Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m always on the lookout for new items for the lexicon. It’s been a good month on that front. In addition to the Garden of Forking Paths, I’ve encountered two entirely new (to me) fallacies.
The first of the two new fallacies has a name that’s quite a mouthful; I’ll hold off on telling you about it right now, as Eric Loken and I are currently finishing a paper on it. Once the paper’s done, I’ll post it in the usual place (or here, once it is scheduled to be published) and I’ll add it to the lexicon as well.
What I want to talk about today is a fallacy I noticed a couple days ago. I can’t think of a good name for it. And that’s where you, the readers, come in.
Please give this fallacy a name!
Here’s the story. The other day on the sister blog I reported on a pair of studies involving children and political orientation: Andrew Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee found that, in Great Britain, parents of girls were more likely to support left-wing parties, compared to parents of boys. And, in the other direction, Dalton Conley and Emily Rauscher found with survey data from the United States that parents of girls were more likely to support the Republican party, compared to parents of boys.
Both these studies came out a few years ago (and I blogged on them way back when), but the Conley and Rauscher paper got a new burst of attention following its recent publication in a sociology journal.
We haven’t reached the fallacy yet, but we’re getting closer.
One thing I noted in my sister blog post was an oddity in the reporting of the Conley and Rauscher paper:
There’s something oddly asymmetrical about how these results are presented, both by the authors and in the media. Consider the following headlines:
“The Effect of Daughters on Partisanship and Social Attitudes Toward Women”
“Does Having Daughters Make You More Republican?”
“Parents With Daughters Are More Likely To Be Republicans, Says New Study”
“Parents Of Daughters Lean Republican, Study Shows”
“The Daughter Theory: Does raising girls make parents conservative?”
To their credit, the study’s authors and many of the journalists make it clear the the claims are speculative (consider, for example, the question mark at the end of the New York Times headline given just above). So that’s all good.
But here’s my question: Why is it all about “the effect of daughters”? Why not “Does having sons make you support the Democrats?” It looks to me like having sons is considered the default. Okay, sure, a bit over 51 percent of babies are boys. Really, though, you can have a boy or a girl, and I think the whole discussion of these claims in the media is a bit distorted by the implicit attitude that the boy is a default. Lots of discussion about how you, as a parent, might change your views of the world if you have a girl. But not so much about how you might change your views if you have a boy. Lots of discussion of how having a girl might affect your attitudes on abortion, not so much discussion about how having a boy might affect your attitudes on issues such as gun control or war, which disproportionately affect young men. This is a real problem, when issues of girls and boys, men and women, are treated asymmetrically.
An illustrative example of this asymmetry came from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who recently expressed pleasure about the headline, “Study: Having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.” Douthat writes:
Why pleasure? Well, because previous research on this question had suggested the reverse, with parents of daughters leaning left and parents of sons rightward. And those earlier findings dovetailed neatly with liberal talking points about politics and gender: Republicans make war on women, Democrats protect them, so it’s only natural that raising girls would make parents see the wisdom of liberalism …
But the new study undercuts those talking points. Things are more complicated than you thought, liberals! You can love your daughters, want the best for them, and find yourself drawn to … conservative ideas! Especially if you’re highly educated, which is where the effect was strongest!
The fallacy here is that Douthat is thinking unidirectionally. He’s all about what happens if you have a girl. But what happens if you have a boy? Parents of boys are drawn to … liberal ideas! Especially if you’re highly educated, which is where the effect was strongest! This would seem to contradict theories of the feminization of America, the “war on men,” etc.
This fallacy is not special to Ross Douthat or to conservative columnists. Indeed, the political “gender gap” in America is typically framed as an advantage for the Democrats who get these extra votes from women. It could be just as well be framed as a male gender gap in favor of the Republican party, but you don’t usually hear it that way.
Anyway, that’s the fallacy: a comparison could go either way, but people think about it only in one direction, thus not fully understanding the implications (in this case, thinking that a connection between daughters and Republican voting is good news for conservatives, because having sons is implicitly considered as the default case).
I can’t think of a good name for this fallacy. Can you?