Fidgety Boys and the Economy: Bad Social Science Journalism at Its Best

Gather your patience and decoder rings because a recent New York Times article is a remarkable case of botched social science journalism starting with this headline - A Link Between Fidgety Boys and a Sputtering Economy.  I might have left this curious claim alone if it hadn't popped up on the top of the paper's Most Emailed list.

After reading the headline my mind started spinning explanations for the connection between fidgety boys and a sputtering economy:

Is there a link between ADHD and the recent economic downturn? 
Are boys who can't sit still responsible for the high unemployment numbers? 
Should Fed Chair Janet Yellen fixate on Adderall  instead of interest rates?  

I eagerly plunged into the opening paragraph hoping to find answers about fidgety boys and the sick job market:
The behavior gap between rich and poor children, starting at very early ages, is now a well-known piece of social science. Entering kindergarten, high-income children not only know more words and can read better than poorer children but they also have longer attention spans, better-controlled tempers and more sensitivity to other children.
Rich and poor children. A well-known behavior gap. If it was so well-known how come despite years of reading and producing social science literature I couldn't readily identify which behaviors the author meant? Yes the school readiness skills are well-known but the others? The provided link leads to an article in The Economist about universal pre-school, thus no research study or even an article reporting on the supposedly well-known research findings. 

Back to the poor kids. What do disadvantaged kids who aren't ready for school and can't control their tempers have to do with fidgety boys and the economy? The New York Times journalist attempted to clarify:
All of which (i.e. the poor kids) makes the comparisons between boys and girls in the same categories fairly striking: The gap in behavioral skills between young girls and boys is even bigger than the gap between rich and poor.
Boys have it even worse than poor kids! Still, I wasn't sure what this had to do with fidgeting or the recession. I get it, boys do worse than girls on a number of academic measures. Well-known, fine and I'll forget for now that boys in general outperform girls on some measures but still, how do boys who do poorly in school muck up the economy?
And in an economy that rewards knowledge, the academic struggles of boys turn into economic struggles. Men’s wages are stagnating. Men are much more likely to be idle — neither working, looking for work nor caring for family — than they once were and much more likely to be idle than women.
Okay so it seems boys (who fidget) get bad grades then end up as men with bad jobs or no jobs. They do worse economically than women (excusing for the moment that men in general out-earn women). Mind you, there is no empirical evidence presented or links to any such research anywhere in this article so I'm piecing this argument together.

Again, what do low-paying jobs (and the once-fidgety boys in them?) have to do with the country's overall ailing economy? The article offers this vague solution in lieu of clarification:
If the United States is going to build a better-functioning economy than the one we’ve had over the last 15 years, we’re going to have to solve our boy problems.
Boys are to blame for the poor-functioning economy? Boys who can't sit still? Please, do put it another way...
 To put it another way, the American economy — for all its troubles (and all of the lingering sexism) — looks to be doing pretty well when you focus on girls. The portion of women earning a four-year college degree has jumped more than 75 percent over the last quarter-century, in line with what has happened in other rich countries. Median inflation-adjusted female earnings are up almost 35 percent over the same span, census data show — while male earnings, incredibly, haven’t risen at all.
Seriously I felt like I had ADHD, I could barely concentrate on this convoluted, imprecise social scientific theorizing and that's before I even got to Gender Roles:
“Boys are getting the wrong message about what you need to do to be successful,” (Claudia Buchmann*, Professor of Sociology, The Ohio State University) says. “Traditional gender roles are misguiding boys. In today’s economy, being tough and being strong are not what leads to success.”
Tough and strong? Gender roles? How did we end up here? I hold a certificate in Women's Studies and did research on gender (and ethnic) discrimination and stereotypes but now I'm lost. I didn't think fidgeting was part of the male stereotype. Please, Dr. Braun, what about fidgeting, the not sitting still? Are we teaching boys to be tough, strong and fidgety? I thought the latter was more a product of testosterone and brain development than socio-culturally-induced stereotypes and such. So girls get the message to pay attention and learn something in school but boys don't? The logic of this article defies easy explanation. Boys can't sit still when they get to school but then we teach them they don't have to sit still and that they should be tough and strong and not worry about their school work and grades?

