Megan McArdle recently linked to a story in Slate about why Americans have stopped spanking. Perhaps one of these days I’ll write about corpoal punishment itself, but that’s not what I’m posting about today. I’d like to hone in on one paragraph that raised my hackles. Writes Darshak Sanghavi (apparently a fellow pediatrician):
Primary care physicians tacitly approve of corporal punishment. According to well-designed surveys, 70 percent of family physicians and 60 percent of pediatricians think “striking of the child’s buttocks or hand with an open hand … leaving no mark except transient redness” is fine. In a hypothetical scenario of an 8-year-old who refuses to go to bed at the usual time, for example, one in five family physicians think the child should be spanked. Interestingly, even 40 percent of academic child abuse specialists think “spanking is appropriate sometimes.” A key committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics debated spanking for more than 10 years before they decided not to condemn it categorically. (Daniel Armstrong, the director of the Mailman Center for Child Development in Miami and the AAP policy’s main writer, told me “there was a clash of beliefs” and in the end, the committee condemned hitting kids with objects and in the face, but felt whacks on the buttocks were OK.)
That is one shitty paragraph. Certainly its shittiness is sufficient to undermine its thesis statement about primary care physicians’ present-day approval of corporal punishment. What this sloppy little paragraph does demonstrate beautifully is how hyperlinks can give the appearance of good research and support for on online article where little exists.
First of all, it is impossible for me to determine how well-designed that first cited survey is, because the link doesn’t provide you with anything more than an article title and a sign-in page for subscribers to JAMA: the full-text article is not available for non-subscribers. Not being a member of the AMA, I’m not a subscriber myself. This is presumably also true of most Slate readers. I’ve tried to access the article through my institution’s online accounts, but doing so remotely from my office is cumbersome and difficult, and I gave up after a few tries. Presumably even this amount of effort is more than most readers would go to, and would simply take Sanghavi’s word for it that the survey was well-designed.
But no matter how well-designed that survey is, attentive readers will note that the journal article was published in 1992. Given how long it takes to conduct any kind of clinical research, write the article, submit it and revise it for publication, one can reasonably guess that the survey itself was conducted before 1992. Which means, whatever the findings of the survey and no matter how well-designed it was, its results are two decades old and woefully out of date. It tells us nothing particularly useful about how primary care physicians feel today. Given how much has changed in our approach to disciplining children and how likely attitudes are to change from one generation to the next, it is not unreasonable to assume that the authors would get very different results if the same survey were to be conducted today.
Not one of the three citations Sanghavi includes in this paragraph about how medical providers view (present tense) corporal punishment was published within the past dozen years. The second link, which again merely gives you an article title and a sign-in page, and which supposedly tells you what 40% of academic abuse specialists (writ large) think, is to a survey conducted on a convenience sample of attendees at a pediatric conference who went to a special interest group meeting on the subject. And even assuming that this convenience sample is a good representation of what American academic abuse specialists thought as a whole fifteen years ago (I’m skeptical), it’s even more of a stretch to get from the article’s conclusion:
Most academic child abuse professionals believe that spankingis inappropriate and their beliefs are influenced by the context in which spanking occurs.
back to Sanghavi’s statement about providers’ tacit approval.
After noting briefly that there’s a big gap between declining to condemn something outright and tacitly approving of it, and also that Sanghavi plays pretty loose with how he presents his facts, this excerpt highlights how easy it is to misuse hyperlinks. A reader sees an assertion of fact in blue type, and assumes that the linked material verifies the fact as presented. But those who want more information or to verify for themselves should be directed to a source that is actually accessible to them. Two of the three links are to subscription-required articles, and either Sanghavi wants us to trust his analysis of the pieces (in which case the links are really only there for show) or he only read the abstracts himself (in which case he is lazy, and also in no position to cite the material authoritatively). None of the articles are recent enough to be worth anything as an indicator of medical providers’ current attitudes.
It’s interesting to note that McArdle herself does something similar in her own piece. Tying the decline in spanking to entitled behavior among young employees (unconvincingly, in my opinion), she reports that employers are complaining about these new, presumably unspanked workers. In support of this, she links to a blurb about a book on Amazon. I guess we should take it on faith that she’s read the book, and that it is of sufficient quality that what it says is reliable? The link is essentially window-dressing, there to make McArdle’s statement appear more grounded in fact than I believe it is.
One of the wonderful things about posting an essay on the Web is that one can insert access to supporting or supplementary material right into one’s text. I am probably going to be the last of the die-hard pulped-tree book fans, but this is an undeniable advantage of writing online. I try to use hyperlinks thusly (and am obviously inviting further scrutiny to make sure I do so by writing this post). While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Sanghavi is being dishonest with his hyperlinks, he’s certainly not using them to the reader’s advantage, either. Either insert a link that will be genuinely helpful for readers seeking a deeper understanding of what you’re writing, or leave them out altogether.