Pooh and Piglet hunting the woozle
- Woozle (noun): A false or exaggerated claim which has gained credibility by repetition but which has no, or inadequate, basis in evidence or is contradicted by the balance of evidence.
- Woozle (verb): To deploy a woozle for the purposes of advocating an existing opinion, giving a partisan opinion or policy the semblance of empirical or scientific backing.
- Woozling and the Destruction of Science
- The 2010 McIntosh Study
- Review of Other Comparable Studies
- Limitations of the 2010 McIntosh Study
- The Birth of a Woozle
- The Norgrove Report
- The Children and Families Act 2014
Social science research is especially prone to being woozled. Partly this is because its subject matter is precisely that on which people hold strong, but conflicting, opinions. This tempts those with predetermined, partisan positions to quote only those studies whose conclusions support their case. Regrettably, study authors now commonly have an ideological motivation. Advocacy research – in which the authors have a clear idea of what results they seek before starting – has become distressingly common. Such work can give every appearance of being valid, soundly based, science. It can take a disproportionate amount of time and effort to uncover the true nature of what one is reading. Brian Earp has called it the unbearable asymmetry of bullshit. He quotes Brandolini as saying, “the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it”. Therein lies the problem. At one time, it was possible to have confidence in an article if it were published in a peer reviewed journal. Poor, or erroneous, publications, were always present, but were relatively rare exceptions. And errors were just that; not deliberate. The prevalence of advocacy research now challenges the basis of science. It is threatening to prevent the formation of that informal consensus which is central to scientific progress. The problem is most acute in the social sciences where workers and readers both tend to have pre-existing political views; they may not rise to the challenge of suppressing them in favour of unbiased empirical evidence.
But bias is not the only reason why studies in social science may be misleading. Social science research suffers particularly severely from reproducibility problems. This is not entirely the fault of the researchers but arises from the fact that social science is observational, not experimental. Moreover, the observations in questions are of humans in real life – the ultimate complex system. As a result, there is invariably a very large number of uncontrollable variables which confuse interpretation. Quoting results from a single study in social science may therefore be misleading, even if the study is well conceived and executed by professionals who make genuine effort to be unbiased. Review articles, or meta-analyses, which pull together many independent studies are always to be preferred.
Sometimes, however, a false perspective on an issue will be promulgated despite a weight of contrary evidence. One study, or a small sub-set of studies, will be used to advocate a position despite being contra-indicated by the bulk of evidence. This is the realm of the woozler. Woozlers are most destructive when they control the popular narrative through the media, when they can dress their message in the language of care or tolerance or equality, and where they have influential access to centres of political power. This post provides an example of the power of the woozle in frustrating the adoption of a presumption of shared parenting following parental separation.
2010 saw the publication of an Australian study by Jennifer McIntosh et al on the impact of shared care on children (“Post-separation parenting arrangements and developmental outcomes for infants and children: Collected reports”, May 2010). This study considered separately school age children and pre-school children. For pre-school children the study reported finding deleterious effects of shared care on the children’s psychology and behaviour. The negative findings for pre-school children were summarised on page 9 thus,
“Young infants under two years of age living with a non-resident parent for only one or more nights a week were more irritable, and were more watchful and wary of separation from their primary caregiver than young children primarily in the care of one parent. Children aged 2–3 years in shared care…..showed significantly lower levels of persistence with routine tasks, learning and play than children in the other two groups. Of concern but as predicted by attachment theory, they also showed severely distressed behaviours in their relationship with the primary parent (often very upset, crying or hanging on to the parent, and hitting, biting, or kicking), feeding related problems (gagging on food or refusing to eat) and not reacting when hurt. Such behaviours are consistent with high levels of attachment distress…. Thus, regardless of socio-economic background, parenting or inter-parental cooperation, shared overnight care of children under four years of age had an independent and deleterious impact on several emotional and behavioral regulation outcomes.”
But they then added, “By kindergarten or school entry at around age 4-5 years of age, these effects were no longer evident.”
The McIntosh et al study subsequently became the basis of a woozle, as will be described below. I emphasise that the McIntosh paper itself is not the woozle. It is the use of the paper by others which constitutes the woozle. Even if the study is misleading for some reason, this does not necessarily imply any bias or lack of professionalism by its authors. Social science research may produce ‘outlier’ results beyond the researchers’ ability to control. The woozle is created when people with an agenda cite the study because it supports their position, ignoring both the limitations of the study and the balance of conflicting evidence.
