"Don't let a poll tell you how to make major life decisions."
That was a comment on a recent Slate article titled, "Majority of Americans Think Women Should Hurry Up and Get Pregnant," which — okay — we'll get to that headline in a minute. But first the comment, which stood out as sane and on point above the back-and-forth bickering that consumed the article's comment section.
Why do we get so fired up about these kind of articles? The "THIS is the Ideal Age to Have a Baby!" claims, and the "10 Things ALL Men Really Want in Bed" headlines. We accept these kind of broad-stroke findings — all based on rigidly scientific or informal polls — as truth, without asking the kind of basic questions that we'd ask under any other circumstance.
Why can't we see through the smoke and mirrors?
Let's take a closer look at this one perfect example from Slate. So the author of the article, Jessica Grose (who I'm assuming meant well and I don't intend to personally attack — solidarity amongst Internet writers), took an interesting angle. Writing from "the vantage of [her] educated urban bubble," she was surprised that the majority of Americans believe that women should have a baby by age 25. Not because the under-25 set isn't mature enough, per say, but because they're uneducated. And she ends the piece with my favorite line: "What is irrefutable...is that on average the more education a woman has, the better off her children will be."
Okay so let's start with the headline that claims that the MAJORITY of Americans think women should "hurry up and get pregnant," which — listen, I understand the need to get people to click through an article — but that's a little off the mark.
Dive a little deeper and you'll see that the pressure-cooker claim comes from 5,000 people who were polled (Who answers these polls? Do you? Because I certainly don't), 58% of whom said that the "ideal" age for women to start having kids is 25 or younger. Meaning 58% of 5,000 people probably clicked a box that said 18 - 25 when asked the "ideal" age to have kids. Ideal! For me, ideal means that she has the right guy, the right job, the right amount of money, etc. And we all know that situations are rarely, if ever, ideal.
So Slate takes that poll and claims that the MAJORITY OF AMERICANS are standing with their arms crossed, feet tapping, saying "hurry up, already!" All this really does is open the floor for the writer to explain why wanting to have a baby under 25 is irresponsible and silly — a real mark of stupidity, statistically speaking, if education level = competence in life. And then for commenters to fiercely argue or agree with her.
And then for the sweet, sweet cherry on top — the irrefutable claim that the more education a woman has, the better off her children will be. That's...like....really refutable. I can come up with about 17 scenarios to refute that statement. In fact, here was my official response:
But where did that "irrefutable" statement come from?
Oh, a Pew study, you say?
(Dramatically palms forehead.)
The entire post is riddled with enough numbers and percentage signs to glaze your eyes with a hypnotizing barrier from reality. Yet as sane, thinking individuals we understand that formal college education does not automatically make a well-rounded, wise person, nor does it guarantee a well-paying job anymore. We know that people rush through answering polls and have emotional swings at the mercy of any given situation. We know that 5,000 people answering a question within the context of "an ideal situation," doesn't mean that the majority of Americans think young women should "hurry up" and get pregnant.
Yet we internalize these magazine headlines and scholarly articles. I'm not trying to crap on science or research because I do think that studies allow for important glimpses into a larger picture. But I've worked for a woman's magazine and I've seen the behind-the-curtain research and story pitches. I get it. And every time I see a sensationalized headline using phrases like, "Here's What ALL WOMEN Want," and "The Majority of Americans Think/Feel ______," I want to forehead flick every person who consumes it as truth.
Red flags, people. Common sense!
Most of these sweeping generalizations that get us fired up come from sample sizes and on-a-scale-of-1-to-5 questionnaires. And so many of them are attempting to quantify feelings, opinions, and subjective concepts (like "happiness," for instance, which was the subject of my recent mom.me article — lest you think I'm just being defensive about the age-and-motherhood topic).
How can you measure a person's judgment of "happiness" when happiness isn't tangible or consistent? Like, a nasty mood swing might sway me to circle "2" instead of "4" on a happiness scale. And yet these polls lead to grand declarations and blanket-sized stereotypes. We use these statistics to stigmatize and homogenize the people who fall within each color-in-the-dot category.
Listen — humans are a lot of things, but homogeneous we are not.
I wrote about this over at mom.me, in response to the headline-splashing study that concluded kids statistically deplete parents' happiness:
"Here's the thing about taking multilayered experiences — like parenthood — and holding them up to scientific scrutiny: Scientific studies, by their very nature, are black and white. And yet we all experience shades of stormy gray, regardless of lifestyle choice and attitude."
Now don't get me wrong — I do understand the concept of putting people and situations into neat little boxes and using statistics to predict the outcome of an event. This is all coming from someone who worked her tush off in school for the shiny, gold-plated life path that an educated young woman of a certain economic bracket must follow.
This is coming from someone within the "educated urban bubble" who at 22 years old — unexpectedly pregnant and unsure of just about everything in life — didn't see herself reflected in the bombardment of statistics.
This is coming from an almost-30-year-old woman who isn't afraid to call bull when she sees it. From someone who understands that life is too complicated to make life decisions, or base any sort of self worth, on polls and statistics. From someone who — despite the odds — is doing just fine.
So I'm not saying we shouldn't poll the population or even report the findings in responsible and interesting ways. But I am saying that maybe we shouldn't invest too much time or energy in defining ourselves within that context.
Beyond the percentage signs and black-and-white data, we have our stories. Our differences, inconsistencies, evolutions, changing opinions. Our complexities, struggles, experiences.
We have stories to tell, not statistics to fit into. Ignore anyone or anything that tells you otherwise.