The closing paragraph contains an oblique reference to "the demise of factories" so I'm left to surmise being tough and strong (and fidgety?) is no longer a valued asset because manufacturing has moved out of the United States, now a knowledge-based or service-based economy. Fine. But again, I'm not quite sure what this means for fidgety boys? That all the boys who struggled in school would have ended up in the factories but since so many have been closed, the once-fidgety have no jobs? Is there a link between ADHD and low-paying jobs? Probably but nowhere does this article elucidate this point. In fact, this article does little to elucidate any link, if one exists, between fidgeting and economic woes. It certainly offers no evidence of a link between fidgeting or even poor school readiness and the weak economy.

Boys might be fidgety and the economy might be sputtering but there is no direct link between the two. There's a series of factors between boys not sitting in their desks and the US economy. It's like sixteen degrees of separation. This holds even if we assume fidgeting is a proxy for poor academic performance.

It's unfortunate that I had to spend this much of our time trying to figure out what this article and journalist intended. It shouldn't have to take so much effort. But here goes, if I had to state what should have been the central arguments of the article (or were meant to be) it would go something like this:

Boys enter school struggling to keep up with girls. They lack key academic and social skills that give girls the advantage. By high school and college, the low-performing boys are falling way behind their peers, both girls and high-performing boys. In the job market they end up in low-wage jobs. In decades past these young men would have found work in factories but due to the loss of manufacturing base here in the US they now struggle to find employment in our current knowledge-based, service-based economy. In order to remedy this situation we are going to have to figure out how schools (if not society) undermines low-performing (fidgety?) boys.

This is one of those loosely defended, loosely pieced together, loosey goosey-social-science pieces that I try to ignore because unraveling its irrational, ambiguous or unsupported twists and turns takes some time and tries my patience. To understand how it went wrong, it's necessary to impose some order on it and that entails clarifying the hidden or unclear assumptions, the misinterpreted or missing evidence and even figuring out what the author probably meant but didn't clearly write.

Why did I waste time on it? Not only is it making the rounds in social media, it's got the full backing of one of the most respected news organizations in the world. It's the kind of reporting I expect in the HuffPo or a Psych 101 paper (never taught Journo 101 so can't comment). Moreover such an article rife with vague theories and claims contributes to the sentiment that social scientists haven't learned anything for sure.

*Buchmann is a co-author of a new report The Secret Behind College Completion: Girls, Boys, and The Power of Eighth Grade Grades released by Third Way, a Washington-based think tank. Seriously, The Secret? Is this Oprah's new offering or a research-based paper to impress policy makers? And why is it a secret? Maybe we have to know the secret handshake to learn it or maybe we need a decoder ring. Now that would make it worth reading.


Anonymous said...

Forgive me for being anonymous but you know with the Donald Sterling thing and all ...

"In order to debunk the mess"

By your own admission you do not understand it, but you have already committed to an interest in debunking it rather than supporting it. Why is that, and is that consistent with the principles of academic peer review?

"What do disadvantaged kids who aren't ready for school and can't control their tempers have to do with fidgety boys and the economy?"

It is relatively simple. If half the population disproportionately underperforms academically, it threatens our future economic prospects.

"They do worse economically than women (excusing for the moment that men in general out-earn women)."

Ah, you reveal your interest in debunking this article. The reality is in the current generation, the one that reflects declining male academic performance, women outearn men in urban areas. Down the line, as older men who completed college or mastered trades leave the workforce - and in particular the managerial ranks - and are replaced with college educated women, the wage gap will not only disappear but reverse itself. Note this: "By high school, even advanced math and science classes now have more girls than boys." 20 years from now, when those STEM-educated females are managers and their undereducated brothers are chronically unemployed or underemployed, you will see what that will mean for the wage gap and the overall economy.

"Boys might be fidgety and the economy might be sputtering but there is no direct link between the two."

Wrong. There is a real shortage of skilled, educated labor in some areas, and it has harmed our productivity and economy. So the lagging educational performance of males has already harmed the labor supply and economy. Expect more of this to happen in the future.