The key issue is whether the McIntosh pre-schooler results are consistent with other published studies. They are not, as we see next.
A review of all relevant studies, to 2014, on shared care of young children has been presented by Linda Nielsen, “Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans, and Family Court” . This paper is the most comprehensive and forensic dismantling of a woozle I have ever read in the academic journals. However, for now I use it only as a source for a review of relevant studies.
In 2014 there were 31 studies which compared the outcomes for children who lived in shared parenting families (30% or more of the time) to children who lived with their mother and spent varying amounts of overnight time with their father. However, only eight of these 31 studies included infants and children under the age of 6 years. One of those was the 2010 McIntosh study. The remaining seven studies are those of interest here, since they are independent studies which may be compared with the McIntosh pre-schooler study. I borrow liberally from Linda Nielsen’s paper in the description that follows. It is worth bearing in mind the purpose to which these studies will ultimately be put: to support or deter policies for shared parenting after divorce or separation. It is useful, therefore, to consider the seven studies in groups according to whether the majority of cases analysed involved previously married couples. I omit the references which can be found in the Nielsen paper.
Three of the seven studies only included parents who had formerly been married. These data are the most applicable to divorced parents more generally.
The first study compared 58 children who lived with their mother and 35 who lived at least 35% of their time with their father, with half of them being 4-years-old or younger. One to two years after their parents’ separation, there were no differences in social or behaviour adjustment between the two groups. The frequent overnighters, however, had better relationships with their fathers and were better adjusted emotionally.
The second study followed children from 1,100 divorced families over a period of 4 years. What made this study unique for its time was that the children in 150 of these families were overnighting 30% to 50% time with their fathers. In these families, 125 of the children were infants or preschoolers younger than 5 years. At the end of 4 years, the frequently overnighting children were better off than the others on all of the standardized measures of their academic, emotional, physical, and behavioural well-being. Three years after the parents’ divorce, only 1.6% of the frequent overnighters’ fathers were seeing less of their children compared to 56% of the other fathers.
The third study assessed children from nearly 600 shared parenting and 600 primary care families. Roughly 40% of the children were under the age of 5 years. Three years after their parents’ divorce, children who were frequently overnighting (35%–50% of the time) had better relationships with their fathers, were happier and less depressed, and had fewer health problems than the less frequently overnighting children. There were no differences on measures of emotional health.
In the next group of three studies (which I shall call studies 4 to 6) the majority, but not all, of the parents had been married before separating. A sizable minority had separated before the child was born; and others had never lived together at all.
Study 4: The researchers compared infants 12- to 20-months-old in three types of families: 52 in intact families, 49 who never overnighted, and 44 who occasionally overnighted. Compared to non-overnighters, the overnighters were no less securely attached to their mothers. In the second part of the study 1 year later, the overnighters did as well as the non-overnighters on a challenging task to gauge attachment with their mothers.
Study 5: The researchers assessed 132 children between the ages of 2 and 6 years on several standardized measures of well-being. For the 2- and 3-year-olds, the overnighters were no different from non-overnighters in regard to: sleep problems, depression, anxiety, aggression, or social withdrawal. For the 4- to 6-year-olds, especially for the girls, the overnighters were better off in regard to attention problems and social withdrawal and were no different from the non-overnighters on the other measures.
Study 6: This study involved 7,118 separated parents, of which only 50% had formerly been married and 12% had never lived together, suggesting caution should be exercised in assuming these findings are applicable to divorced parents. The children were divided into those with frequent overnighting (35% to 50%) and those with less, or no, overnighting. The mothers reported no differences between the two groups of children on measures of physical health or socioemotional well-being. In contrast, the fathers of the frequent overnighters rated their children higher on health, learning skills, and overall progress than the other fathers. Overall the frequent overnighters had marginally better outcomes, even after accounting for parents’ levels of violence, conflict, and education.
The seventh, and final, study can be discounted as inapplicable to the general run of divorced or separated parents. The cases were derived from severely disadvantaged families, 85% were African or Hispanic American, and 50% of the fathers and 10% of the mothers had served time in jail.
In summary, the conclusions of the 2010 McIntosh pre-schoolers’ study conflict with all six of the comparable and relevant independent studies, none of which indicate a deleterious impact of shared parenting on pre-schoolers. In fact, they indicate the opposite: shared care is beneficial to the child.
The 2010 McIntosh study was funded by the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department.
