Iain Duncan-Smith on how to misuse research evidence

// 20 May 2008

The HFEA continues to provoke debate. But on this morning’s Today programme Iain Duncan-Smith (former Conservative leader) gave us an object-lesson in misusing evidence grossly.

His argument was that there was “overwhelming evidence” that children need fathers (I’ll talk about the basis of that evidence later). Now IDS never explains what he means by a “father” and whether he is referring to a male gamete donor (i.e. a biological father) or someone fulfulling the male role of care-giver and how that role is constructed. IDS talks as if the notion of a “father” is straightforward when obviously, in the context of IVF if nothing else, it isn’t that simple. Is a “father” necessarily about the biological parenting? Is it about a male care-giver? Is it about a male role-model?

Now I am all in favour of good parenting by male role models, I have a fab father. But I don’t agree that we can fetishise simply the presence of a male care-giver as enough. His argument is about the need for a “father” (whatever that means) to be present. Not that he should be engaged or involved just that he should be “present”. IDS’s argument is entirely based on ideas that “absent fathers” are creating social problems. My response? You don’t have to be physically removed to be an “absent” father. Absenteeism here is a symptom of the real problem which is men not taking their responsibility seriously. Lets look at the examples he gives:

  • Decline of quality of life after male parent leaves – IDS says this is about “absent” fathers, I say it’s about men deciding they can walk away from their responsibilities as care givers.
  • educational failures connection with “broken” homes – IDS says this is about “absent” fathers, I say it’s about men not supporting, encouraging or being involved. It’s about the distress caused when men don’t fulfil their responsibilities to parent.

The issue here isn’t whether men are physically present, it’s whether they are living up to their responsibilities. And so it isn’t enough to fetishise a “present” father (not least as women have to manage a damn sight more than just being there). Is a father who is present but abusive therefore “OK” because at least he isn’t absent? What about a father who is present by a drug user or an alcoholic? Does his corporeal presence actually have that big an impact that he doesn’t need to speak, engage with or support his child(ren)?

Additionally IDS’s entire evidence base is research done by the Centre for Social Justice, a conservative think tank (at least with a small, if not a capital C). They make the same sort of claims such as:

“If you have experienced family breakdown, you are 75% more likely to fail at school, 70% more likely to be a drug addict and 50% more likely to have alcohol problems.” (From here.

The implication of causality (above correlation) is problematic. Yes the fact might be true but family breakdown isn’t enough of an explanation. Is the problem that a parent leaves or is the problem the strife and issues that also caused the breakdown in the first place? Is what disrupts educational performance the departure at the end of a situation or the situation itself. Oversimplification and, frankly, misuse of evidence just patronises people – as IDS himself did where he declared he wasn’t convinced that most people “understood the evidence”. Sorry Iain, seems like you’re one of them.

Comments From You

Jess // Posted 20 May 2008 at 12:56 pm

“If you have experienced family breakdown, you are 75% more likely to fail at school, 70% more likely to be a drug addict and 50% more likely to have alcohol problems.”

So annoying – thanks very much, but I’ve experienced family breakdown, managed to do pretty damn well in school (in fact, the only thing I remember actually failing was a French exam in year 9 – hardly crushing educational defeat). As for drug and alcohol problems, I think you’d find a survey of the Tory party would make an interesting comparison to my alcohol and other drug consumption.

But, hey, look, I also had love and support from an (almost-entirely-female) network of family and friends. Oh, yes, and lack of economic hardship – that might have a tiny something to do with it, eh?

Cara // Posted 20 May 2008 at 1:13 pm

“You don’t have to be physically removed to be an “absent” father.”

Too right. I had one of those, worked 8 till 8…played golf all weekend…you get the idea.

As for school failure and drugs/ alcohol – surely the kind of families that have those kind of problems anyway, call them dysfunctional if you like, are more likely to “break up”.

Sabre // Posted 20 May 2008 at 2:33 pm

Well said Louise! My father died when I was 17, but he had been emotionally absent for many many years before, and I actually found myself grieving for the father I never really had rather than the physical person who had died. So it really annoys me when people assume that the superficial physical presence of both father and mother automatically equates to happy children. It doesn’t. As a child I often used to wish my parents would divorce. Despite my experiences I do strongly believe that it’s essential to have male role models in a child’s life . I just don’t believe this has to be a live-in father figure.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 21 May 2008 at 3:26 pm

What’s to bet that the the number one thing that links all those statistics is poverty. I read somewhere that the number one cause of marriage breakdown is stress over money- but I definitely know that there is a direct link between poverty and problem drug-taking (which is what they are talking about), alcoholism and failure in education.

Jacky // Posted 21 May 2008 at 7:24 pm

A lot of women and children might argue that when domestic violence stops family life improves dramatically, and stopping it usually involves the father’s absence, which is a great relief for everyone else.

sian // Posted 24 May 2008 at 12:47 pm

i actually interviewed ids on this subject for the guardian (still waiting on publication which is a pain) and he was absoutely odd on the subject. he said there was a conspiracy in the corridors of power to undermine the role of the father and that i had to look deeper in to the corridors to find out where this had originated. he was awfully cunning though, as he said that he believed if you are a man, and have a child, then you have to have responsibility for that child, which i agree with. but not in the case if IVF, which is what he was saying.

however, he was a lot politer than widdecombe, who snapped and hung up on me.

i was invited to write for the fatherless family piece in the guardian but sadly i was on holiday and missed the boat, oh well!

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