Tuesday, December 01, 1998Falsehoods perpetuated over years
The most notorious example of profoundly flawed research elevated to accepted truth is Lenore Weitzman's 1985 book The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America.
Andy Schwartz / Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler in a scene from The First Wives' Club. The film is predicated on the popular misconception that men initiate most divorces by dumping their middle-age wives.
Weitzman, a then Harvard sociologist, claimed that her 10-year study found that women and children suffered a 73% drop in their standard of living after divorce, while men experienced a 42% increase.
Despite the fact that other academics had failed to discover numbers anywhere near as dramatic, it was Weitzman's data that was trumpeted by the media and cited by legal scholars, judges, and U.S. presidents.
A search of academic sources found references to her study "in 348 social science articles, 250 law review articles, and 24 appeal cases," writes Sanford Braver, the author of Divorced Dads. "It would probably be fair to say that Weitzman's findings are the most widely known and influential social science results of the last 20 years." If ever, says Braver, "anyone needed any evidence to fuel their outrage against divorced fathers, to contribute to their bad divorced dads beliefs . . . this is what they were waiting for."
The problem, however, is that other scholars have never been able to reproduce Weitzman's results. After several years and much persistence, their attempts to secure her raw data were finally successful -- but their findings did not correspond to hers.
Finally, in 1996, Weitzman publicly admitted that her numbers, which have been used to portray fathers as deceitful whiners claiming they weren't rolling in dough after a divorce, were the result of a mathematical error.
Says Braver: "Mistakes can happen to anyone, even Harvard professors. But instead of questioning and double-checking her anomalous finding, putting it under the normal scientific scrutiny, Weitzman apparently accepted the erroneous finding at face value because it fit with the woman-as-victim stereotype she preferred to believe."
Braver conducted his own analysis of the economic impact divorce has on both men and women. His conclusion: "The results show that economically fathers and mothers, on average, fare almost exactly equal about one year after divorce, both quite close to their pre-divorce levels."
When couples in his study (see main story) were asked how much money remained at the end of the month after all bills and necessary expenses, fathers estimated $100, mothers $75. Over the course of a year, this amounts to a gap of about $300 between divorced men and women.
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