Why “Fact Checking” Falls Short

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but “fact checking” this election season seems to have reached a fever pitch. This despite the historically weak tie between facts and politics in general, it would seem. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to it, given the word-by-word scrutiny to which my own work and media interviews have been subject recently. (Not that the media would ever misquote someone…)

But after “lecturing” to a class of 12-year-olds yesterday on some themes in the book of Exodus, I am reminded again of the difference between moderns’ assumptions about detailed history–what we often mean by “the facts”–and historiography, the telling of history over time and from particular perspectives. Moreover, the former is not very easy to accomplish, and always, always misses material and meanings. It’s partial by definition. This came to mind when I briefly noted to the class that Exodus 1:6 simply states, “Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation.” The author (or authors/redactors) of that text clearly was not interested in conveying the details of the aging and death of the sons of Jacob–indeed, most of their lives and that of their children and their families–but rather with the rise of Moses and the Mosaic Law, from the perspective of those under it. So they paid some things no attention. So be it. (Then you have the lengthy lineages found in a variety of places in the Pentateuch, where we moderns feel like they paid too much attention to detail.)

People are often tempted to think that such a peculiar way of doing history is flawed, but in reality all accounts of “news” or “facts” are perspectival and partial. There is what actually happened–if it can be known–and then there’s the teller, who is a complex person (or organization) with interests, by default. There’s a philosophy of history embedded in all history writing, and indeed even in all news media. In a world increasingly short on attention span but long on bandwidth, this should only grow more familiar to us, not less. Take, for a recent example, the recent death of our Libyan ambassador. There are the facts, and frankly they may never be known with certainty, not simply because some people “won’t tell,” but because eyewitnesses saw different content and perceived different meanings, and have complex interests in relating “the facts” to those different sorts of persons (with quite different interests) who ask them. Add to that the untimely occurrence of this in an election season, and Senate and/or House hearings on the matter, and political sabre-rattling, and you can see how layers of interpretation are added.

And yet we still speak glowingly of “the facts.” In the Era of Science, we sense somehow that facts are always knowable. We presume someone is guardian of The Truth About Things.

This is normal behavior. What’s not normal, because it’s not really possibly in a strong way, is to have a very good grasp of “all the facts.” What’s relevant, after all? Even what counts (or is ignored) as evidence is constituted by particular perspectives. A recent critic of mine suspects I have been directly aiding the Romney campaign, but I’m not sure that the utter lack of evidence will convince them that I am not. To the critic, it’s simply evidence that my aid is more clandestine and thus I am even more suspect.

So it’s often an unrealistic challenge to learn all the facts about events that have already occurred, even recent ones, let alone those that have not. So “fact-checking” presidential candidates and their promises, budgets, plans, etc., is almost a joke. Almost. Moreover, to flippantly accuse one of them (but not the other) of lying–a ubiquitous occurrence of late–is to misunderstand all this.

It would behoove us all in this election season to understand that all politics involves some deceptions, and that human memory fails, and that people misspeak. We ought to remember that the public will always dislike “the facts” if they were all laid bare (and in today’s world, more are laid bare than ever before). This is true about most any of us, for that matter. Let’s be grateful that our thoughts–and for many, their words and actions–aren’t always an open book. We are flawed persons electing flawed candidates who will no doubt run flawed administrations. The two candidates for highest office have quite different philosophies on governance, rights, goods, economics, the role of the State, etc. (and probably most importantly, very different teams of trusted advisors and assistants). Vote on those. Not on some wistful idea of honesty and commitment to “the facts.” Politics has never dealt deeply in that.

Young Women and Porn Use: What Does the Data Say?

Recently I gave a talk at a Christian college about the contemporary mating market, and found myself in a conversation afterward with two women students and an administrator. I had mentioned during the talk that it was suboptimal for the mating market that a significant share of Christian men, frustrated by their own penchant for porn, had come to altogether problematize their sex drive and take themselves off of the mating market as being “damaged goods,” unsuitable for a woman. While the share of them that perceive themselves this way is unknown, and probably not large, it nevertheless cannot but cause further problems for the relationship prospects of women, since it means fewer men in the mating pool (at least for some time), thereby giving more power to the (minority of) remaining men to negotiate romantic relationships in ways they wish. In that sense, it should function like elevated male incarceration rates do in altering the relationship dynamics in the African-American community. Bottom line—when more and more men are considered less and less marriageable, this sex-ratio disparity tends to spell greater and greater problems for women in how they conduct their relationships.

Be that as it may, one of these young women declared to me that she knew more women who watch porn than men who did the same. While I know the data well enough to know that would not hold at a population level, it was true in her world and she was convinced that the sex drive of women thus exceeded that of men. Again, won’t hold at a population level.

