Lies, Damn Lies, and National Review (Part II)

Some time ago, the New York Times reported on census data that shows that only a minority of American women are married and living with their husband. Thomas Sowell writes in National Review to complain about the way the Times misleads with statistics. He repeats points made earlier, in the same magazine, by Jennifer Morse. (Namely, that the claim depends on the definition of “woman” and of “living with.”)

But this is part of a pattern, Mr. Sowell writes, because,

Innumerable sources have quoted a statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce — another conclusion based on creative manipulation of words, rather than on hard facts.

The statistic is partly based on the fact that, in recent years, there have been about half as many divorces as marriages in any given year. It is of course not quite correct to project that half of the marriages are going to end in divorce: if the number of people getting married increases with time then, all other things being equal, the ratio of divorces to marriages in a given year underestimates the true fraction of marriages ending in divorce. Conversely, if the number of marriages goes down with time, one has an overestimate. I would suppose, however, that demographers take such trends into account in their models.

Sowell’s objection is, of course, considerably more creative:

The fact that there may be half as many divorces in a given year as there are marriages in that year does not mean that half of all marriages end in divorce.

It is completely misleading to compare all the divorces in one year — from marriages begun years and even decades earlier — with the number of marriages begun in that one year.


8 thoughts on “Lies, Damn Lies, and National Review (Part II)

  1. While Sowell’s point about marriages appears rather weak, his point is still strong. The statistics used in these stories are not used because they give an accurate picture of what is happening. They are used because they support a story that the media wants to run. Sowell’s underlying assumption (which he writes about further elsewhere, but not here) is that an ideology is what motivates the media to publish such stories. By the evidence contained here alone, making news that sells would also be a valid conclusion for their motivation.

    If the reporter had desired to give the reader an accurate impression of what the numbers were saying, they would have done with Sowell does in his article: played around with them a little and showed what the numbers look like from different angles. To make my life difficult, I will attempt to pick up Sowell’s argument with the marriage statistics. One could ask: how many people who get married, later get divorced? This is a different, but interesting question. It is not asked? Why is it not asked—because the number is sure to be lower, and it might be harder to obtain an answer. They could have gone year by year and reported how many marriages for each year had been terminated by divorce and be death. A perfectly valid thing for them to look at, in addition, is what they did look at. However, one may wish for a few more facts than what they deliver.

    The final news story is not one meant to convey any type of truth, but rather to convey a one-sided story.

  2. Sowell’s argument seems to be that, even if a couple ultimately got divorced, every year that they stayed married should count toward his side of the ledger.

    Of course, this raises a question: why not count every day the couple stayed married on his side of the ledger, and only the day they actually filed divorce papers on the other side?

  3. Of course, this raises a question: why not count every day the couple stayed married on his side of the ledger, and only the day they actually filed divorce papers on the other side?

    Because he’s specifically referring to the media’s assertion that:

    half of all marriages end in divorce…

    Clearly the divorce numbers are being underestimated, though–think about all the marriages that would eventually end in divorce if they weren’t first ended by the death of the participants.

    The real problem here is that we still allow women to get married. If you look at these studies from Scandinavia, you see that lesbian marriages are twice as likely to end in divorce as those between gay men.

  4. I wonder how many first marriages end in divorce? Even given these numbers, the answer could theoretically still be anywhere between a hundred and (epsilon) per cent. Or, one could look at the number of people who are married when they die, or the distribution of the number of marriages per person.

    But of course, publishing such data too widely will undoubtedly just invite unhealthy manipulation of statistics (i.e. anti-divorce hit squads).

  5. This reminds me of the stats based on death records from Orange County purporting to show that left-handed people were much more likely to die young because the left-handed people dying were younger. (It ignored the fact that the number of left-handed people in the US had grown from about 1% in 1950 to 11% because people previously were forced to use their right hands.)

    I have heard something like the following in news reports which could easily have a similar origin:

    * those who have never married die younger than those who have been married

    * those who have been divorced die younger than those who have been married but never divorced.

    News reports just want something easy to quote that will catch people’s attention.

  6. Wow, Luca, what brilliant nonsense this guy writes! My favorite part of Sowell’s article is when he quotes Rousseau’s “The Social Contract.” I am amazed that this guy can write, ’cause obviously he can’t read, not past the first sentence of a book, anyway. But I am very happy to see that this did not hinder him from developing a deep understanding of Rousseau. And it’s good to know that Marx is Kosher even if Engels isn’t, certainly explains a lot about “The Communist Manifesto.” Overall, very enlightening, and not just as far as population statistics are concerned. A must-read.

  7. You got me curious about the actual numbers. It
    seems that indeed, as Sowell tries to point out in
    a couple of sentences, the statistics are unreliable
    and subject to interpretation. Here’s a very short
    discussion from Wikipedia (Divorce):

    In the United States, in 2005 there were 7.5 new marriages per 1,000 people, and 3.6 divorces per 1,000, a ratio which has existed for many individual years since the 1960s.[1] As many statisticians have pointed out, it is very hard to count the divorce rate, since it is hard to determine if a couple who divorce and get back together in that same year should be considered a divorce, so there is in fact no predictive relationship between the two annual totals. This method does not take account of the length of marriage, just the fact that a certain percentage of people were divorced and a certain number of people are married, rendering the statistic almost meaningless. Nonetheless, the claim that “half of all marriages end in divorce” became widely accepted in the US in the 1970s, on the basis of this statistic, and has remained conventional wisdom. Pollster Lewis Harris in his 1987 book “Inside America” wrote that “the idea that half of American marriages are doomed is one of the most specious pieces of statistical nonsense ever perpetuated in modern times.”
    To establish an actual divorce rate requires tracking and analyzing significant samples of actual marriages through decades, which is not an easy task. Recent US scholarship based on such longterm tracking, reported for example in the New York Times on April 19, 2005, has found that about 60% of all marriages that result in divorce do so in the first decade, and more than 80% do so within the first 20 years; that the percentage of all marriages that eventually end in divorce peaked in the United States at about 41% around 1980, and has been slowly declining ever since, standing by 2002 at around 31%; and that while in the 1960s and 1970s there was little difference among socioeconomic groups in divorce rates, diverging trends appeared starting around 1980 (e.g., the rate of divorce among college graduates had by 2002 dropped to near 20%, roughly half that of non-college graduates).[2][3][4]

  8. QUOTE: “Pollster Lewis Harris in his 1987 book “Inside America” wrote that “the idea that half of American marriages are doomed is one of the most specious pieces of statistical nonsense ever perpetuated in modern times.”

    Essentially this supports Sowell’s point. The Times is using a skewed comparison- a single year versus an aggregate of several years, and building a headline grabbing story on this basis.

    As for the notion that Sowell “hasn’t read” Rosseau only demonstrates that his critic hasn;t bother to read what Sowell references in relation to Rosseau or Marx. Sowell mentioned the importance of the restrictions placed on individual freedom for civilized life. Marriage is one of those restrictions.

    As to Marx the reference was how his followers sought to do break down the barrier of marriage and family- a barrier to their own totalatarian agenda.

    The above is glaringly obvious from even a cursory reading of Sowell’s column- something would be critics would be well advised to do.

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