FALUDI: The Statistically Challenged Right

Everyone makes mistakes, and feminist writers are no exception, as any feminist will tell you.But what happens to a mistake once it's made -- whether it is decried or adopted, vilified or glorified -- depends less on its magnitude than on its political utility.The media continue to pass along without question bogus findings promoted by right-wing foundations while going on high alert whenever a feminist writer fumbles a statistical footnote. Naomi Wolf's disturbing assertion in The Beauty Myth that 150,000 women die of anorexia each year barely created a ripple in the press -- until antifeminist writer Christina Hoff Sommers announced that it was an error (150,000 women suffer from anorexia, not die from it). Then the media stampeded to "expose" this public deception. Never mind that Wolf moved quickly to correct the error (which wasn't even hers; she was citing another work) in subsequent editions of her book. The scandal was loosed.Conversely, Danielle Crittenden, editor of the antifeminist Women's Quarterly, got away with claiming in a New York Times Op-Ed this past August that the gender wage gap (she cites a Census Bureau statistic that women make 76 percent of what men make) is merely the result of women like her taking time off for motherhood. In fact, the wage-gap figure is based on full-time workers -- and would be much larger if unemployed and part-time women were added to the count. The Times received letters pointing out the error, but never ran a correction.Right-wing foundations have lavished large sums on antifeminist pundits and authors who specialize in feminist-error identification. Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? (funded by the right-wing Olin and Bradley foundations) is little more than a list of quibbles with feminist data; she offers no vision of her own.If there ever was an example of the durability of suspicious "facts" embraced by the right, it is to be found in a single hallowed statistic that serves as the centerpiece for the recent attacks on no-fault divorce -- the reform that allowed couples to separate without either party having to prove that he or she (usually she) had been "wronged" by a villainous spouse. This year, everyone from Dan Quayle to a brigade of conservative media pundits is denouncing no-fault divorce. At least six states are considering bills to rescind it.Much of the argument is based on the figures of sociologist Lenore Weitzman in her 1985 book The Divorce Revolution, in which she concludes that women's standard of living in the first year after a no-fault divorce drops an average of 73 percent, while men's rises 42 percent. Her figures have been invoked, without question, in everything from The New York Times to Cosmo.They have also been featured in Congressional hearings, more than 250 law review articles, at least twenty-four state appellate and Supreme Court cases and even once by the Supreme Court. Never mind that they are wrong.Social scientists challenged Weitzman's conclusions almost as soon as her book was published. Their research found, time and again, that divorced women's standard of living fell an average of about 30 percent and men's rose about 10 percent-regardless of whether the divorce occurred under no-fault or fault conditions. But when researchers such as Saul Hoffman and Greg Duncan (whose methods Weitzman claimed to have used) and sociologist Richard Peterson, whose specialty is the consequences of divorce, contacted Weitzman to ask if they could look at her data, she responded with a litany of excuses. Not until March 1993, when the National Science Foundation threatened to withhold grant money, did she allow other researchers to look at the data she had given Radcliffe's Murray Research Center. Peterson reran it, but he couldn't replicate her 73 percent figure. What he came up with was in line with all the other demographers: a 27 percent decline for women, a 10 percent increase for men. "I couldn't find any procedure I could use that could even erroneously produce these figures," he said. Weitzman stands by her 73 percent figure, even though, when she and a researcher tried recently to replicate the statistic, "what we found was we couldn't." This she attributes to her computer files being "moved around a lot," possibly introducing programming errors.That a 30 percent decline in divorced women's living standard rang no alarm bells is telling; only when Weitzman linked women's financial decline with no-fault divorce laws did conservative ears prick up -- because it allowed them not to be-moan women's poverty (much less trace that poverty to its real sources: unpaid child support and the wage gap) but to blame it all on those independence-seeking women who opted for an "easy" divorce.In 1993, when Weitzman belatedly released her data, she included a warning that there were "serious errors and problems," which she planned to clean up, and hence "it would be irresponsible" for researchers to draw on her work until she made her corrections. Weitzman now says she can't fix it. "There's just something really screwed up in the file that I couldn't straighten out in over a year working with a researcher," she says. "The only way to straighten it out is to recode the data from beginning to end." (This is, in fact, what Peterson did.) But that hasn't stopped conservatives and editorialists from accepting her assertions. A Nexis search on Weitzman's statistic finds more than a hundred citations, fewer than ten of which dispute her figures. When Duncan and Hoffman published their challenge of Weitzman's data in 1988, only The Wall Street Journal picked it up -- in a brief item in its demography column. Peterson's paper, which will be published in The American Sociological Review this June, will probably also be largely ignored by the press -- until someone finds a misplaced comma in the footnotes.Then, watch out.


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