Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Doped up on smack

(Question for smackheads in my readership: is "doped up" the correct terminology here?)

The, erm, thrilling countdown to the smacking referendum continues. To be honest, I'm not 100 per cent sure when it is - but then, I'm not even sure I'm on the electoral roll. (It turns out you don't have to be if you only want to vote for Strictly Come Dancing.) The Herald is spending all week on a fair and balanced look at whether the new law is working - and this is half the problem. It may seem precious of me to complain about quasi-balanced coverage, given that the rest of the time I complain about how unbalanced a lot of reporting is, but I think there is more to balance than 'this person says this, but that person says that'. That is the kind of balance that leads to demands to put intelligent design on the science curriculum alongside evolutionary theory. Perhaps when it comes to the electoral system, some kind of artificial balance in this sense is required.

But (and you knew that had to be coming) there is another problem with the Herald's coverage over the last week or so - it is almost entirely anecdotal. Here's a parent who says smacking is bad; here's a parent who says smacking is good. Here's Simon Barnett. Today I was greeted with the headline (again on the front page) "GP's grim diagnosis for parents":

An Auckland doctor says a quarter of New Zealand parents can't control their children.

Dr Robyn Theakston, a general practitioner in Three Kings, says the 2007 law banning the use of force for "correction" has made things worse by restricting parents' disciplinary choices.

A quarter of New Zealand parents! Goodness me, how did the Herald come by this statistic?
She told the Herald later that she saw many good parents, but she estimated that about a quarter of the parents she sees do not know how to control their children - far more than the number who treat their children too harshly.
Right. So that's an estimate. Based on the parents seen by one GP in Three Kings. Even better, this was all taken from a Your Views on which Dr Theakston had written. So what we have is a GP - that is, a general practitioner - who, for God's sake, frequents Your Views making a guess, albeit educated, as to how many bad parents there are. Taking anecdotes, which is what this is, is one thing; turning them into a generalised statistic is another (atrocious and lazy) thing.

"You can tell a good parent because they can calm the child. The child trusts the parent. They feel the parent is in control," she said. "Other children come in and the parents don't know what to do. The child is not used to being told what to do so they wreak havoc."

She said many parents were too insecure to say no to their children.

And this has what to do with smacking? You don't need to be a genius, or a GP, to know that there are bad parents around. Isn't the whole debate (when it's serious) around whether or not smacking is a good parenting tool? Whether smacking is a good way to control your children? The referendum isn't asking "Should parents be rubbish at it? Yes/no?" One or both of Dr Theakston or Simon Collins seems a bit confused over the whole issue.

The picture attached to the story just makes it worse.

What's the point here? That a parent smacked her children and they didn't turn into homicidal lunatics? That Jesus - that well-known fan of corporal punishment - is behind the 'No' campaign? (I'm immediately reminded of Bill Hicks's remark that, if He comes back, the last thing He will want to see is a crucifix.)

I know I keep banging on about this, but it's just another example of the New Zealand Woman's Daily - the idea that every story has to be related to a particular individual to be interesting. This could be written off as mere aesthetics - 'the point of a human interest story is to get people interested in an issue', someone might argue - if it didn't lead to the individuals becoming the story. Just look at the issue the other day with Bruce Burgess and the unemployment benefit. Maybe Dr Theakston's children will turn out fine despite smacking; I'm sure plenty of kids who aren't smacked will end up in prison. I was smacked as a kid, and I turned out... fine. But I'm not about to generalise from that to the position that it has no negative effect, just as we wouldn't generalise from the (recently deceased) world's oldest man putting his long life down to smoking.


Speaking of rubbish statistics, how about the article on page A2 - "Spanking has its uses, say pupils":

Nineteen years after physical punishment was banned in schools, a sampling of children suggests that while most want the ban, there is still some support for smacking as a form of discipline.

Ten out of 17 Year 7 pupils at Rangeview Intermediate in Te Atatu said they would vote no in the referendum which says: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

Six would vote yes, a higher proportion than the mere 11 per cent of parents voting yes in a Herald/DigiPoll survey last weekend, but still a minority. One student was unsure.

What the hell?
The sample is tiny and makes no pretence to be representative beyond the fact that Rangeview is ranked decile 5, in the middle of the parental income scale.
Yes, it is tiny. In fact, I wouldn't even call it a 'sample'. The whole idea behind it is so flawed in anything other than a shits-and-giggles 'let's see what a bunch of kids think' way that I can't understand why it is pretending to be anything else. What on earth does the school's decile rating have to do with obtaining a statistically significant sample? Even if it did achieve something, why would you bother when you were 'sampling' 17 people?
The sample is likely to be biased against smacking because only 17 parents out of the class of about 30 returned permission slips for their children to take part. The chances are that parents who smack heavily were less likely to give permission.
Why are you still talking about it as a sample? Surely there is no point talking about biases here; it's like claiming that a coin probably came up heads on a single flip because it was a bit rounded on one side. And that's all beside the point that we are asking children on their views of what is a complex social issue when they already have their hands full memorising all 150 pokemon. But it's a story, right? After all, children are the ones being smacked - let's find out what they think.

In tomorrow's Herald: we talk to prison inmates about whether sentences are too long.


  1. Ha ha, I love the pokemon reference. Solid gold.

    Your insightful commentary on the inadequacies of The Herald's fact-gathering and presentation is also good.

    Sorry, forgot the qoute marks around the word "fact" there.

  2. Yes "doped up" is appropriate. Also, a ten second search of wikipedia would have revealed that as of the release of "Pokemon Platinum" there are 493 (species of) pokemon.

  3. You capture the whole endeavour perfectly:

    "The whole idea behind it is so flawed in anything other than a shits-and-giggles 'let's see what a bunch of kids think' way that I can't understand why it is pretending to be anything else."

  4. 100% of the children Dr Theakston sees in surgery are sick. Horrors, what a terrible world she lives in

  5. So what the result will be like of this referendum? Will the smacking be forbidden once and for all? Predictions are accepted here -

  6. And what about the weighted headline? Spanking has its uses, say pupils.

    Out of 17 kids, only 6 are saying that. The headline should be : Few pupils agree that spanking has its uses. How biased and self-serving can the herald be.