But I know better than to shrug off her statement as simply incorrect. She was telling me something—that women her age were into porn at rates that people around her underestimated. I heard a similar story at another Christian college several months prior, where a counseling center employee made a comparable remark. So that prompted me to go to the data—to the NFSS data, that is, source of all things interesting and controversial. It’s nationally-representative, has a large sample, and can speak to what’s going on among young adults in America. What did it have to say about women and porn use? In a nutshell, the student is on to something. Just what it means, however, and how consequential it may be is more difficult to say.

I took the sample of unmarried 18-39-year-old women and split them into three age groups: 18-23, 24-32, and 33-39. When asked to report how often they tended to “view pornographic material (such as internet sites, magazines, or movies),” 21 percent of the youngest group of women reported doing so at rates exceeding more than once a month, up from 14 percent among 24-32-year-olds and well above the 8 percent among 33-39-year-old unmarried women. If we limited it to “every day or almost every day” porn usage, their numbers remain lower than among younger unmarried men (who clock in at 6.7 percent), but the age distinction still holds (3.9 percent among the youngest women, while around 0.5 percent among the older two groups). And the difference between 7 and 4 percent is not so stark. (Moreover, if social desirability bias is at work here—and it likely is—I would expect it to be more pronounced among women than men, thus lowering their likelihood of indicating elevated porn use rates.)

But if porn use is simply tied to sex drive, we should see greater use among older women here. Indeed, when asked whether they were “content with the amount of sex you are having,” the older two groups were far more likely to say no (43% and 41%, vs. 25% among 18-23-year-olds). And the correlation between actual reported frequency of sex and porn use is highest among the oldest group of women, reinforcing the standard explanation that—unlike men—women typically use porn-and-masturbation to augment sex, rather than replace it. So that standard explanation here fits the oldest group just fine, but not the youngest group. Actual sex and porn use are altogether unrelated among the youngest women.

What does this all mean? That’s a far more challenging thing to discern. Here are a few hunches, more speculations than anything else.

First, by their greater uptake of porn young women are acting more like men than women just 10-12 years older than them. But they don’t seem more or less permissive in their attitudes about uncommitted sex than women in their upper 20s and 30s. And their frequency of sexual behavior doesn’t seem strikingly different. Yet among the youngest group of women, the correlation between porn use and recent masturbation is twice as large as it is among the oldest group of women. (For men, the connection is, of course, very strong.) Again, the point is that the youngest women mirror men more than do women in their 30s.

Second, back to the basic question: why the greater uptake of porn among younger women? Here is where speculation is difficult to avoid. The easiest answer is that they’ve had more long-term exposure to porn’s availability, and perhaps less social desirability concerns about using it, then have the oldest women in the NFSS. In other words, it’s more normal to them than to others older than they are. But exposure need not mean attraction and uptake. Classically, the pursuit of porn was simply far more common among men than women, and that still remains true. So does this mean that women who watch it are somehow more sexually jaded—however defined—than men who do the same, simply because it’s more uncommon among women than men? Well, it is certainly worth inquiring (via interviews, perhaps) about their motivation for porn use. Heterosexual men are, on average, attracted to naked women. (File that in the “obvious” folder). Are women, on average, increasingly attracted to naked men? What sort of porn are these 21 percent consuming? (That, I should add, is a question seldom asked of anyone.)

Third, some speculate that women’s porn use is not the solitary thing that it often is for men, who typically use it as an aid in masturbation. Here too, the conventional wisdom is not absolute: whereas 92 percent of men who said they watched porn daily (or nearly daily) also said they had masturbated within the past day, only 40 percent of women who did so reported the same (well above the overall “yesterday or today” figure of 20 percent among women who ever have masturbated; for the record, 29 percent of women said they never have). So there is not nearly the linear association between porn and masturbation among women as among men. But a connection is no doubt present.

Here endeth the speculation. What can be known with confidence, however, is the basic message: porn use is notably higher among the youngest adult women than among women in their upper 20s or 30s. Duly noted. Consequential? Quite likely. How so? Not sure. But if porn use undermines classic ideas about marriage—such as sexual fidelity and relationship permanence—then it stands to reason that greater porn use among women should undermine those marital values. That much is certainly true: women who say they never watch porn are the least likely to report having cheated on a romantic partner and most likely to disagree with statements like “traditional marriage is outdated.” Makes sense.

Unplanned Pregnancies: The Subtle Assault on Half of Us

I was in the room several years ago when discussions with students of sexual behavior, fertility, and family were solicited from the leadership at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy about expanding their mission to include combatting unplanned pregnancies, following upon the widely-documented success in helping diminish teen pregnancy rates by 30 percent (which most of us recognize as a good thing.) Given that organizations are “conservative” by nature—that is, they seek to survive, even if it means shifting gears or purposes—it was not a surprise that the National Campaign decided to add “and Unplanned Pregnancy” to their title and purpose.

