The Power of Statistics to Affect Lives - Even When They're Wrong

Article excerpt

It has been more than a decade since researcher Lenore Weitzman first captured headlines with dramatic statistics about the economic consequences of divorce. In her book "The Divorce Revolution," Dr. Weitzman, then an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University, reported that women's standard of living declined 73 percent in the first year after a divorce, while men's standard of living improved by 42 percent.

Reporters, talk show hosts, and book reviewers described her findings as "staggering" and "startling." So "staggering," in fact, that Weitzman's statistics have received attention in more than 100 national magazines and newspapers, nearly 350 social-science journal articles, and more than 250 law review articles. They have been cited in at least 24 state appellate and supreme court decisions and once by the United States Supreme Court. Critics of no-fault divorce have also used them as evidence of what they regard as the disastrous results of divorce reform.

But wait. Check those calculators and crunch those numbers again. On average, the post-divorce picture isn't as bleak as Weitzman claimed. After she gave her data to the Murray Research Center at Radcliffe College, another researcher, Richard Peterson, reanalyzed them using the same methods. But what a difference in results.

Dr. Peterson found that women's standard of living declined 27 percent, not 73 percent, while men's increased by 10 percent, not 42 percent. His findings, to be published in June in the American Sociological Review, are in line with other national studies on the issue.

In a written response to Peterson's forthcoming article, Weitzman states that the files she gave to the Murray Center were "seriously flawed." She concedes that "it is likely that the gender gap is less than I reported."

Peterson, a program officer at the Social Science Research Center in New York, does not minimize the significance of a 27 percent decline for women. Nor, he says, should anyone ignore the gender gap in the outcomes of divorce. But he points out that "the discussion of no-fault divorce and other legal reforms has been seriously distorted by Weitzman's inaccurately large estimates. …