Friday, April 28, 2006

Unscientific divorce studies

John responds to my last post:
It is not true that "Wallerstein's research has been widely discredited as unscientific." Roger only damages his own position by making such a statement.

After all, Roger himself relies on Wallerstein's research to support his own position, namely that "this Wallerstein research actually tends to favor shared custody laws." That conclusion would be worthless if you really believed that her research was "discredited."

Wallerstein's research was never meant to test the issue of shared vs. sole custody, and her opinion about that subject is merely a distracting side issue.

The purpose of her research was to test the effect of divorce on children, not to compare different custody arrangements. Her research does support the conclusion that "divorce is more harmful that most people think" and that conclusion has not been discredited.

Specifically, her research was designed to test the conventional wisdom that if divorce is desirable for the parents, it is therefore also desirable (or at worst neutral) for the children, because it saves the children from the harm of being exposed to parental conflict.

Her studies showed that children of divorce suffer lifelong damage, even in the best of cases where divorce was strongly indicated for the parents' benefit. IOW, fulfillment for the parents does not translate into fulfillment for the children.

It's true that her subjects were not a random sample; she never claimed they were. That does not mean her research was "unscientific." Far from being "widely discredited," her work is widely accepted as having exposed the myth of the "good divorce."
I say that Wallerstein's research is unscientific because there is nothing scientific about it. It is not just that there is no random sample, but also that there is no control group, no objective measures, no accounting for demographics, and no way to tell whether her conclusions are valid or not. All she has are some anecdotal accounts of some personal interviews which she says reinforce her prejudices back in 1970.

Even if you agree with some of her conclusions, her work is still unreliable and unscientific. An astrologer who predicts the weather is sometimes correct, but the predictions are still meaningless.

Yes, I think that Wallerstein's conclusions are worthless. That is why I said that "I wouldn't rely on her opinion for anything." I am not relying on her research to support shared custody laws. I am only showing that the Focus On The Family arguments are fallacious.

If Wallerstein really had scientific studies showing "that children of divorce suffer lifelong damage", then she would have quantified that damage in a way that could be replicated by other studies. She has not.

John responds:
Roger, you still miss the point. Wallerstein's research was meant to debunk and discredit the conventional wisdom, then widely held among many professionals as well as the general public, and still echoed by the popular media and Hollywood, that children are often not hurt and may even benefit when their parents separate.

Of course, there was never anything remotely scientific about that assumption; yet it was widely believed anyway. After Wallerstein, no one can legitimately believe that anymore. Although her research does not meet laboratory standards for random sample and control group (which are nearly impossible to obtain for this kind of subject anyway), it nevertheless was more than sufficient to accomplish the limited purpose she set out to do.

I interpret your statement that "Wallerstein's research has been widely discredited as unscientific" as saying that her research was completely worthless and her conclusions are wrong. IOW, you are implying that truly scientific research indicates that children are usually not damaged in the "normal" amicable divorce (if there is such a thing).

That is wrong; there is no such scientific research that contradicts Wallerstein. You are shooting yourself in the foot to make such a blanket, broadside attack on Wallerstein, because you thereby eliminate any possibility of sympathy or support for your position from pro-family groups.
No, John, you miss the point. If I say that an astrologer is unscientific, it doesn't necessarily mean that all of the astrologer's predictions will be wrong. I am not expressing any opinion on what scientific research might say about the damage in an amicable divorce.

Judith Wallerstein is just someone with a bunch of anecdotal evidence and opinions about divorce. You may or may not agree with some of her opinions. My objection is to Focus On The Family citing her as an authority on the subject as if she has done scientific studies. She has not, and her opinions have no more worth than anyone else's.

I don't expect this posting to get support from Focus On The Family. That group calls itself pro-family, but it is supporting laws that promote divorce, promote family court litigation, promote conflict between parents, and promote alienating fathers from their children.

Regardless of what you think about the conclusions, Judith Wallerstein's work is unscientific. Here is a typical discussion of the limitations of her approach.

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