Iain Duncan-Smith on how to misuse research evidence

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.