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Thoughts on journalists who want to write about science

First the scientific story, then the journalist, then my thoughts.

Part 1: The scientific story

From the Daily News:

Spanking makes kids perform better in school, helps them become more successful: study

The research, by Calvin College psychology professor Marjorie Gunnoe, found that kids smacked before age 6 grew up to be more successful . . . Gunnoe, who interviewed 2,600 people about being smacked, told the [London] Daily Mail: “The claims that are made for not spanking children fail to hold up. I think of spanking as a dangerous tool, but then there are times when there is a job big enough for a dangerous tool. You don’t use it for all your jobs.”

From the Daily Mail article:

Professor Gunnoe questioned 2,600 people about being smacked, of whom a quarter had never been physically chastised. The participants’ answers then were compared with their behaviour, such as academic success, optimism about the future, antisocial behaviour, violence and bouts of depression. Teenagers in the survey who had been smacked only between the ages of two and six performed best on all the positive measures. Those who had been smacked between seven and 11 fared worse on negative behaviour but were more likely to be academically successful. Teenagers who were still smacked fared worst on all counts.

Part 2: The journalist

Po Bronson (whose life and career are eerily similar to the slightly older and slightly more famous Michael Lewis) writes about this study in Newsweek:

Unfortunately, there’s been little study of [kids who haven’t been spanked], because children who’ve never been spanked aren’t easy to find. Most kids receive physical discipline at least once in their life. But times are changing, and parents today have numerous alternatives to spanking. The result is that kids are spanked less often overall, and kids who’ve never been spanked are becoming a bigger slice of the pie in long-term population studies.

One of those new population studies underway is called Portraits of American Life. It involves interviews of 2,600 people and their adolescent children every three years for the next 20 years. Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe is working with the first wave of data on the teens. It turns out that almost a quarter of these teens report they were never spanked.

So this is a perfect opportunity to answer a very simple question: are kids who’ve never been spanked any better off, long term?

Gunnoe’s summary is blunt: “I didn’t find that in my data.” . . . those who’d been spanked just when they were young–ages 2 to 6–were doing a little better as teenagers than those who’d never been spanked. On almost every measure.

A separate group of teens had been spanked until they were in elementary school. Their last spanking had been between the ages of 7 and 11. These teens didn’t turn out badly, either.

Compared with the never-spanked, they were slightly worse off on negative outcomes, but a little better off on the good outcomes. . . .

Gunnoe doesn’t know what she’ll find, but my thoughts jump immediately to the work of Dr. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, whom we wrote about in NurtureShock. Schoppe-Sullivan found that children of progressive dads were acting out more in school. This was likely because the fathers were inconsistent disciplinarians; they were emotionally uncertain about when and how to punish, and thus they were reinventing the wheel every time they had to reprimand their child. And there was more conflict in their marriage over how best to parent, and how to divide parenting responsibilities.

I [Bronson] admit to taking a leap here, but if the progressive parents are the ones who never spank (or at least there’s a large overlap), then perhaps the consistency of discipline is more important than the form of discipline. In other words, spanking regularly isn’t the problem; the problem is having no regular form of discipline at all.

I couldn’t find a copy of Gunnoe’s report on the web. Her local newspaper (the Grand Rapids News) reports that she “presented her findings at a conference of the Society for Research in Child Development,” but the link only goes to the conference website, not to any manuscript. Following the link for Marjorie Gunnoe takes me to this page at Calvin College, which describes itself as “the distinctively Christian, academically excellent liberal arts college that shapes minds for intentional participation in the renewal of all things.”

Gunnoe is quoted in the Grand Rapids Press as saying:

“This in no way should be thought of as a green light for spanking . . . This is a red light for people who want to legally limit how parents choose to discipline their children. I don’t promote spanking, but there’s not the evidence to outlaw it.”

I’m actually not sure why these results, if valid, should not by taken as a “green light” for spanking, but I guess Gunnoe’s point is that parental behaviors are situational, and you might not want someone reading her article and then hitting his or her kid for no reason, just for its as-demonstrated-by-research benefits.

Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of other research on the topic of corporal punishment. A commenter at my other blog found a related study of Gunnoe’s, from 1997. It actually comes from an entire issue of the journal that’s all about discipine, including several articles on spanking.

Another commenter linked to several reports of research, including this from University of New Hampshire professor Murray Straus:

090924231749.jpg

(I don’t know who is spanked exactly once, but maybe this is #times spanked per week, or something like that. I didn’t search for the original source of the graph.)

I agree with the commenter that it would be interesting to see Gunnoe and Straus speaking on the same panel.

Part 3: My thoughts

I can’t exactly say that Po Bronson did anything wrong in his writeup–he’s knowledgeable in this area (more than I am, certainly) and has thought a lot about it. He’s a journalist who’s written a book on child-rearing, and this is a juicy topic, so I can’t fault him for discussing Gunnoe’s findings. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest that this topic is off limits just because nothing has really been “proved” on the causal effects of corporal punishment. Research in this area is always going to be speculative.

Nonetheless, I’m a little bothered by Bronson’s implicit acceptance of Gunnoe’s results and his extrapolations from her more modest claims. I get a bit uncomfortable when a reporter starts to give explanations for why something is happening, when that “something” might not really be true at all. I don’t see any easy solution here–Bronson is even careful enough to say, “I admit to taking a leap here.” Still, I’m bothered by what may be a too-easy implicit acceptance of an unpublished research claim. Again, I’m not saying that blanket skepticism is a solution either, but still . . .

