Ruth: On June 22nd, we noted a story from Morning Edition entitled "Fewer Boys Being Born in America" (which aired June 21st). The story was a simplified look at an issue. Complaints came in, as Morning Edition noted in "Letters: Scientists and Single Women, Sherpa Anatomy" on June 23rd. (We noted both here and here.)
On July 18th, Morning Edition addressed the issue.
Examining Environmental Factors in Sex Ratio
by Richard Knox
Morning Edition, July 18, 2005 · Could gender be determined by anything other than biological factors? One medical researcher says that when women have a child without a live-in male partner, the odds are tipped slightly against having a boy.
So how did they do? (Mr. Knox was the reporter on the 18th of July as well as on the original report.)
I wish I could say that after all that time, they finally did a great job.
While it's certainly true that they didn't dismiss environmental toxins this time, it's also true that since listeners complained about the dismissal last time, they needed to do a better job in this "correction." They didn't.
"Many people wrote in to say that they just couldn't believe these numbers."
Many people wrote in (listen to Renee's comments when Morning Edition addressed the e-mails on the original story) to say that they couldn't believe such a complex issue was so oversimplified.
But focusing on the "numbers" allowed for distraction in this "correction" report.
"There is a male bias at birth." Yes, there is. Yes, there always has been. The "study" didn't break new ground there.
To speak of the study, Mr. Knox interviews Dr. Karen Norberg "of Washington University" who becomes the first, and thus far last woman, to be featured in this two-part story about pregnancies.
Dr. Norberg did the study. She also made the hypothesis. She's not surprised that people are skeptical. People might be more skeptical if they were aware that her work was funded by an economic think tank but NPR doesn't feel the need to identify the think tank or to mention it.
Let's address the hypothesis which can be summed up as "boys are less likely to be born to mothers who were not living with a man at the time of conception." Since a female fetus needs far fewer calories than a male fetus (a male fetus, according to the NPR report, requires 10,000 more calories than a female), might we wonder about the cuts in government aid? We might, but Morning Edition doesn't.
Dr. Norberberg's study is based on . . . Well, we just don't know what it's based upon. At times we hear or read comments on the years immediately following WWII (such as 1946) and yet it's billed as a study of "over forty years." Fifty-fine is "over forty," yes. It's also "over fifty." It's also "close to sixty." You can also find discrephencies in the "based on 80,000 births" that Mr. Knox reports which differs in other media. Britain's The Economist and and the BBC, to give only two examples, covered Dr. Norberg and her study last fall. Morning Edition came to the party late and empty handed.
Dr. Norberg refers to parents who have different results based on whether they're married or not for each birth. Is she truly arguing that she's studying the same couples? That's not what the study suggests. Yet she infers that "parents" who weren't living together gave birth to a girl and that when later living together gave birth to a boy. (Consider this is her study, her comments are surprisingly lacking in statistics.)
Dr. Norberg hypothesis argues a sort of generational evolution. She uses the phrase "feast or famine" and suggests that it's genetically programmed. Since Mr. Knox isn't up to asking about the cuts in government programs (that, for instance, may lead to a lot less "famine"), listeners are left with the impression that this is just how it is.
Is that really the case? One of the things that The Common Ills stresses is common sense. So let's apply some common sense. Supporters of Dr. Norberg's work want to argue (listen to the original report) that this is an emerging crisis. If this is genetic, programmed into our species from years and years of evolution, it can't also be argued to be an emerging crisis. Common sense? Mr. Knox appears to have sent his on a summer vacation from which it will, hopefully, return rested and with a nice summer tan. For those of us who haven't sent our common sense on vacation or out to be dry cleaned, the idea that Morning Edition can report the findings in June as a potential emerging crisis and then this month report the findings as genetic means we see that it can't be both. If Dr. Norberg, the author of the study, wants to argue "generations and generations," then we aren't speaking of an emerging pattern, let alone a crisis.
Allow me to elaborate. Mr. Knox should have clarified that when this "correction" or "clarification" report was being put together. For those who've forgotten or missed the original segment, this crisis is going to lead to more women not able to find males to marry as "researcher" Steve Orzach "informed" us. (As I commented previously, the original report was concerned only with straight couples who reproduce. Nothing has changed in Mr. Knox's latest report.) Those wanting to cry "crisis" should have focused on causes such as the living standards.
The problems with the original story are not addressed. Someone is briefly given a moment to speak about environmental toxins. Then the discussion is turned over to the author of the study. The issue of an emerging crisis is never addressed because it can't be. Dr. Norberg is arguing this is genetically wired into the species. If that is the case, no emerging crisis exists. "Researcher" Steve Orzach's comments, which were offensive and the reason for many of the complaints to NPR, are allowed to stand. Dr. Norberg isn't asked to weigh in on what the "researcher" offered in the earlier report.
