Tuesday, April 10, 2012

You can't misquote a misquote

Yesterday I talked about sensational statistics and to always verify that there's no missing adjectives that would change the statistic.  It was thus a bit serendipitous that today I happened to hear a debate about a misquoted statistic, and whether the quote or the misquote was more accurate.  It was on a podcast I listen to, and it was about a month old (sometimes I don't keep up well).

It was happening around the time the contraception debate was at it's most furious (see what I did there?  It was a federally mandated coverage of contraception debate, to give you all the adjectives).  Anyway, at the time the statistic about the prevalence of birth control usage among Catholic women was getting tossed around quite a bit.  The statistic, in it's most detailed form, is this:  98% of self-identified Catholic women of child bearing age who are sexually active have used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning at some point in their lives.

Now, this stat rarely got quoted in it's entirety.  First, I always think designating that the religions is self identified is important.  The women answering this survey didn't have to clarify if they thought they were good Catholics, just Catholic.  Second, the "sexually active" got glossed over as well, despite the fact that it probably cuts down the numbers at least a bit (for young adult Catholics, to approximately 89% of respondents).  Third, "at some point".  The study's authors have justified this qualifier by arguing that if a woman is on birth control for years, then decides to start trying to have children and goes off of it, she would have been excluded.  Critics have argued that this strategy was designed to include women who may have tried it, decided it was wrong, and stopped.  Both have a point.

That being said, I most often heard this being quoted as "98% of Catholic women use birth control" or sometimes even "98% of Catholics use birth control".  

It was that last phrase that got the debate going on the show I was listening to.  Person 1 argued that it annoyed him that people kept dropping the "women" part of the quote.  Person 2 shot back that it actually drove him nuts that people felt the need to add it.  He argued that for every straight female using contraception, there was by definition a straight man using it.  Unless one presumed a statistically significant number of women were misleading their partners, 98% of Catholic men were also using birth control (of course, even if they were being misled, they were actually still using it...just not knowingly).  Since according to Catholic doctrine the contraception mandate is for both genders, both parties are therefore guilty.

I liked the debate, and would be totally fascinated to hear the numbers on men who have used (or had a partner who used) contraception.  I am curious if a significant number don't know, or would claim not to know.  I still think that clarifying "women" in the quote is fine, as it's who the study was actually done on.  In my mind extrapolation should always be classified as extrapolation, not an actual finding.

Also of note, this was an in-person survey.  That's always useful to realize that every answer given in a survey like this had to verbalize their answers to another person....important when the topic is anything highly subject to social pressures.  For a further breakdown of issues with that study, see here.


  1. Were they counting the married couples with children as "sexually active?" Because that's just not likely to be accurate, unless you've got a loose definition of that ;-).

    1. Not a stat I want to hear at this point in my life. Not. at. all.

      Anyway, you did reveal an interesting typo there. Technically they asked if the women were "sexually experienced" (I can't say that without hearing Jimmy Hendrix in my head), which apparently encompasses anything greater than zero. That became one of the criticisms of the study, that technically if a woman had sex even once, and used a condom, she was now in the 98% group. Apparently some people objected to this becoming a binary issue.

      Ah well, there are 10 kinds of people in this world...those who understand binary, and those who don't.