day, even if marriage is good for married people, those who aren’t married are very unlikely to get the same benefit from marrying that we observe among the married population. They’re different people with different (mostly fewer) assets to capitalize on in marriage.

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