Incidentally, a microcosm already exists: the black community. The same issues with male underperformance that occurred in the last generation in the black community is only now manifesting itself in the culture at large. When the problem was limited to black males, the cause was attributed to various forms of racism (institutional etc.) as well as a decline in semi-skilled and unskilled factory and agricultural jobs to automation and overseas and generally dismissed. But make no mistake: losing a huge portion of its workforce economically devastated the black community. Now it appears that the mainstream is experiencing the beginnings of what started to happen in black communities in the 1960s. These authors expect a version of what happened in the black community already to happen in the larger community a couple of decades down the line.

Anonymous said...

The issue is that what you presume to be lacking in this article, its writers assume to be known already with no need of documenting. The debate over the declining academic performance of boys has been going on since conservative scholars and activists like Hoff Summers (quoted in the article) identified it in the early 1990s. The works of Hoff Summers and similar have been quoted in the New York Times and other mainstream and academic sources many a time for years, so they did not give any attention to "If it was so well-known how come despite years of reading and producing social science literature" sort of claims. The American Association of University Women stated (decades ago) that declining academic achievement of males is not a public policy issue. Naturally, mothers and fathers of sons struggling in school are not satisfied with the future prospects of their progeny being cavalierly dismissed (as two generations of black males apparently were) so "Elaine Kamarck, a resident scholar at Third Way and a former Clinton administration official" (and by the way, a link to their research appears in the article, which you were more than welcome to peruse and debunk) represents a feminist response to an issue that conservatives have dominated until now (with exceptions being Susan Faludi's "Stiffed", published in 1999, and Hannah Rosin's more recent "The End of Men"). Conservatives have used this issue to successfully press for (among other things) all male charter schools, so there has been a need for some feminists to acknowledge that "well as long as the gender pay gap exists there is no real problem" denialism is not nearly enough to prevent the issue from driving policy changes, so the report from Third Way represents an attempt to shift the debate back to traditional feminist terms and arrive at solutions that most feminists can live with. For feminists, such biologically deterministic arguments as "I thought the latter was more a product of testosterone and brain development than socio-culturally-induced stereotypes and such" is not suitable, because that creates a situation where male problems are due to biology and female problems are due to discriminatory gender constructs. Debunk all you want, but to most (again especially the parents of sons) that is going to be viewed as a blatant hypocritical double standard, and the single-sex charter school (and other anti-feminist solutions proposed by the Hoff Summers crowd) will win the day.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Anonymous,

True, I didn't understand the headline. I didn't understand what was meant by the link. There are many unclear assumptions being made in the article

Half the population underperforms? You mean boys? Obviously we could do a "He Does, She Does" on this all day. Boys both underperform and outperform girls. We could perform the battle of the worst-off gender.

A direct link between fidgeting and the health of the economy? It is very very indirect, it is not a direct link. Show me the evidence. Evidence that inattention, Iimpulsivity or fidgeting is directly linked to the poor US economy. I'm not an economist, but boys not sitting still in school has not led to the downfall of the economy. They may not fare well but they have not created the situation.

I get your points about a certain portion of the male population being mis-served or undervalued. I get the changing nature of the economy.

Anyhow if this article had been written more clearly we wouldn't even have had to had this conversation. We probably don't much disagree on the more important points here.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Anonymous, Again,

We could argue about what is a sufficient level of detail in a news article but let's not go there.

I agree there are many measures on which males in general do poorly but as I'm sure you're aware on a number of these financial and educational ones it is not uncommon to find men (or boys) at the top of the outcome, men at the bottom and women wedged in the middle.

Sarah Hughes said...

Great post Polly!! As the mom of a fidgety almost kindergartener I would like to say that blaming boys for the demise of the economy is like comparing apples to oranges!

andreariley said...

Wait, so which of the Lehman Brothers was fidgety?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Andrea, you don't remember Dick "Fidgety" Fuld? I hear the medical marijuana helps his poor impulse control.

andreariley said...


Jennifer Fink said...

I wrote about the NYT article too:

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Jennifer. Thanks for sharing, look forward to reading more on your blog!