Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Aussie husbands fair – not world’s worst

Many things piss me off. One of them is when the media misinterprets technical material, be it scientific, legal, economic or anything else they can find that appears to have a populist twist.

I recommend for those who hate scientific research being totally abused by the media to pay attention to Ben Goldacre’s blog here.

For those who hate it when the media tells of a British economist who finds that Aussie blokes are the worst husbands, please read on.

Within a day of what I suspect was an innocent media release, I could google aussie bloke worst husband and get 107,000 hits. Most news sites, including all the major Aussie TV networks, and print newspaper sites, even local papers, had their articles flashing on their front page, but with 90% of the article text in common.

The same research was also used to claim that Amercians make the best husbands. I am now waiting for a Today Tonight special on the secret lives of Aussie husbands!

I will bet my house on the fact that not a single reporter read the original research paper, and if they did, had no clue what it meant. If you read it, you will see that it is a dense and technical document. That's apparently an excuse not to fact check in news reporting these days. A simple email to any university economics department in the country would have resulted in a good analysis of the findings, and some interesting broader social implications. I know a number of professors who love that kind of thing.

So, what did the now infamous paper actually find? Let me use Sanz’s own words:
Empirical results support the predictions of a house-hold formation model where less egalitarian social norms decrease the supply of men in the household market by increasing a man's cost of providing household labor. Both men and women living in more egalitarian countries have, everything else equal, a higher probability of forming a household. Furthermore, consistent with the theory, individual attitudes run opposite to social norms for the case of women. Whereas ceteris paribus a more egalitarian woman has a lower probability of forming a household, a woman living in a more egalitarian country has, everything else equal, a higher probability of forming a household.

To translate:
1. Societies with a culture of egalitarianism (equality) have higher rates of cohabitation or marriage, than less egalitarian societies.
2. The more egalitarian a women, the lower her chance of finding a mate
3. The more egalitarian a man, the higher his chance of coupling up.

What we don’t know is who is the best or worst husband. There is no difference between married and cohabitating males in the survey data, so that claim of relevance to marriage is bunkum.

But we do finally find details on housework, from a survey conducted in 1994 and 2002. Australian respondents (both men and women) stated that women always or usually do the laundry, cooking and shopping, 74%, 66%, and 60% of the time respectively. That seems reasonable to me for a society wide average, when you consider the average man’s ability to shop or cook! And it’s a lot better than Japan, where women apparently do laundry, cooking and shopping 94%, 94% and 80% of the time!

If we weight these chores equally into a housework index, we find Australia is actually 8th out of the 12 countries in the survey. The European countries only beat us because their men do more shopping! And surprisingly (because it makes at least one media report appear legitimate), US men do the most housework when measured this way!

The main results of the study should not surprise anyone. A man finds a woman more attractive when he believes she will contribute more to the household, while a woman finds a man more attractive when she thinks he will contribute more to the household. But is that news? At least the lucky author now has some attention on their work.

Another 24hours of media circulation brings the Google hits up to 1,310,000 for the phrase aussie husband worst. Still the only website that actually reports what the original research actually reveals is this one.

It was also a topic of discussion in '7pm', the new chat show on channel Ten, last night. Must be a slow news day!

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