Warren Farrell’s Funny Footnote, and Where it Led Me
Men’s Rights elder Warren Farrell is fond of mentioning his academic past — he has taught at a number of colleges — and is not exactly shy about mentioning his Ph.D. (Check the covers of his books if you don’t believe me.) But the books he’s written are for the most part polemical “pop psychology” and “pop sociology” rather than academic works, and most don’t meet academic standards by a long shot.
How far they fall short of academic standards I didn’t fully realize until I started investigating a suspicious footnote in The Myth of Male Power.
While reading through the book I found myself having a little trouble believing one of Farrell’s factual claims. To be specific, the claim made on p. 283 that there is a “20:1 ratio at which schoolboys hit schoolgirls.”
That’s right. He’s claiming that schoolgirls hit schoolboys twenty times as often as schoolboys hit schoolgirls.
Farrell doesn’t identify the source of this astounding claim in the text, but he does footnote it. So I turned to the back of the book (p. 414) to find this listed as the source of Farrell’s “data”:
Based on a three-year observation (1989-92) of high school students by Elizabeth Brookins, chair of the Department of Mathematics, El Camino High School, Oceanside, California.
I was as bewildered by this as you no doubt are. He’s not citing a published and/or peer-reviewed study by a social scientist here. He’s citing a “three-year observation” of a high school math teacher? What on earth is a “three-year observation?”
From his footnote, any scholar trying to check his work would have no way to know whether this “data” came from personal observation or from a study, and if it came from a study, what the methodology of this study was, or even why a math teacher would be doing a social scientific study about interpersonal violence using her own students as research subjects.
On a hunch, I looked at the book’s acknowledgements and discovered that Elizabeth Brookins wasn’t simply some random high school math teacher: she was, and perhaps still is, a close friend of Farrell’s, credited as one of the three people who “helped me past the political cowardice that is PC.”
In other words, Farrell pulled these highly unlikely numbers — which suggested high school girls were many, many times more violent towards boys than vice versa, and which conveniently illustrated his point — from a high school math teacher who happened to be a close friend of his. How she got these numbers is not made clear, at least not in The Myth of Male Power.
Happily for all of us, Farrell provided a few more details about Brookins’ “research” in his 1999 book Women Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say. (Conveniently, this portion of the book has been excerpted online here.) Here’s Farrell’s account of the whole thing:
I asked [Brookins] if she would keep track of the frequency with which the boys and girls hit each other the first time. She agreed, but not one to miss a potential math lesson, she asked one of her classes to “do a survey,” to keep track of all the times the boys and girls initiated a slap or punch of a member of the other sex on the playground or in their classes.
When Liz reported the results, she was a tad embarrassed, “Well, it was almost 20 to 1 when I first started keeping track – mostly girls hitting guys on the arm, occasionally slapping them. But I’m afraid I screwed up the survey. I got so furious at the girls for ‘beginning the cycle of violence,’ as you put it, that I began to do mini-lectures in class, and the girls and guys doing the survey started lecturing the people they were observing, and soon there weren’t nearly as many girls hitting guys…. I contaminated the results!”
This answers one question: The “observation” Farrell referred to wasn’t Brookins’ personal observation but a sort of class project.
But it was hardly a scientific survey, given that it was 1) conducted by an unknown number of high school students completely untrained in social science research, using an unknown protocol and 2) contaminated by the head researcher, also apparently untrained in social science research.
This would all be very amusing, except for two things. First, the fact that Farrell quoted the alleged results of this “research” in The Myth of Male Power without reservation, as if the numbers were from a serious social science survey, not from the class project of a friend of his.
And second, his account in Women Can’t Hear contradicts the information about the “research” given in The Myth of Male Power.
In the earlier book, you may recall, he claims that the ratio of girls hitting boys was 20:1, and that this data came from three years of observation.
In the later book, Brookins says the ratio was 20:1 only at the start, but that she quickly “contaminated” the results and the ratio dropped.
In other words, only if the “contaminated” results were dropped could the ratio could be 20:1. But this would mean that Farrell’s claim in The Myth of Male Power that the study continued for three years would be incorrect.
The study could have continued on for three years only if the “contaminated” data wasn’t dropped — but then the ratio would have been less than the 20:1 ratio that Farrell also claimed in The Myth of Male Power.
So either Farrell was lying about, or sloppily misreporting, the results of his friend’s “study” in The Myth of Male Power — or the account he’s given of the research in Women Can’t Hear is itself untrue.
I guess the real question here is whether or not Farrell’s handing of his friend’s “study” reflects incompetence on his part or deliberate deception. It’s hard to believe that someone who spent as much time in academia as Farrell did in the early years of his career would have so completely forgotten the basic rules of scholarship that he thought he could cite a class project by a high school teacher friend of his as if it were serious research. It’s also rather amazing that he could publish two completely contradictory descriptions of the “findings” of this research in books written only six years apart.
I’d love to hear Farrell’s explanation of all this, but somehow — based on his less-than-forthcoming response to critics in the past — I doubt we’ll ever get a straight answer from him.
It may seem silly to make such a big deal of a footnote. But to serious academics footnotes are sacred; if you can’t trust someone’s citations, you can’t trust anything they write. I followed this particular footnote on a hunch, because the claim Farrell made in the text seemed so utterly unbelievable — only to find that the story got ever more unbelievable with each new twist I discovered. I can only wonder if there are other similarly strange tales to be found elsewhere in Farrell’s footnotes.