- Most of the parents in the McIntosh study had never been married to one another (90% of them in the case of infants, and 60% for toddlers). Moreover, 30% of the infants’ parents had never even lived together. Consequently, deployment of the findings of this study to define policy in respect of shared parenting for divorced parents is invalid, even before the study’s findings are compared with other studies.
- Nielsen identifies that, despite appearances to the contrary, the McIntosh pre-schooler study involved only very small sample sizes for the key cases (e.g., genuine shared care).
- Apparently in an attempt to compensate for this lack, McIntosh et al included in their definition of “shared care” cases of just four overnights per month, which is well below the ~30% criterion usually employed.
- Four measures form the basis of McIntosh et al’s claim that overnighting pre-schoolers creates physical stress, emotional regulation difficulties, lack of persistence, and wariness/watchfulness in regard to the mother’s presence. Nielsen, however, notes that there was no established validity or reliability for the measures of these characteristics employed by McIntosh et al, and that without reported validity and reliability on these adapted versions of standardised measures the data cannot be interpreted with any confidence.
- Finally, Nielsen alerts us to the fact that McIntosh et al approached the question of overnighting from one particular theoretical perspective: that infants form a “primary” attachment to only one parent and later form a “secondary” attachment to their other parent. Nielsen writes, “the study was also based on the hypothesis that being separated from their mothers overnight was especially stressful for infants, making it more difficult for them to be securely attached to her and to regulate their emotions….. Although the researchers clearly stated that they only framed their questions and only interpreted their data through this particular “attachment lens,” the woozle fails to acknowledge this important limitation.”
Nielsen notes that, “these shortcomings do not mean the (McIntosh) study should be dismissed. All studies have shortcomings.” It is not the study itself which is the woozle: it is what is done with it which constitutes the woozle.
A study may be undertaken by those with an agenda, specifically to provide ammunition for subsequent woozling. Alternatively, a study which happens to have the desired outlier results may be deployed for the purpose. The woozle is then created as follows,
- The limitations of the favourable study are ignored;
- Competing studies with contrary results are ignored, even if – in fact, especially if – the balance of evidence shows the favoured study to be an outlier;
- To influence policy makers, chosen academics who are ideologically aligned are called upon as experts in the area. These academics assert that the favoured study, or studies, are “the research”, thus misrepresenting the totality of research evidence to politicians, judiciary, etc., who rely on said experts to advise them correctly;
- Ideologically aligned charities (in this case children’s charities) are also called upon to give authoritative advice and opinion based on their experience in the field. This is difficult for policy makers to ignore due to the moral cachet such charities command;
- Politicians and judiciary may themselves be similarly ideologically aligned, in which case there will naturally be no push-back against the emerging woozle. But even if they are not, they may be powerfully constrained by political correctness to acquiesce. To attempt to promote a policy which, they are told, is contrary to “the research”, and which also conflicts with the advice of authoritative charity workers in the field (thus, in this case, “putting children at risk”) would be to take a political risk with little perceived personal benefit. Politicians follow the path of least resistance which has been prepared for them by the woozling lobby.
At this point, once the woozle is in place, the protestations of the majority of researchers will avail them nothing, because they have been disenfranchised by the woozle from having any policy involvement. In the case of the McIntosh-related woozle, this is demonstrated by the fact that, logically, the woozle was fatally undermined in 2014 by the published consensus of a large group of social scientists:
“Sufficient evidence does not exist to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers. The theoretical and practical considerations favoring overnights for most young children are more compelling than concerns that overnights might jeopardize children’s development.” “Social science and parenting plans for young children. A consensus report”, (Warshak, 2014)
But the woozle is now in place in the corridors of power, hence invulnerable, and protestations are not heard. Linda Nielsen’s “Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans, and Family Court” is highly recommended reading for a thorough deconstruction of how woozles are created and deployed.
I now show how the McIntosh-related woozle played out in the real world of estranging fathers from their children.
In November 2011, the Ministry of Justice published a long awaited review of family justice, known as the Norgrove report. There had been hope amongst fathers’ groups that this might pave the way for the adoption of a rebuttable assumption of shared parenting in some meaningful way. But hopes were dashed when the final report was issued. Key extracts are,
“We remain firm in our view that any legislation that might risk creating an impression of a parental ‘right’ to any particular amount of time with a child would undermine the central principle of the Children Act 1989 that the welfare of the child is paramount.”
“Drawing on international and other evidence we opposed legislation to encourage ‘shared parenting’…..The thorough and detailed evidence from Australia showed the damaging consequences for many children. So we recommended that: no legislation should be introduced that creates or risks creating the perception that there is a parental right to substantially shared or equal time for both parents.”
