William Collins recently published a piece titled, Woozling Shared Parenting. It’s a fascinating but lengthy piece, the start of it should give you a flavour of what follows:
Woozle (noun): A false or exaggerated claim which has gained credibility by repetition but which has no, or inadequate, basis in evidence or is contradicted by the balance of evidence.
Woozle (verb): To deploy a woozle for the purposes of advocating an existing opinion, giving a partisan opinion or policy the semblance of empirical or scientific backing.
Woozling and the Destruction of Science
Social science research is especially prone to being woozled. Partly this is because its subject matter is precisely that on which people hold strong, but conflicting, opinions. This tempts those with predetermined, partisan positions to quote only those studies whose conclusions support their case. Regrettably, study authors now commonly have an ideological motivation. Advocacy research – in which the authors have a clear idea of what results they seek before starting – has become distressingly common. Such work can give every appearance of being valid, soundly based, science. It can take a disproportionate amount of time and effort to uncover the true nature of what one is reading. Brian Earp has called it the unbearable asymmetry of bullshit. He quotes Brandolini as saying, “the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it”. Therein lies the problem. At one time, it was possible to have confidence in an article if it were published in a peer reviewed journal. Poor, or erroneous, publications, were always present, but were relatively rare exceptions. And errors were just that; not deliberate. The prevalence of advocacy research now challenges the basis of science. It is threatening to prevent the formation of that informal consensus which is central to scientific progress. The problem is most acute in the social sciences where workers and readers both tend to have pre-existing political views; they may not rise to the challenge of suppressing them in favour of unbiased empirical evidence.
But bias is not the only reason why studies in social science may be misleading. Social science research suffers particularly severely from reproducibility problems. This is not entirely the fault of the researchers but arises from the fact that social science is observational, not experimental. Moreover, the observations in questions are of humans in real life – the ultimate complex system. As a result, there is invariably a very large number of uncontrollable variables which confuse interpretation. Quoting results from a single study in social science may therefore be misleading, even if the study is well conceived and executed by professionals who make genuine effort to be unbiased. Review articles, or meta-analyses, which pull together many independent studies are always to be preferred.
Sometimes, however, a false perspective on an issue will be promulgated despite a weight of contrary evidence. One study, or a small sub-set of studies, will be used to advocate a position despite being contra-indicated by the bulk of evidence. This is the realm of the woozler. Woozlers are most destructive when they control the popular narrative through the media, when they can dress their message in the language of care or tolerance or equality, and where they have influential access to centres of political power. This post provides an example of the power of the woozle in frustrating the adoption of a presumption of shared parenting following parental separation.
Collins’s article came to mind as I read this piece by Kaya Burgess in yesterday’s Times, along with another of his pieces, of direct relevance to the article below, 332 Child Homicides:
Violent fathers given access to children even after 50 deaths
Times caption: The presumption that contact with both parents is in the child’s interests is still strong in court, Women’s Aid said (MASKOT/GETTY IMAGES)
Perpetrators of domestic abuse are being granted access to their children by the family courts despite an alarming record of killings by violent fathers, a charity claims.
Since 1994 there have been 50 cases of a child being killed by a father with a known history of domestic abuse or violence who remained in contact.
In October last year new guidance was introduced warning family court judges that it was not in a child’s best interests to maintain contact with both parents if their father or mother posed a safety risk. It called on judges to consider carrying out full “fact-finding” investigations in disputed cases and warned that no contact should be allowed if it could expose a parent or child “to the risk of further harm”.
Despite this, Women’s Aid said that it still received daily calls from women reporting that their abusive former partners had been granted access to their children and saying that fact-finding inquiries were often not carried out.
A worker on the National Domestic Violence Helpline (NDVH), run by Women’s Aid and Refuge, had seen “no evidence” that the guidance had made an impact, citing several cases in recent months in which mothers had called “at the end of their tether” about the issue.
This week The Times reported that a council invited a jailed sex offender to seek access via the family courts to the son conceived when he raped a 15-year-old. The boy’s mother, Sammy Woodhouse, waived her right to anonymity to share her horror when she found out that Arshid Hussain, had been listed as a “respondent” during a family court case. He chose to play no role.
In one case this month flagged to the NDVH, a woman said that she cited last year’s guidance, called “practice direction 12J”, in court to be told by a judge that it “has no relevance” despite hearing evidence of her former partner’s “abusive behaviour over many years”. He was granted contact, she said. Another caller said that in a case over the summer, a judge said that the father’s domestic violence towards the mother was no longer an issue as the couple had separated. He was granted unsupervised access to their child.
Women’s Aid found 29 cases between 1994 and 2004 and 19 more between 2005 and 2015 in which a child died after a father was allowed to remain in contact by courts or other statutory authorities despite a history of abuse.
Another came to light in 2016, while The Times has uncovered an incident from a serious case review published in 2016. A four-year-old girl was killed by her father three months after a court granted him a “residence order”, moving her to live with him despite a history of domestic violence and evidence that she was afraid of him.
Lucy Hadley, of Women’s Aid, said: “We are very concerned that unsafe child contact arrangements are still being made in the family courts. We hear from abuse survivors every day about their fears for their children and themselves resulting from decisions.
“Even when a father has been convicted in criminal courts for domestic violence and is known to police and other agencies as posing a severe risk to the victim and their children, those safeguarding concerns aren’t given the same weight in the family courts, where the presumption is still so strong that contact with both parents is in the child’s interests.”
Sarah Parsons, of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, said that it undertook a diligent “risk assessment on every case”.
She said that “a lot more fact-finding hearings had taken place since the new practice direction came in” and said courts may decide that contact could still take place in supervised settings “if they conclude that the child may lose out more from not having contact”.
The Families Need Fathers charity said that the courts were not lax, adding: “We constantly hear of fathers prevented from seeing their children because of allegations of abuse that haven’t been tested by the courts, who err on the side of caution and say there should be no contact. Time is their enemy. Even when the court later finds allegations were unfounded or malicious, the damage has often been done.”
A man has been granted contact with his young child by a family court despite claims by his former partner that he abused her, citing fears that his aggressive and controlling behaviour could harm their child.
The court has not started a “fact-finding” investigation and has allowed the father to maintain supervised contact with the child, aged under ten, while it assesses the risk.
Victoria Clarke, a member of the mother’s legal team at Stowe Family Law, said: “The mother has made very serious allegations of drug use and also coercive control and she is very reluctant for the father to have any contact with the child.
“She is finding it very frustrating trying to prove herself to the courts, but the contact with the father is ongoing while she is doing that. The courts don’t put orders in place based on what could happen in the future. If a parent is concerned someone could do something to a child but it hasn’t happened yet, it is hard to get the court to accept that.”
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