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January 13th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
It’s Oscar season, so I guess I should give one of my own, particularly since the recipient is so obviously deserving.  So, without further ado, may I have the envelope please.  And the Oscar for Most Intellectually Dishonest Statement in an Online Publication goes to (drum roll)… Slate magazine’s XX Blog.  Here’s the offending article (Slate, 1/3/13).

XX has apparently decided to run a series of articles on the wonders of single motherhood, so they’re soliciting submissions.  Will any of the pieces that find their way onto the pages of XX be negative in any way?  Will they tell about the hardships of single motherhood?  Will any of them write frankly about their decision to raise children without a father?  Will we hear from the grown-up offspring of single mothers?  Will any of it be aught but sweetness and light?  My guess is ‘no,’ given the fact that the conditions for submission of an article are as follows:

Readers, we invite you to submit your testimonies on why being raised by a single mother, or being a single mother, has its benefits and might even be better than having both parents around.

Well, that narrows the field.  For now, we have only the submission of Pamela Gwyn Kripke, single mother of two daughters.  Her piece is dodgy enough, but it’s not why XX was awarded the coveted award mentioned above.  No, that honor goes to the introductory paragraphs that announce XX’s latest effort to get people to believe that children don’t need fathers.

The intro begins by referring to a piece by sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox that recited the usual long litany of reasons why trying to raise children alone is not a good idea.  His points have all been made countless times before and decades of sociology and psychology back them up.  But, by way of counterpoint, XX shares this with us:

But in an age when single motherhood is becoming more common, these mothers (and social science research) are starting to challenge that view.

Slate’s ‘Social Science’ Isn’t

In that sentence, the parenthetical phrase, “and social science research” is in blue, indicating a link.  Now, the casual reader, the reader with too little time to click on the link  and read it might come to the conclusion that Wilcox’s accurate summary of the literature on single parenting has been supplanted by something new.  After all, there’s a link provided by the XX editors to that social science, right?  I’ll go so far as to say I think that’s exactly what the kind folks at XX wanted readers to believe.

Because if you do click on that link, what you get is not social science at all.  It’s a piece written by Katie Roiphe for the New York Times.  Roiphe is the furtherest thing from a social scientist; in fact, she’s more of a shoot-from-the-hip opiner on whatever subject she thinks will sell an article.

So, for starters, there’s a link that’s meant to convince you there’s reputable social science showing that single motherhood is better than parenting by two biological parents.  There’s not, so the editors hope readers won’t notice that the link is not to a study, not to a book and not even to any words of any kind written by someone who’s knowledgeable about the subject.

But it gets worse, far worse.  Roiphe’s piece for the Times is just flat wrong.  Like every article I’ve ever read defending single motherhood, Roiphe’s is written by a highly educated, well-to-do single mother.  “Her kids are fine, ergo, single motherhood is fine” is the invariable message, and so it is with Roiphe.

But Roiphe goes further.  Few people, particularly few educated people, are eager to announce their mistrust of science, but Roiphe is not so squeamish.

I am not a huge believer in studies because they tend to collapse the complexities and nuance of actual lived experience and because people lie to themselves and others.

So much for science.  (What’s next, creationism?  Holocaust denial?  Stay tuned.)  Having tossed aside decades of scrupulous research that countless reputable scientists respect, Roiphe frees herself to rely on her own anecdotal experiences to comfort her and, she hopes, her readers.

But something concerns her about that approach.  Despite having clicked her read shoes together and wished herself back to Kansas, Roiphe still feels an urge to convince readers that social science isn’t really the smack-down of single motherhood everyone thinks.  So, in the time-honored tradition of charlatans everywhere, she makes stuff up.  Too bad for her.

Roiphe makes the fatal mistake of attempting to recruit the excellent Princeton sociologist Sarah McLanahan to her anti-father cause.  McLanahan is one of a handful of sociologists who’ve done the best and greatest work on families and parenting.  She, along with Irwin Garfinkel, Kathryn Edin, David Popenoe and others have contributed immeasurably to our understanding of what does and doesn’t work in family structure and parenting.  Roiphe made the mistake of misrepresenting the work of a heavyweight.

PROFESSOR McLANAHAN’S studies over the years, and many others like them, show that the primary risks associated with single motherhood arise from financial insecurity.

Wrong.  In fact, had Roiphe bothered to read all the way to the bottom of page 1 of McLanahan’s and Gary Sandefur’s fine book “Growing Up with a Single Parent,” she’d know that the authors directly and unambiguously refute the notion that the children of single parents are just suffering a relative lack of money.  That’s important of course, but far from the whole story.  The absense of a father, particularly a biological father, results in a lack of social investment in the child that can’t be gotten elsewhere.

That’s the “social science” XX links to.  It’s not social science in the first place, and when it addresses social science, it gets it completely wrong.

But, as Mr. Creosote says in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,” “Wait, there’s still more.”  Not content with calling a piece “social science” that’s not, a piece written by someone who says she doesn’t even trust science, and that, in any case, frankly gets the social science wrong, XX neglected one minor matter.  Shortly after Roiphe’s piece appeared in the Times, Sara McLanahan wrote a letter to the editor tersely stating that those claims “do not accurately describe my work.”

Of course, if XX made the slightest pretense of intellectual honesty about the subject of single motherhood, the last thing it would do is cite a piece that was explicitly contradicted by the very social scientist whose work Roiphe pretended to describe.

But no.  After all, you can’t win an Oscar for shameful display of intellectual dishonesty and be honest too.  Hey, what’s an editor to do?

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