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lecture this Sunday…

Why People Behave Badly

with Dr. Barbara Oakley

Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall (map)

One of the most difficult problems in the social sciences is understanding why some people intentionally inflict emotional and physical pain on others. Such intentional pain occurs not only on a local level — within families, with “friends,” or in work situations, but also on a national and international scale — Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, and Chairman Mao’s slaughter of millions. Neuroscience is providing the potential for a revolution in our understanding of why “bad” people do what they do…

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In this week’s eSkeptic, in the midst of the gay marriage controversy sweeping across the nation (as individual states are changing their constitutional minds about what constitutes marriage), we present an interesting article by Barrett Brown that demolishes the silly notion proffered by some conservatives that gay marriage decreases straight marriage rates.

Barrett Brown is the author of Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny and serves as director of communications for Enlighten the Vote, a political action committee dedicated to promoting the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. His work has appeared in dozens of publications including National Lampoon, The Onion A.V. Club, McSweeney’s, American Atheist, and The Fortean Times.


Adventures in Math & Marriage
or, Why Gay Marriage Does Not
Decrease Straight Marriage

by Barrett Brown

Does the legalization of gay marriage contribute to the decline of heterosexual marriage? A good portion of our fair republic’s cultural conservatives seem to believe that it does. Evangelical kingpin James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, told a typically credulous Larry King in November of 2006:

In the Netherlands and places where they have tried to define marriage [to include gay couples], what happens is that people just don’t get married. It’s not that the homosexuals are marrying in greater numbers, it’s that when you confuse what marriage is, young people just don’t get married.

If what Dobson says is true, New Jersey is going to be in huge trouble, and Massachusetts, which legalized gay marriage in 2004, must already be. Of course, Dobson is wrong. Here’s why.

First, let’s think about this problem mathematically and prepare our variables. X is any country “where they have tried to define marriage [to include gay couples],” in Dobson’s description. Y is the marriage rate among heterosexuals before country X has “tried to define marriage [to include gay couples],” and Z is the allegedly decreasing heterosexual marriage rate that exists after ten years of gay civil unions. The Dobson Theorem, as we shall call it, states that “if X, then Y must be greater than Z.” Or, translating math into English, “if a nation allows for civil unions, the marriage rate among heterosexuals at the time that this occurs will be higher than it is ten years later.”

Let us now test the Dobson Theorem. Like most things with variables, the Dobson Theorem requires that X be substituted for various things that meet the parameters of X—in this case, northern European countries. Luckily, Dr. Dobson himself has provided us with some data. During the Larry King interview, Dobson mentioned Norway and “other Scandinavian countries” as fitting the description. We’ll also need values to punch in for Y and Z. These may be obtained from all of the countries in question, which have famously nosy governments. Conveniently enough, these numbers may also be obtained from the October 26, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, where William N. Eskridge, Jr., the John A. Garver professor of jurisprudence at Yale University, and Darren Spedale, a New York investment banker, penned an editorial based on their new book entitled Gay Marriage: For Better or For Worse? What We’ve Learned From the Evidence.

According to Eskridge and Garver, Denmark began allowing gay civil unions in 1989. Ten years later, the heterosexual marriage rate had increased by 10.7 percent. Norway did the same in 1993, and a decade later the heterosexual marriage rate had increased by 12.7 percent. Sweden followed suite in 1995, and ten years later the heterosexual marriage rate had increased by 28.7 percent. And these marriages were actually lasting. During the same time frame, the divorce rate dropped 13.9 percent in Denmark, 6 percent in Norway, and 13.7 percent in Sweden. So, we may probably dispense with the Dobson Theorem. But how did Dobson get this relationship so wrong in the first place?

The culprit may be the Weekly Standard and National Review gadfly Stanley Kurtz, who took issue with Garver and Eskridge’s preliminary findings back in 2004, before they were published. Confronted with statistics indicating that marriage in Scandinavia is in fine shape, Kurtz instead proclaimed that “Scandinavian marriage is now so weak that statistics on marriage and divorce no longer mean what they used to.” Brushing aside numbers showing that Danish marriage was up ten percent from 1990 to 1996, Kurtz countered that “just-released marriage rates for 2001 show declines in Sweden and Denmark.” He failed to note that they were down in 2001 for quite a few places, including the United States, which of course had no civil unions anywhere in 2001. And having not yet had access to the figures, he couldn’t have known that both American and Scandinavian rates went back up in 2002. As for Norway, he says, the higher marriage rate “has more to do with the institution’s decline than with any renaissance. Much of the increase in Norway’s marriage rate is driven by older couples ‘catching up.’” It’s unclear exactly how old these “older couples” may be, but at any rate, Kurtz thinks their marriages simply don’t count. But even if we arbitrarily strike such nuptials from the record, we’re still left with an increase in Norway’s marriage rate, as Kurtz himself acknowledges that these oldster nuptials only constitute “much” of the increase, not all of it or even most of it. So Kurtz’s position is that Norwegian marriage is in decline because not only are younger couples getting married at a higher rate, but older couples are as well.

