John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who's your daddy?

Say it three times: Correlation does not equal causation.

A headline at read, “No More ‘I dos’? Unwed births spike.”

The second half of the headline is what the article appears to be mainly about, an increase in births to unmarried women, especially to women beyond their teens.

The first half of the headline tries to get in a second angle from the article, that unspecified sociologists see “a lackadaisical attitude toward the tradition of marriage in Europe and the U.S.” Unfortunately, as the article also points out, the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “didn't look at cohabitation rates, so it's impossible to tell how many of these unwed mothers in 2007 were actually living with the fathers of their children.”

This is the kind of journalism that ought to be driving people nuts. It is a superficial attempt to address two complex issues that are intertwined, and the headline, as is often the case, reflects the confusion of the article.

If fewer and fewer people are getting married but are still procreating, then the number of births to unmarried women will increase. At that level, the headline is simple-minded and obvious. No news here, folks. Move along.

If the story were trying to tell us something about marriage, that more and more people are living together without getting married, that’s not much of a shocker, either.

The correlation would be more useful if the article could supply the cohabitation statistics that the study did not gather. If more and more people are engaging in long-term cohabitation — what we used to call common-law marriage — and are raising children together, then the impact on children of unwed mothers is quite different and the decline in marriages less significant.

This article and its headline would have been stronger if they had stuck to the subject about which they have information rather than mere theorizing.

(I was tempted to use as my headline Edmund’s Line from Lear, “Now gods, stand up for bastards,” but discretion prevailed. You might not like the substitute any better.)


  1. "General Grant Still Dead."

    I think this is all about the greatly increased demand for news, to the point that it must be concocted out of the obvious, if nothing else can be done.

  2. This reminds me of the causation fallacy example from my stats course that cited a correlation between a rise in the birth rate and an increase in the number of stork nests.

    To your posting, it appears as if ABC was having a sloooow news day.

  3. Just this morning, I heard a TV report that children of depressed mothers sleep poorly. They did not consider the possibility that children who are up half the night beget depression in their mothers.

  4. This does drive me crazy. I'm prone to reading two paragraphs of an article and then stopping since many articles seem to ramble off topic quickly or are similar to your example.