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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who's your daddy?

Say it three times: Correlation does not equal causation.

A headline at ABC.com 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.)

A small gap in the language

Jeff McMahon’s Scorched Earth blog, in a link forwarded by one of my readers, is looking for a single word to identify the opposite of environmentalist.

We can identify people who call themselves environmentalists by a cluster of values and positions on public policy. And we can identify pejorative terms — tree-hugger, for example — used by people who do not share their values and oppose their positions.

But Mr. McMahon is right: We do not have a single, neutral term to describe people with an opposing point of view. He comments: “A colleague of mine in the education/slash/journalism field, Monica Westin, suggested “depletist” or “depletionist,” which might function as an opposite to conservationist, but doesn’t work as well when opposed to environmentalist. The problem with depletist, it seems to me, is that it should have its own opposite that means something like filler-upper.”

If you have any suggestions — keeping in mind that we’re looking for a term as neutral as environmentalist, not a pejorative — I’d be happy to forward them to Mr. McMahon.