The “thorough and detailed evidence from Australia” refers, of course, to the McIntosh study. Here we see the woozle deployed to do its mendacious work. Note how the reported deleterious effects of shared care, based on McIntosh, are used here to claim conflict with the paramountcy principle – essentially a slam-dunk against shared care.
At the time the Norgrove report was issued there were at least 28 studies that had compared outcomes for children subject to shared parenting compared to other children with separated parents. But the report cited only three of the 28 studies, and placed particular emphasis on McIntosh 2010. The Norgrove report even tells us how the woozle was created. On page 138 the Norgrove report proudly boasts that,
“Our opposition to legislation that might give rise to a shared parenting presumption attracted a large response in consultation. Charities, legal and judicial organisations and academics (including Professors Helen Rhoades, Liz Trinder, Rosemary Hunter and Judith Masson and the Network on Family Regulation) supported the panel’s stance.”
The reader may research the background of the four women professors consulted for himself, I couldn’t possibly comment. But what you see here is the usual phenomenon in which the feminist lobby descends en masse to influence policy formation, emerging from the many places where they hold sway: charities, academia and the judiciary.
Professor Helen Rhoades contributed Annex G to the Norgrove report, in which she writes, “this submission argues that there should not be any formal legislative recognition of the importance of children having a meaningful relationship with both parents post-separation”.
Professor Liz Trinder provided the following consultation response, quoted in Norgrove, “I am encouraged that the Review has opted against a shared care presumption. That is entirely consistent with the research evidence on what works for children.”
Except that it isn’t, as I have outlined above.
Norgrove was merely a report; what matters is legislation. The legislation which followed, during the coalition government, was the Children and Families Act 2014. There are, and were, some MPs who are supportive of shared parenting. This showed in the initial drafting of the Children and Families Bill. Once again there was excitement that progress on shared parenting would at last be made. Specifically, this was to be addressed by Clause 11 of the Bill which originally read as follows,
“A court… is, as respects each parent… to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare.”
At this point the story becomes horribly depressing as it shows how a movement (in this case F4J) can shoot itself in the head. A rare opportunity to influence the interpretation of the law, if not the legislation itself, was lost, as explained here by ExInjuria, from which post I have taken this quote from MP Caroline Nokes,
“The purpose of the Bill was to produce legislation which ensured the child’s need was the paramount consideration, and included the right to have an on-going, meaningful relationship with both parents. The Bill which left my committee did this, and would have benefitted the child and non-resident parent alike. The Bill which came back from the Lords does not. It removes almost any expectation an absent parent may have of enforceable shared parenting arrangements.”
What went wrong? Leaving aside the F4J involvement what happened is this. The feminist lobby, being vehemently, ideologically opposed to a presumption of shared parenting, whirred into action. The battle was taken up by the children’s charities, Coram and the NSPCC. Together they formed the Shared Parenting Consortium. Take note, because this is a common tactic: the chosen name deliberately misleads. These charities were determined to stop any legislation which opened the door to a presumption of shared parenting. The name Shared Parenting Consortium is designed to misdirect. It is a common feminist tactic when seeking to neutralise an initiative which threatens their hegemonic position: co-opt the movement, take control of the narrative, and destroy the threat. When responsible parties are challenged on whom they consulted, what better answer than “we consulted the Shared Parenting Consortium”.
They lobbied hard with members of the coalition government, many of whom would be highly susceptible to advice from such respected children’s charities on a subject directly affecting children’s welfare. Their case was imbued with further credibility by the Norgrove report, based, you recall, on the successfully woozled research position.
They particularly targeted Baroness Butler-Sloss. As a former President of the Family Division within the House of Lords, she was the perfect person to table a devastating amendment to the Bill. Which she did. The result was complete emasculation of Clause 11’s attempt to open the door to shared parenting. The final Clause 11 of the Children and Families Act 2014 reads,
(2A) A court…is, as respects each parent,….to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare.
(2B)In subsection (2A) “involvement” means involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect, but not any particular division of a child’s time.”
The devastating amendment is the addition of para (2B). The final wording was a victory for the anti-shared parenting lobby because (2B) makes clear that “involvement” may mean indirect contact – perhaps permission to write letters or to email the child. And even direct contact may mean supervised contact once a fortnight in a contact centre for a couple of hours.