I had intended to blog about unplanned pregnancies for some time, and that time accelerated when last week I noticed a letter to Carolyn Hax—the Ann Landers for educated, white upper-middle-class types—that addressed this very subject. I seldom care what Carolyn actually advises; the important thing in advice columns is what people want advice about. That is a window into the human quest to be and feel normal. Like all of us social creatures, people look around them for what they ought to want and feel and think, and sometimes they simply ask.

Dear Carolyn: Found out a few weeks ago that I am pregnant at 42! Have one kid, almost 8, who is a complete joy. Husband has made quite clear he does not want this baby because it was not planned and he doesn’t want to work forever. I am feeling like it is a miracle after four years of fertility treatments and finally giving up two years ago. I don’t want to be selfish but really want this baby. But then I keep seeing moms with kids and wonder, is it selfish to be so old with a young child and to go against what my husband wants?

A key part of the problem here, she asserts, is that the pregnancy was not planned. Now, this is certainly not a new subject or concern. For some data perspective…in 2001, 49 percent of pregnancies in the United States were unintended, according to data analyses using the National Study of Family Growth, a reputable source of information. I put a research assistant onto the task of updating that statistic, and he informed me that his best estimate using data from 2005-2010 in the same study is 44 percent. Don’t read too much into the minor dip; it could be subjective measurement decisions with the data. (My RA got 43 percent when he calculated the older estimate, down from their 49 percent). Regardless, the point is that almost half of American pregnancies are unintended or unplanned, and that hasn’t changed much. And apparently that’s a shame.

This shift in discourse of late away from reducing teen pregnancies—a fairly intelligent, no-brainer goal—to reducing unplanned pregnancies continues to grate upon me years after The National Campaign added it. (I don’t actually mean to single them out.) It’s not simply a subtle and neutral turn of phrase, but instead indicates a larger push for social change around conception and childbearing, one that reaches well past teen pregnancies to adult ones as well. Although the Campaign is focused on unmarried adults, the discourse can and does spill over into marriage, as the advice column suggests.

As sociologist of culture James Hunter tells it, culture change is a work of legitimation and deligitimation, of naming one thing normal and right and its competition deviant, stupid, inferior, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. At bottom, culture is the power of “legitimate naming.” Indeed, we have named “unintended” pregnancies into a social problem. The term—as Hunter describes the process—has penetrated the structure of our imagination, our frameworks for how we think and converse, and our perceptions of what normal reality should look like (hint: “planned”). The reality remains, however, that “unintended” characterizes 44 percent of pregnancies.

Such naming is a form of power. The advice-seeker quoted above can attest to that. She reports feeling selfish when she should feel supported. (Why would motherhood ever be considered selfish? It is nearest the very definition of selflessness.) Instead, she senses that her husband has claimed the moral high ground by appealing to their lack of planning. To publicly (rather than privately) distinguish between pregnancies by labeling them as “unintended” or “unplanned” lends—if even only tacitly or incidentally—a morally-suboptimal status to them. And from there…

Two of my three children were altogether unintended and unplanned, and frankly genuine surprises. Perhaps we exhibited a “lack of planning and control.” (Isn’t that what the sexual union between husband and wife ought to exhibit with some regularity?) I am reminded of the hilariously sad narrative of relationship life embedded in the short entitled I Guess You’ll Do: “I will take the fun out of sex by incorporating science…” No, there is something still humanly good about mystery and surprise. A walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, an unexpected note, a phone call from an old friend, heck even cancer is better off as a surprise—who would want to see that coming?

Planned (56%) or not (44%), few people regret having children. To be sure, they may prefer a different timetable or more stable circumstances—and that is certainly understandable and worthy of empathy—but most don’t look at their children and wistfully wish that they did not exist.

Teen pregnancy may be a social problem. Poverty is. Increasing inequality is. But unplanned pregnancy is not a social problem per se. At least not until it has become so in the mind of a critical mass. We’re certainly on our way there.

NFSS data release

This isn’t much of a blog post, but I thought I’d note here that I’ve uploaded the New Family Structures Study data and documentation to ICPSR, the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan. For social scientists, it’s the most popular repository for data. After they process it, the NFSS should be publicly available there. I think it’s the right thing to do, and the right time, even though raw-data release is not required of privately-funded data collection projects in the social sciences like it is for federally-funded projects. I welcome other scholars to analyze the data, which should prove to be quite versatile. I hope its use spreads well beyond the narrow topical confines of parents who’ve had same-sex relationships and comparative young-adult outcomes. The NFSS fielded a comprehensive questionnaire to a random sample of Americans aged 18-39, includes lots of questions across numerous domains, and should attract secondary data analysts. I hope so.

The codebook and data design documentation remain available here.

A follow-up article in which I respond to critics will appear in the November issue of Social Science Research. It’s available here.