It’s a tough situation to be in, to report on headline-grabbing claims when there’s no research paper to back them up. (I assume that if Bronson had a copy of Gunnoe’s research article, he could send it to various experts he knows to get their opinions.)

P.S. I altered the second-to-last paragraph above in light of Jason’s comments.

9 Comments

  1. Kaiser says:

    Bronson almost got it when he said "if the progressive parents are the ones who never spank (or at least there's a large overlap)" – I was almost rooting for him at that point – but he let us down by then making the leap from not using a form of punishment to consistency of all forms of punishment. A far simpler point would be that if progressive parents are less likely than average to use spanking, then the reported difference between the spanked and not spanked could be due to myriad things associated with the political leanings of the parents, rather than to spanking. This sounds like an observational study where the researchers need to examine selection bias first.

  2. Pat says:

    I also find it odd that they labeled the ordinate "Change in Cognitive Ability," rather than "Difference." Unless they had kids take a test and then spanked them exactly once and retested.

  3. Radford Neal says:

    The problems of drawing any causal conclusions from this sort of observational data are immense (even assuming no other problems, of statistical significance, etc.). Did the kids spanked many times turn out poorly because of that, or did they get spanked because they were already acting badly? Did the ones never spanked do less well because of that, or because they were from some cultural group that both doesn't spank and has other (not causally connected) characteristics too? You'd need to collect data on lots of potential confounders, and do a very careful analysis, to get anything useful out. As usual, the articles aren't very exlicit about this problem.

    From one comment quoted above, however, maybe the author of the study sees it as a very crude screening test. If spanking was REALLY, REALLY bad, you'd see a large effect, that couldn't plausibly be attributed to confounding. (This is pretty much the argument for smoking causing lung cancer.) She didn't see anything that dramatic. Demonstrating anything less dramatic is basicaly hopeless, so she concludes that there's no scientific basis for enacting laws outlawing all spanking.

    In that regard, I've always been a bit puzzled. In Canada, the criminal code provision that allows spanking is a general exemption from other provisions when the actions are for disciplining children. One regulaly hears calls for repeal of the exemption. But surely this is ridiculous. Without it, any force applied to children, such as forceably taking them to the doctor for a vaccination, that would be illegal when applied to an adult would be a criminal offense. If you're anti-spanking, you need to come up with some more specific exemption…

  4. Anonymous says:

    Andrew, why is Calvin's Christian mission statement relevant for your analysis of her report? Do you post the mission statement of all other universities associated with papers you discuss? It would seem other facts (like where Gunnoe got her PhD or her CV) are much more relevant to discuss.

    You sort of leave that information out there without comment, but I noticed commentators on your other blog instantly used it as reason to discredit her research as a "fundamentalist Christian" hack, which neither she nor Calvin are. That's an unfortunate result.

  5. rory says:

    Here is the paper where that figure comes from. You will notice looking through the methods that they do a massive multiple regression and then do not correct for testing hundreds of hypothesis among other errors.

    http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mas2/CP51.pdf

  6. Andrew Gelman says:

    Anonymous:

    I agree that many of the blogs in the ScienceBlogs domain have an anti-religion slant, and you have to interpret the comments there with that in mind. If you want to see real partisanship, check out the comments on my posts at New Majority and 538!

    With regard to Calvin College, all I can say is that I'd never heard of the place before, and a bit of information on its background seemed relevant to me. I had a pretty good idea of what the University of New Hampshire is based on its name alone, not so much for Calvin College. Readers can feel free to follow the link that I provided for Dr. Gunnoe and learn more about her research.

    Rory: Thanks for the link. Maybe one thing that's going on here is that research in this area is so difficult–the causal identification problems are so huge–that maybe there's a tendency to just give up on all statistical issues.

  7. Dr. John R. Vokey says:

    Corporal punishment of children? Seriously? And the issue is whether on some subsequent measure of whatever it is/was good for them? Have I entered the twilight zone? Next up: slavery: but was it good for the slaves? Ridiculous.

  8. Nick says:

    Is there any evidence of causality in this study? I can think of other things that could possibly be collinear with spanking of kids that would cause improvement in cognitive behavior. Attention, for instance, would be probably be associated with spanking (you can't spank your kids if you don't see them often and know about their lives!) Of course that's just conjecture on my part, but I'm always skeptical of causality being inferred from these studies.

  9. jason says:

    If you look at all the quotes from the original author (Gunnoe), she repeatedly says that she didn't find evidence that spanking, in and of itself, led to negative child outcomes. For the most part, all she seems to be willing to say, God bless her, is that she failed to reject the null.

    Then, when pressed about the counterintuitive findings that showed an association between spanking and some positive child outcomes, she refuses to say that the relationship is causal, and in fact says that she wants to look at parenting style.

    Bronson ignores this, and not only infers a causal (albeit mediated) relationship, he hypothesizes that it has to do with inconsistent discipline, citing Schoppe-Sullivan's work as reported in NurtureShock (I believe that the Schoppe-Sullivan study was also a never-published presentation at the biennial SRCD meeting).

    Gelman then writes a blog post in which he faults Bronson for accepting a research claim, without noting that the claim is never explicitly made by the researcher. And in which he also says (as an aside) that the data, if valid, show benefits of spanking (accepting causality that the Gunnoe has repeatedly declined to endorse), and the commenters, not surprisingly, question the validity of the conclusions specifically not drawn by the researcher…