Robert Whiston 20th July 2011
Examples of academic sloppiness appear to be increasing. Newspapers can be expected to get their facts wrong, their metaphors mixed, generally get their wires crossed and even invent stories.
The entrails of the Murdoch saga surprises no one – in fact the public no longer has high expectations of the Press.
The public is also slowly learning to treat even data from Gov’t sourced Press Releases with the same degree of caution usually reserves for a contagious disease.
But text books and university papers are a different proposition.
Text books have a much longer shelf life. If we can’t depend on text books what can we depend on ? Corrections and retractions are not that easily done.
Our faith in that last bastion of integrity has taken a battering with the revelation of exaggerations and inaccuracies overwhelming a book (pub’d by Allen and Unwin, 2007) and co-authored by Prof. Thea Brown and Dr Renata Alexander at Australia’s Monash University (the same Thea Brown associated with Jennifer McIntosh).
Too often books that deal with topical political issues (and will sell well) run the risk of falling victim to reflecting only the fashionable views of their time. This could well have happened to Professor Thea Brown’s book, “Child Abuse and Family Law” – or it could be just be slovenly scholarship.
Left: Prof. Thea Brown
The problem is becoming endemic in academia whenever one author cites another without first checking the background of the research. The resulting wobbly statistics have been noted in English literature as far back as 1999 with ‘Counting the Cost’ (by the American, Betsy Stanko), and in a Jan 1995 Sunday Times exposé of the criminologist, Dr Susan Edwards.  Both were working on domestic violence data, both were or have been employed by the Met Police and both are connected to manipulating data.
Left: Dr Renata Alexander
Dr Renata Alexander is a university trained expert in legal matters and so between them there is no excuse for overlooking or corrupting data which, in any courtroom cross-examnation, could destroy their reputations.
In campaigning mode both Brown and Alexander have not been shy in writing articles for Australian newspapers (2004 and 2005) opposed to shared parenting. For example, in The Age (Dec 2005) Alexander wrote:
- “Forcing joint parenting and shared custody upon parents who are in conflict and unco-operative can be harmful to children.”
Facts can be an inconvenience, especially when the new Australian law was never intended to be ‘forced’ upon anyone and certainly not upon parents who are in conflict. (see http://robertwhiston.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/25/ and http://equalparenting.wordpress.com/2009/09/13/1/)
Little surprise then that Monash University’s Media and Communications Unit had to issue a correction – in August 2009 – for the incorrect statements made in the 2007 book.
These included a correction to the following paragraph thatappeared on page 20:
- “Domestic violence is increasingly reported as a cause of partnership breakdown, with two thirds of couples in Australia attributing the separation to domestic violence and one third to severe domestic violence (FLPAG, 2001).”
Brown’s book clearly states that ‘one third of couples in Australia attribute their separation to severe domestic violence.’ This is incorrect and it misinterprets the data.
What Brown should have written was that from the survey, of the 65% of women in failed relationships who experienced domestic violence one third were assessed as ‘severe.’
The ‘severe’ level for men who experienced domestic violence in failed relationships was put at 55%.
The assessments as to ‘severe’ or not were not made by the couples themselves but by what one might describe as a lobby group.
Thus, at most it was 33% of 65% of couples whose separation could be attributed to severe domestic violence, and not simply “one-third” of all couples as inferred in the book.
Brown’s book cites data from a 2001 report, ‘Family Law Pathways Advisory Group’ (FLPAG) However, the material relied on was not actually taken from the FLPAG report itself, but rather was drawn from a verbal presentation to the FLPAG Committee on which Professor Brown served.
Original data or raw data is often the best but Prof. Brown knew beforehand that the FLPAG report was not original or raw data, but based on an earlier Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) study entitled “Spousal Violence and Post Separation Financial Outcomes Study“,
In turn that AIFS study used the database of an earlier study called the “Divorce Transitions Project” to identify suitable families to interview.
Firstly, the FLPAG Committee should have checked the suggestion that the figures in “Towards understanding the reasons for divorce, Working Paper 20”, which were said to identify family violence as accompanying factor or as a cause of, divorce, were an underestimate or not.
Secondly, Brown made the unscholarly mistake of building her book on a series of surveys going back many years and all inter-dependent on one another.
“Towards understanding the reasons for divorce, Working Paper 20”, by Wolcott & Hughes was published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 1999 and so was 10 years out of date and assembled for another political climate. Wolcott & Hughes had attempted to show that some 65% of women and 55% of men had stated domestic violence was part of their former failed relationship. However, the couples did notattribute their separation to domestic violence, it was the presenters to the FLPAG Committee who did.
Professor Brown knew or should have known this, yet she failed to make this important distinction in the book.
Additionally, on page 111 of the book there is a statement which states that”some 30% of all marriages in Australia fail because of domestic violence“. This statement is also incorrect because the figures relied upon are erroneous.
 “Knocked for six: the myth of a nation of wife-batterers” by Neil Lyndon and Paul Ashton, The Sunday Times, London, 29/01/95.
 ‘Law ignores the reality of split families’ , By Renata Alexander, The Age, 16/12/2005. http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/law-ignores-the-reality-of-split-families/2005/12/15/1134500961793.html?page=2 NB the law was not passeduntil 2006. (See also below).
Anti-Shared Parenting Campaign build-up (2008 to 2011)
- “Children at risk in rise of shared care”, 4 March 2008 (McIntosh) Court sample was small – 77 cases involving 111 children. http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/children-at-risk-in-rise-of-shared-care/2008/03/03/1204402365352.html
- “Joint custody ‘can put kids at risk”, The Australian, April 15, 2008 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/joint-custody-can-put-kids-at-risk/story-e6frg6p6-1111116063474
- “Equal parenting for divorced couples may be scrapped” The Courier-Mail (Aus), 30th Nov 2008. http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,24729425-3102,00.html
- “Shared parenting laws on way out”, The Australian. Oct 19th 2009 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/shared-parenting-laws-on-way-out/story-e6frg6n6-1225788103468
- “Shared care laws damaging many children”, by Belinda Fehlberg, The Age (Melbourne), 26th Aug 2010. http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/shared-care-laws-damaging-many-children-20100826-13tqm.html
- “Family law change ‘puts kids at extra risk”, The Australian, May 3rd 2011. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/family-law-change-puts-kids-at-extra-risk/story-fn59niix-1226048738629
- ‘Shared parenting undone ?’ http://robertwhiston.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/25/
- ‘Australia’s Shared Parenting Experiment’ http://equalparenting.wordpress.com/2009/09/13/1/