Columnist: Statistics only lead to more questions

Cornell Daily Sun

(U-WIRE) ITHACA, N.Y. – New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took a brief sojourn from the Op-Ed pages this past Sunday, writing a feature article for the magazine section entitled “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?” In the article, Dowd ponders the question of whether feminism is dead; in support of this thesis she cites an apparent increase in adherence to traditional gender roles and seeming apathy in response to social inequality.What surprised me most about the article – aside from the fact that, when not making up cutesy nicknames for politicians, Dowd can write eloquently and thoughtfully and almost completely non-irritatingly – was a statistic she provided in a section on “power dynamics.” Dowd writes, “A 2005 report by researchers at four British universities indicated that a high I.Q. hampers a woman’s chance to marry, while it is a plus for men. The prospect for marriage increased by 35 percent for guys for each 16-point increase in I.Q.; for women, there is a 40 percent drop for each 16-point rise.”That’s quite the staggering figure, and it certainly bolsters Dowd’s assertion that “the aroma of male power is an aphrodisiac for women, but the perfume of female power is a turnoff for men.” But statistics are funny things sometimes. They carry with them an air of factuality, of incontrovertibility – if the numbers say it, it must be the case. And to an extent that’s true; statistics are descriptions of observations, and, as such, they don’t lie (assuming the numbers aren’t fudged). The problem is that statistics can easily be abused and misinterpreted, and they all-too-frequently are. Researchers are usually pretty good about discussing the limitations and caveats of their own findings, but journalists – propelled by the goal of making information newsworthy – are notoriously bad at letting numbers speak for themselves. Since most of us rarely read the actual research articles, most of us never question the secondhand assertions framing the data.So let’s do something crazy and take a look at the actual study that Dowd cites. The researchers culled information from preexisting databases; specifically, they looked at demographic data on 900 middle-aged Scots in the 1970s and linked that information with IQ tests administered at age 11.What did the researchers find? According to their regressions, the odds ratio of marrying was 1.35 for each one-standard-deviation (S.D.) increase in I.Q. in men, and 0.42 for each one-S.D. increase in I.Q. in women. In layman’s terms, this means that the marriage odds of a male with an I.Q. one S.D. above the mean compared to a man with a mean (100) I.Q. are 1.35 times higher – or 35 percent higher. It also means that Dowd read the statistics wrong: in fact, in the sample the researchers used, women were 58 percent less likely to marry with each S.D. increase, not 42 percent. Ouch. (Also, the researchers used an I.Q. scale with a S.D. of 15, not 16 as she states, but let’s deal with one thing at a time.) The researchers controlled for social class and height and found that the effect for men became non-significant – but the effect for women, though attenuated, remained significant.Sobering statistics – but what do they tell us? Unfortunately, not much. This is the problem with social science research: although it’s possible to show very convincing correlations, when you’re researching with humans it’s usually impossible to determine causation or mechanism.This means that the interpretation of findings requires quite a bit of speculation. Here’s an idea: maybe women with higher I.Q.s are less likely to get married because they’re less likely to want to get married. Maybe they are, on average, better off financially and better able to support themselves without a husband. Maybe they don’t have time for marriage and kids because women, unlike men, are often forced to choose between career and family. Or maybe more-intelligent women tend to have more progressive views and are less likely to subscribe to the traditional institution of marriage, instead cohabitating with their partners or avoiding long-term relationships altogether. Or maybe the sample used in this experiment, currently octogenarians, are representative of earlier times with earlier mores, when women who thought there was more to life than raising kids were prescribed medication. Some of these explanations are more likely than others, but they all make some amount of sense and could be supported or ruled out through further research. But what do journalists, that bastion of investigative inquiry, have to say about the limitless number of interpretations of the study results? “Brighter girls [are] less likely to find a man who wants to marry them,” writes the London Daily Mail. “Women achievers … find it difficult to find men willing to sacrifice their careers to become house husbands,” according to British newspaper The Sunday Times. Even Dowd, attempting to strike a blow for feminism, falls victim to the status quo: “There it is, right in the DNA,” she writes: ” … a high I.Q. hampers a woman’s chance to marry.”Though some studies have suggested that men are, in fact, less attracted to intelligent and powerful women, the buck doesn’t stop there. We owe it to ourselves to be more than inert consumers of information. If we accept whatever the “authorities” tell us and then apply it unquestioningly to further information, we’re betraying the very nature of scientific inquiry. We should be asking: Why are women with higher I.Q.s less likely to marry? Why do men tend to be less attracted to powerful women? Is it “right in the DNA,” as Dowd asserts, or is it learned? What are the implications for both men and women (and humankind in general)? Do the ways we interpret statistics tell us far more than the statistics themselves? That’s the wonderful thing about science: the more questions you ask, the more answers you get.