MP Caroline Nokes reacted to the Butler-Sloss amendment in the final Act thus,
“This amendment was another example of the ‘chipping away’ of what was intended to be at the heart of this clause – an automatic right for the child to be parented by both parents. Unless you clearly establish a legal presumption in favour of absent parents spending a reasonable amount of time with their children, and more importantly, enshrine a right for a child to have a meaningful ongoing relationship with both parents, there will be no change in custody outcomes, and we will have missed the best opportunity in a generation to create a culture of shared parenting.”
That opportunity was indeed missed. It was missed because the feminist hegemony was determined to maintain a mother’s power to distance a father from her children if she so wishes. The McIntosh study, suitably woozled to appear definitive and then given judicial wings via the Norgrove report, allowed this lobby to decisively influence the legislators by mounting a campaign with every semblance of being based on the best interests of the child.
There appeared to be a note of triumph in some legal quarters. Family Law Week 5/2/14 wrote,
“‘Shared parenting’ amendment puts child welfare before presumption of equal access. Clause 11 amendment approved by Lords.
A consortium of children’s charities has successfully campaigned for an amendment to the Children and Families Bill which it feared could endanger the welfare of children whose parents are separating.
The Shared Parenting Consortium, led by Coram Children’s Legal Centre (CCLC) was concerned that the adoption of clause 11, which states that courts should ‘presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare’ could lead to separating parents assuming they are legally bound to equally share access to their children.
The consortium, which includes NSPCC, wanted to ensure the best interests of the child remain the paramount concern when reaching decisions on their upbringing.
Following their campaign over the last year, an amendment to clause 11 has now been made which clarifies that “involvement” means involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect, but not any particular division of a child’s time.
CCLC’s Director of International Programmes and Research, Professor Carolyn Hamilton said: ‘The message to separating parents is that neither mothers nor fathers are entitled to a legally binding presumption of shared access. Decision-making instead should rightly focus on determining the needs and best interests of each individual child, rather than focusing on the expectations of parents…..(This amendment) will make it clear on the face of the Bill that the welfare of children is paramount.’”
But it doesn’t. The welfare of the child is not made paramount if,
- a meaningful ongoing relationship with one parent is frustrated, and,
- the absence of such a relationship has deleterious effects on the child, and,
- the continuance of such relationship does not have adverse effects on the child.
Condition 2 is known from research to be true (see also The Effect of Fatherlessness on Children). Condition 3 has been shown also to be true, though it has been woozled into its opposite. The perspective represented by the above Family Law Week article is disingenuous at best, if not outright subterfuge. The “best interest of the child” is merely a cover for the feminist determination to keep the mother in control.
This outcome was deliberately engineered by the combined might of the feminist lobby, placed as it is in many centres of influence. And this whole edifice of deceit was built upon a woozle, a lie by another name.
Note added 15/11/18: By 2018 there were 60 relevant studies on the impact on children of shared care. The Journal of Divorce & Remarriage (59(4), 237) published a special issue, under the editorship of Linda Nielsen, “Shared Physical Custody: Recent Research, Advances, and Applications”. By all means read it, but what you most need to know is…
“This Special Issue opens with my article summarizing the results of the 60 existing studies that compared the outcomes of children in joint physical custody (JPC) and sole physical custody (SPC) families. As these studies document, JPC children fare better than SPC children on a wide range of measures of well-being—above all, the quality of their relationships with both parents. More notably, independent of family income, the level of conflict between the parents, the quality of their relationships with each parent, and quality of the parenting skills, JPC children are still generally more advantaged. Still, as this article explains, there are situations where JPC is not more beneficial than SPC.”
“The 20 authors of the articles in this two-part special issue and the 12 experts at the international conference in 2017 reached the same conclusion—and reached it independently of one another without being commissioned by any organization to try to achieve a consensus. This body of scholars concludes that JPC is generally in the best interests of children, with some exceptions, including, but not limited to, children who need protection from a parent whose care is abusive, neglectful, or grossly inadequate. These conclusions are in accord with those reached by the 110 international experts who endorsed Warshak’s 2014 consensus paper on shared parenting for children under the age of 4.”
In the context of the USA, Nielsen also notes, encouragingly, that,
“Changes in custody laws are sweeping the country, too slowly and insufficient for some people and too quickly and ill-considered for others. The Washington Post and the New York Times are among the many newspapers taking note of the fact that 20 states are in the process of revising custody statutes to be more favorable toward joint physical custody (JPC)”
Unfortunately, the recent history in the UK, as outlined above, has set us back rather badly.