Friday, September 23, 2005

Weasel Words

Many other great bloggers already ranted about the NYTimes piece: Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood. From my standpoint (and I am echoing others) all this piece shows is that rich, privileged women will choose to stay home and raise their kids. So what?

The women they are counting on to lead society are likely to marry men who will make enough money to give them a real choice about whether to be full-time mothers, unlike those women who must work out of economic necessity.

My friend, Emma, also pointed out that the article really only illustrates that a small portion of the society is getting richer.

But, the best criticism I have seen of this article is from Slate Magazine. Go check out Jack Shafer's article, "Weasel Words Rip My Flesh!." The weasel words at issue her in this piece are many, few and some. Here is a snippet:

None of these many's quantify anything. You could as easily substitute the word some for every many and not gain or lose any information. Or substitute the word few and lose only the wind in Story's sails. By fudging the available facts with weasel-words, Story makes a flaccid concept stand up—as long as nobody examines it closely.

For instance, Story writes that she interviewed "Ivy League students, including 138 freshman and senior females at Yale who replied to e-mail questions sent to members of two residential colleges over the last school year." Because she doesn't attribute the preparation of the e-mail survey to anyone, one must assume that she or somebody at the Times composed and sent it. A questionnaire answered by 138 Yale women sounds like it may contain useful information. But even a social-science dropout wouldn't consider the findings to be anything but anecdotal unless he knew 1) what questions were asked (Story doesn't say), 2) how many questionnaires were distributed, and 3) why freshman and seniors received the questionnaires to the exclusion of sophomores and juniors. Also, 4) a social-science dropout would ask if the Times contaminated its e-mailed survey with leading questions and hence attracted a disproportionate number of respondents who sympathize with the article's underlying and predetermined thesis.

To say Story's piece contains a thesis oversells it. Early on, she squishes out on the whole concept with the weasel-word seems. She writes, "What seems to be changing is that while many women in college two or three decades ago expected to have full-time careers, their daughters, while still in college, say they have already decided to suspend or end their careers when they have children."

To say the piece was edited would also be to oversell it. Story rewrites this seems sentence about two-thirds of the way through the piece without adding any new information. "What seems new is that while many of their mothers expected to have hard-charging careers, then scaled back their professional plans only after having children, the women of this generation expect their careers to take second place to child rearing." [Emphasis added.]

Halfway through, Story discounts her allegedly newsworthy findings by acknowledging that a "person's expectations at age 18 are less than perfect predictors of their life choices 10 years later." If they're less than perfect predictors, then why are we reading about their predictions on Page One of the Times?

While bogus, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood" isn't false: It can't be false because it never says anything sturdy enough to be tested (my emphasis).

Why get drawn into the trap set up by this article and claim that these women are "male identified" or "regressive." Much better to show that the entire article is an example of the Emperor having no clothes.