Kurtz applies a similar level of statistical acumen to divorce rates. “It’s true that in Denmark, as elsewhere in Scandinavia, divorce numbers looked better in the nineties,” he wrote. “But that’s because the pool of married people has been shrinking for some time. You can’t divorce without first getting married.” This is true. It’s also true that Denmark has a much lower divorce rate than the United States as a percentage of married couples, a method of calculation that makes the size of the married people pool irrelevant. Denmark’s percentage is 44.5, while the United States is at 54.8 percent. Incidentally, those numbers come from the Heritage Foundation, which also sponsors reports on the danger that gay marriage poses to the heterosexual marriage rate.

Still, Kurtz is upset that many Scandinavian children are born out of wedlock. “About 60 percent of first-born children in Denmark now have unmarried parents,” he says. He doesn’t give us the percentage of second-born children who have unmarried parents, because that percentage is lower and would thus indicate that Scandinavian parents often marry after having their first child, as Kurtz himself later notes in the course of predicting that this will no longer be the case as gay civil unions continue to take their non-existent toll on Scandinavian marriage.

Since the rate by which Scandinavian couples have children before getting married has been rising for decades, it’s hard to see what this has to do with the more recent advent of gay marriage—unless, of course, you happen to be Stanley Kurtz. “Scandinavia’s out-of-wedlock birthrates may have risen more rapidly in the seventies, when marriage began its slide. But the push of that rate past the 50 percent mark during the nineties was in many ways more disturbing.” Of course it was more disturbing to Kurtz. By the mid-1990s, the Scandinavians had all instituted civil unions, and thus even the clear, long-established trajectory of such a trend as premature baby-bearing can be laid at the feet of the gays simply by establishing some arbitrary numerical benchmark that was probably going to be reached anyway, calling this milestone “in many ways more disturbing,” and hinting that all of this is somehow the fault of the gays.

By the same token, I can prove that the establishment of the Weekly Standard in 1995 has contributed to rampant world population growth. Sure, that population growth has been increasing steadily for decades, but the push of that number past the 6 billion mark in 2000 was “in many ways more disturbing” to me for some weird reason that I can’t quite pin down. Of course, this is faulty reasoning. One could just as reasonably argue that by virtue of its unparalleled support for the invasion of Iraq, the Weekly Standard has actually done its part to keep world population down.

Why is Kurtz so disturbed about out-of-wedlock rates? Personally, I think it would be preferable for a couple to have a child and then get married, as is more often the case in Scandinavia, rather than for a couple to have a child and then get divorced, as is more often the case in the United States. Kurtz doesn’t seem to feel this way, though, as it isn’t convenient to feel this way at this particular time. Here are all of these couples, he tells us, having babies without first filling out the proper baby-making paperwork with the proper federal agencies. What will become of the babies? As long as we’re looking at trend lines, we may conclude that they’ll continue to outperform their American counterparts in math and science, as they’ve been doing for quite a while.

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The Other ‘L’ Word: Why I am a Libertarian

Although the Skeptics Society is apolitical, Michael Shermer sometimes explores political and economic issues in his blog posts. In this week’s SkepticBlog, Shermer addresses critics by explaining why he is a Libertarian and what the ‘L’ word really means.

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While you’re there be sure to read the blog posts of the other Skepticbloggers: Brian Dunning, Kirsten Sanford, Mark Edward, Phil Plait, Ryan Johnson, Steven Novella, and Yau-Man Chan.



  1. Paul Beaird says:

    You did it! You actually came up with the way to prevent ALL gay marriages. If we followed the Scandinavian pattern, which is baby first, then marriage, why, that would effectively prevent all gay marriages. Brilliant! Since the purpose of marriage, according to the traditionalists is to foster procreation, well, the requirement that you have a baby before you can be given a marriage license, insists that you prove your intention to procreate. So, that’s it! Want to get married? Make a baby, then we’ll give you a license. Sorry, guy-guy and gal-gal.

    • Angela L says:

      The author said nothing about couples being required to have a baby before they get married. All he said is that it happens frequently in Scandanavia. I love how you just pulled something out of thin air that wasn’t in the article and used it to prove your point. Try to make your argument logical next time.

