I could rant for hours about why I hate Oliver James but to spare you that I thought I’d just focus on a recent article of his in the Guardian as emblematic of his biased reporting of scientific research to primarily serve his anti-women analysis of mental illness.
In his ‘Family Under the Microscope’ series, James wrote ‘Do absent fathers trigger early puberty in girls?’ as a eulogy against family breakdown and claiming throughout that yes, indeed the absence of fathers is in fact the main reason for females entering puberty earlier (average age at which a British girl had her first period has gone from 13yrs 6ms in 50s/60s to 12 yrs 11ms now, average drop of 7 months in 50 years: not insignificant but lets have a little perspective).
He goes on to talk about the risk factors associated with early pubescence in girls as a signifier of anxiety, depression and teenage pregnancy etc. Now we’re in perfect epidemiology causation/association territory here; are we feeling a few confounding factors coming on?
Now as far as I can tell, these assertions being made by James are based on a longitudinal cohort study of 173 girls in Tennessee published back in 1999 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (As an aside, this was in the same volume where Dunning and Kruger first published their study, what a coincidence...) The Tennessee study made a link between negative-coercive family relationships and early puberty.
A more recent review study was published in Clinical Psychology Review in Feb this year which reviewed the empirical evidence of an association between puberty and anxiety. They found that:
There is some evidence that among girls, but not boys, a more advanced pubertal status (controlling for age) is associated with higher reported anxiety symptoms. Also among girls, earlier pubertal timing is linked to higher anxiety scores. It is unclear whether early puberty may lead to increased anxiety or if high anxiety influences pubertal timing.(I’m afraid I can only get the abstract because my login isn’t working, I’ll try again at work and will update when I do)
So yes there is evidence that anxiety is associated with early puberty in girls but it is not necessarily causal and certainly not directly linked to father-daughter relationships. There are a huge amount of confounding factors and if James is correct and depression and teenage pregnancies are associated with early female puberty than I would suggest that there are a number of socio-economic factors at play here as with any association between parental split and health outcomes.
James pretty much dismisses the association between earlier puberty in girls and increased weight, despite the huge amount of evidence linking weight gain/loss to affects on menstruation. As James asserts “But by far the most important factor seems to be a girl's relationship with her dad.”
Now, this article is in the Guardian so James is aware that readers probably also read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and so would be looking out for trifling things like ‘evidence’ and reports in academic journals. So at the end of the column, he helpfully references a journal article from Pediatrics billing it as “Evidence relating to decreased puberty age” - and the link to absentee fathers you'd assume. He doesn’t however, give you the title of the article safe in the knowledge that the vast majority of people won’t actually look it up. Here’s the title: Weight Status in Young Girls and the Onset of Puberty
So evidence of weight status affecting early puberty then. And I think we can safely say that the average weight of children has increased in Britain since the 1950s. Yet, James is hanging on to absentee fathers being the “main cause”. Why? Because that’s how he makes his money. As you may know he wrote the book ‘They F*** You Up (Your Mum and Dad)’ and so generally sees parenting as THE primary cause of mental health issues. I will return to slagging this book off in the future, but for now I’ll stick to this article.
So herein lies the problem with so much science reporting, the way it is used to push a particular, usually socially conservative agenda. James bemoans the impact on increased divorce rates at every opportunity. Linking divorce and working women to everything from early periods to schizophrenia.
The implications of his agenda impact mostly on women as his message is ‘ending an unhappy relationship and mothers working will fuck up your kids’. He tries to imply that 'blind feminism' (whatever that means) has degraded the role of stay-at-home mothers and he is battling alone to defend the role of women. For 'blind feminism' read 'straw man' as feminists have always campaigned for the recognition of women's contribution to society as care-givers.
The key is equality and choice rather than advocating stifling traditional roles through fear and scaremongering. And he dresses this up with sciencey sounding stuff, transforming associations into causes and making incredible death-defying leaps of logic.
I despair of this man.