When I started working on this report originally, it was a common sense based chat. Then, since I have sons who are doctors, I started showing it to them. They'd add a bit here and a bit there. With each bit, the Morning Edition Report was becoming something other than what it should be. So much so that Tracey spoke to her mother. My daughter-in-law asked to read over it.
She wisely told me to start over. She pointed out I had done just what had bothered me so much about Morning Edition's original report: I had relied on male voices, I had relied not on common sense but statistics. As she told me, "You're responding in a way that negates your original criticism and I'm not sure that most people reading will be able to follow the science."
I thank her for that very wise counsel and I thank my granddaughter Tracey for seeing the problem as well. It all added up to one tsorah after another as I repeatedly started over but common sense is the hallmark of this site. My sons were disappointed as comments and studies disappeared with each new draft. Of course I'm very proud of them and I appreciate their help.
There's also no denying that everything that went into any draft resulted in some manner in what's appearing in the final draft.
But Morning Edition blew common sense out of the water (as Tracey pointed out) and if that's my criticism, then I should argue from a common sense stand point.
In Mr. Knox's original report, males were brought on weighing in on this emerging crisis and blaming single mothers. There is no emerging crisis that's resulting from behaviors. If there's a change, the answer is to provide a better living standard for all Americans. That's a point that Morning Edition has still refused to address. They've yet to address that the marriage crisis offered by a "researcher" is not a crisis. They've yet to address that every male child and every female child born will not pair up. Some won't pair up at all. Some will pair up with opposite genders, some with the same, and some will intermingle.
Dr. Norberg's argument is based on nutrition and calories. Neither she nor any other person speaking to Mr. Knox has yet to address the issue of our living standard in this country or the increased numbers of persons living below the poverty line.
Less hand wringing by male "researchers" pushing the marriage myth of the late eighties might allow for the time to address the issues of nutrition and starvation. Though Mr. Knox appears unaware of it, in this country, we do have people living at starvation levels.
A serious discussion of environmental toxins could have added to the story but apparently pressure from listeners leads not to a discussion on that topic but instead to a sound byte. Whether that was to avoid offending the many chemical manufacturors that underwrite so much of NPR's programming or not is something I'll leave to others to decide.
When I began cutting down on the medical jargon and scientific theories in my drafts, my eldest son felt that one point had to be included. He found a common sense source that hopefully adds to this critique:
Professor Andrew Reid, spokesman for the British Society for Human Genetics, told BBC News that in the general population it was thought that roughly 106 boys were born for every 100 girls.
"It is thought this is nature's way of compensating for the fact that boys are more likely to die in infancy because there are genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy which almost entirely affect boys," he said.
Professor Reid said it was possible that the reason for the difference highlighted in the study was that people who do not live together tended to have intercourse at different times to those who do.
It is known that children who are conceived from intercourse that occurs exactly on the day of ovulation are more likely to be sons than children who are conceived from intercourse two to four days before ovulation.
That's from a BBC report. And it aired in October of 2004. Why NPR waited so long to address the study is an unknown.
But did you hear anything on those topics in the latest report? No, you do not. You're not aware of that from Mr. Knox's reports. What of the fact that couples might have intercourse at different times?
If a woman is in a relationship and living with a man and if they are planning to have a child, would her starting ovulation not prompt the couple to have intercourse?
Yes, it most likely would. My youngest son pointed out there are a whole host of factors that aren't brought into the discussion. He also wondered why the proponent of the hypothesis was given air time but no one disputing her hypothesis was?
NPR received a large number of complaints about Mr. Knox's original story. That's why we got the report last week. As a clarification or a correction Mr. Knox's latest report is still insufficient.
Focusing on Dr. Norberg does allow the study to be discussed. It also allows the "I guess" and "you know" claims of "researchers" from the original report to stand.
The clarification or correction only compounded the problems from the original report.
While I was focusing on this, Diane Rehm had a discussion on the Patriot Act featuring David Cole and Viet Dinh. Though I discussed that episode of The Diane Rehm Show with Gina and Krista for their round-robin last week, I'll note here that while Mr. Cole argued against some provisions of the Patriot Act, Mr. Dinh argued they were needed, additional laws. Yet when a caller phoned in to make the obvious point that fire arms were exempt from the Patriot Act, Mr. Dihn argued that there were already enough laws that govern fire arms. Yes, and there were already enough laws that could be used to prosecute terrorists. The defensive nature of Mr. Dihn's comments when questioned by the caller, and the sarcasm he resorted to, suggests that he's fully aware that he's attempting to have it both ways.