  2. michelle says:

    Opening up marriage for homosexuals will only help the conservative agenda.
    What they really mean is they dont like “the gays”, well if more are free to be gay then less homosexual men and women will procreate.Its no new thing for a homosexual to be in several heterosexual relationships including marriage and having children.
    Then its only a scant 15,000 to 20.000 years and boom!! no more evil gays, they are evolved right out.
    But i wonder if social conservatives will last that long?

  3. Chris Howard says:

    Okay, they can marry, just as long as they act straight in public.
    Does anyone know why the media (in general) doesn’t access the overwhelming body of sociological and psychological data (easily accessible to any college freshman with a text or access to JSTOR) that clearly shows 1) it has no effect on hetero marriages, and 2) has no significant differences with regard to raising children than heterosexual couples do?

    I guess since it isn’t PC to be a racist any longer one has to direct they’re ire towards easier targets.

  4. mrdamage says:

    I dont see what the problem with gay marriage is.

    After all, don’t they have just as much right to be as miserable as the rest of us?

  5. Rich says:

    I think that our (USA) government should not have gotten involved in the institution of marriage to begin with. Marriage is a religious institution and therefore should be left up to individual churches, synogogues, or whatever, to decide on who they will marry (gay, straight, plural, or whatever!).

  6. Chris Howard says:

    I too think that religions have the right to discriminate, the state isn’t saying that they can’t. The problem is that marriage is more than just a religious thing, it’s legal as well.
    Married couples get benefits that single people do not get, I guess it could be argued that we discriminate against single people?
    I have a friend who’s partner, for a decade, cheated on him and left him with fifty thousand dollars of joint debt, but since the courts didn’t recognize their union he had no legal recourse. (normally it would be considered “marital debt”) Gays and lesbians also have no family rights, so no decision making abilities if one partner becomes terminally ill, no insurance benefits should one partner die, or become sick.
    So, while it’s perfectly fine with me if religions discriminate against homosexuals, it’s not okay if my government does it, for the very same reason it shouldn’t have had Jim Crow Laws, or outlawed interracial marriages.
    It is a civil rights issue, with real-world practical, and important ramifications.

  7. Rich says:

    Chris Howard,

    I have a question. What is the difference between gay marriage and gay civil union?

    I agree that since various civil rights have been afforded to couples, that gays, plural, or whatever, should be given the same rights.

    This doesn’t change my first post that governments should have stayed out of marriage to begin with. If that means that married people should not get extra benefits for being married then that’s also included.

  8. Chris Howard says:

    That’s actually a good question, and I believe there’s a little linguistic skullduggery at work here (by the various interest groups, both for and against).
    I think (and I need to verify this, so grain of salt) marriage is a religious institution, whereas a civil union is a secular recognition of basically the same thing. One is sanctioned by God, God’s, Satan, insert deity of choice here, while the other is recognized by the state.
    I believe the state is concerned with rights of inheritance, property and taxation which is why they want a record of it, but I’m cynical when it comes to matters of state.
    I also believe that married people shouldn’t get special treatment, either, but I can understand, from a certain perspective, the idea of special recognition for families. I think the crux of the argument hinges upon how one defines a family.
    The history of the family, and marriage are interesting, form a sociological, historical and political perspective, but that’s another topic all together and I’ve only had one beer so far. ;-)

  9. kennwrite says:

    Gay marriage … another burden to the court system, primarily because just like heterosexual marriages, so many will come back to the courts as divorce settlements. It’d be easier to stomach gay marriages if we could just clean up the mess with the current state of broken heterosexual marriages. Nonetheless, why shouldn’t gays marry? I agree wholeheartedly with the previous comment that gays do have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us… .

  10. Micheal Kelley says:

    The article is well done. You did a great job in presenting your case. I agree with the person who distinguished between Marriage as a civil topic vs a religious topic. When religion gets involved in a topic, it tends to cloud the issues. We all do not view reality from the same religious lenses.

  11. Rich says:

    Chris Howard,

    Thanks! That response and answer to my question was nicely put.

  12. Chris Howard says:

    Any time, Rich.
    I hope it was usefull to you.

  13. Tabatha says:

    Marriage is a a union that is sanctioned by the law, that has certain rights and obligations. The law should be blind and not discriminate against any individual. Regardless of your sexual preference or religious beliefs, the law should apply equally to us all.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the previous comment that gays do have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us… .

  14. Kennypo65 says:

    Gay people can’t destroy marriage. When the divorce rate is as high as it is; to the point that in many states, if uncontested, a lawyer can quote you a flat rate for one, It is obvious to me that straight people have already cheapened it to the point that it is nearly meaningless.

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