netcurmudgeon (netcurmudgeon) wrote,

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

One of my favorite magazine features is HARPER'S INDEX, published every month in Harpers. (A second favorite is the Vital Signs column in Discover.) For those who do not know what the index is, it is a page of illuminating, irritating, funny and sometimes odd statistics. For example, the November issue has this:
Estimated percentage of women's college sports teams that were coached by women when Title IX was enacted in 1972: 90
Percentage today: 42

Most of these stats are pretty cut-and-dried enumerations. Harper's cites their sources, and the INDEX has a pretty good rep for not being bogus.

Every once in a while, however, there are stats that seem cut-and-dried on first reading, but don't necessarily bear up under inspection. The November issue had one of these:
Average number of hours of housework that a boyfriend in a cohabiting couple does each week: 10
Average number a married man does: 9

Seems like a slam-dunk, right? The married man does one hour less work per week than his living-in-sin brethren. This "feels" right, as it plays into our social stereotype of men (and women) who work real hard to land a mate, but then slack off once the "I dos" are said. It's a comfortable indictment of married men that Harpers glibly reduced to "Studies found ... that live-in boyfriends are more likely than married men to do housework..." in its back-page FINDINGS column.

I am someone who pays attention to gender issues. I believe in the fundamental equality of men and women, and I tend to think that people who believe in the men are from Mars, women are from Venus ethos are participating in a gigantic collective cop-out. The opposite sex is incomprehensible to them because they don't want to invest the energy required to actually understand first themselves and then their partners. So, when I see one of these trite confirmations of the male/female status quo, it sets my teeth on edge.

Here are three reasons why that figure might be bogus:

Married men probably have more years of experience doing household chores than newly cohabiting men, so they may be more efficient at their work. I am certainly faster with washing the dishes and changing the cat boxes than I was ten years ago. Could that save me an hour a week? Possibly.

Second, "housework" is not defined. We don't know whether it includes tending to children. I don't include child care in with housework, and I think that most people make the same division. Housework is mopping and vacuuming and doing the laundry. It is not raising baby, a task for which we have a crop of unique labels: child care, child rearing, parenting, etc. If you accept that married men are more likely to be engaged in child care than cohabiting boyfriends, then you can easily see why a man who is now devoting ten hours a week to the kids is shaving an hour off of the time he used to spend pushing the vacuum.

Last, we are given no indication of how, or whether, the study controlled for age. Men who are cohabiting boyfriends tend to lump strongly in their 20s and early 30s. Married men span the age range from late teens and 20s right on up through octogenarians, nonagenarians and men who were born before the advent of powered flight. An argument can be made that the younger men are more engaged in household work than the older men -- and will carry that engagement forward into marriage -- while the older men were raised back when housework was woman's work, thereby rendering the comparison pretty much useless.

Statistics like these can be used in very weasilly ways to reinforce a stereotype or push a certain political point of view. They just go to show that critical reading -- even, and perhaps especially of trusted sources -- is vital to maintaining a functioning brain. A brain that isn't blinkered by comfortable assumptions and easy explanations.
Tags: damned lies, lies, statistics

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