Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Marriage, Statistics, and Fallacious Arguments

Evangelical conservatives have argued that legalizing gay marriage would be wrong. In the past, they've tried to use emotional arguments such as, "The Bible condemns homosexuality," or "Gay marriage is confusing to our children." These emotional appeals are ineffective because they only carry weight for those who already subscribe to the beliefs that the emotional appeals are intended to influence. For example, if I don't believe that eating crickets is sinful, then quoting a Bible verse to me that forbids eating crickets will have little effect.

What evangelicals should be doing is using reason and argument against gay marriage, rather than appeals to authority or emotion. To use my crickets example again, if you can demonstrate that, say, people who eat crickets have an enormously higher rate of cancer than people who don't, then that is a valid argument. With regard to gay marriage, some conservatives have argued that allowing homosexuals to marry will have a detrimental effect on heterosexual marriage, and they use statistics to support their position. For example, James Dobson, former chairman of Focus on the Family, told Larry King (Nov '06):

In the Netherlands and places where they have tried to define marriage [to include gay couples], what happens is that people just don’t get married. It’s not that the homosexuals are marrying in greater numbers, it’s that when you confuse what marriage is, young people just don’t get married.

But is that the case? One problem with relying on statistics to make an argument is that statistics can easily be manipulated or skewed to demonstrate bias. In this week's e-skeptic, the e-mail newsletter of the Skeptics Society, Barret Brown examines Dobson's claim and finds that the notion that gay marriage decreases straight marriage rates is absurd.

Brown notes that Denmark allowed gay civil unions as far back as 1989. In the next decade, heterosexual marriage increased over 10 percent, and the divorce rate dropped 14 percent. Sweden and Norway also had similar results. So where did Dobson get his idea that gay unions decrease straight marriages?

Brown blames Stanley Kurtz, contributor to the Weekly Standard and the National Review, who focused on year-to-year changes in marriage and divorce rates rather than overall trends over longer periods of time. If marriage declined two percent one year, then Kurtz highlighted it, even if the marriage rate also declined in other countries where gay civil unions or marriages are not allowed. If marriage increased even more the following year in Denmark, Kurtz ignored that. Kurtz also used bad statistics to wave away the fact that Danes divorce at a lower rate than other European countries.

Kurtz seemed most upset that 60 percent of first-born children are born out of wedlock in Denmark. What he doesn't mention is that the percentage of second-born children with unmarried parents is lower, meaning that many couples are marrying after having their first child. That seems reasonable to me--I can easily sympathize with couples not wanting to commit to marriage until they are sure that they can have children together. I could even see it becoming a religious requirement that couples must provide proof of fertility before being allowed to be married.

What out-of-wedlock births has to do with gay marriage is unclear, except for the fact that Kurtz is "disturbed" by it. He cites a rise in the percentage of couples having children before marriage (a trend that has been rising for decades) and tries to correlate that with the acceptance of gay civil unions, a logical fallacy as silly as trying to blame the rise of global temperatures on the decline of pirates. As Brown concludes:

Why is Kurtz so disturbed about out-of-wedlock rates? Personally, I think it would be preferable for a couple to have a child and then get married, as is more often the case in Scandinavia, rather than for a couple to have a child and then get divorced, as is more often the case in the United States. Kurtz doesn’t seem to feel this way, though, as it isn’t convenient to feel this way at this particular time. Here are all of these couples, he tells us, having babies without first filling out the proper baby-making paperwork with the proper federal agencies. What will become of the babies? As long as we’re looking at trend lines, we may conclude that they’ll continue to outperform their American counterparts in math and science, as they’ve been doing for quite a while.

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TringulaDating said...
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