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Interesting topic, but major factual errors hurt credibility
on September 8, 2001
This is not a bad book overall, but it could have been a far better one. The main problem is that the author, Madelyn Cain, described on the book jacket as an English teacher, doesn't seem to have much ability in statistics, or quantitative skills in general. The reason I say this is that Cain makes numerous large, and important, factual errors (see examples below). While this does not totally destroy the book, it seriously undermines the author's credibility. It's too bad, because Cain is onto an interesting, important topic here, and I find many of the stories of the people she interviews to be very interesting.
Let me just list a few of the most egregious errors. For one, Cain claims at separate points in the book that 42.2% of all women are childless, and that 41% of women over 40 "never have a child." The problem here, besides the confusing English ("never have a child" - huh?), is not so much that the NUMBERS are wrong (and they are, at least the way Cain explains them), but that the interpretation is all messed up. What Cain is TRYING to say, I think, is that the proportion of childless women has increased over the past few decades. And that IS true, according to the US Census Bureau. The problem is that the 42.2% figure refers to a huge age range (15-44), and that the vast majority of what Cain calls "childless" women are actually under age 25. Census Bureau statistics from 1998 show that the incidence of childlessness declines as women age, from 90.1% of 15-19 year olds, to 64% of 20-24 year olds, to 19.8% of 35-39 year olds, to 19.0% of 40-44 year olds. So, the relevant number here is more like 19.0% (not 42.2%), which is the percent of women moving out of childbearing years who have not had a child. And this number is indeed up since over the past couple of decades, from 10% in 1980. A big increase, but it still represents only a relative minority of women.
Another series of important mistakes, which Cain makes repeatedly, relates to world fertility rates/ birthrates. Here, Cain seems to get TOTALLY confused, apparently mixing up "rates" with "births" or something, and also just getting the numbers wildly wrong. So, what we have is Cain in one sentence claiming that the world's total fertility rate is 1.3 (the real figure is 2.8, more than twice as high, and well above the "replacement level" of 2.1), in another that "fertility rates are increasing" (they're actually declining worldwide), and in another that "birthrates are accelerating" (also not true; birthrates are falling worldwide, and population growth is slowing rapidly). Cain's problems with numbers continue throughout the book, strongly indicating that it's not just an editorial slipup, but that Cain has her population/fertility statistics all messed up, confused, and just plain WRONG. This is not good, especially when it is the subject of the book!! To put it mildly, this calls into question the author's credibility.
On the positive side, Cain is much better in presenting the interesting voices of many women who decided not to, or could not, have children. Cain makes the important point that, despite the increasing number of women choosing not to have kids - for whatever reasons - we still live in a strongly "pronatalist" society, and also one that is biased AGAINST those without children (by the way, on several occasions Cain defines "pronatalist" as "profamily", which is not correct - "pronatalist" means bias in favor of childbearing/children, a significant difference, unless you believe that it's only a "family" when there are children). Bias against women who choose not to (or are unable to) have children includes the beliefs that, among other things, those without children are (take your choice): selfish, neurotic, immature, abnormal, not complete women, etc. Yikes!
Just a couple other comments/questions about this book: why are there no MEN'S voices here; why doesn't the author dig deeper at the socio-economic, political, health, welfare, psychological, and other factors influencing reproductive decisionmaking, as opposed to just taking women's' statements at face value? For instance, several women claim they don't want kids because overpopulation is a bad thing for the environment (no argument here!), but Cain could have dug a little deeper and tried to get at whether or not this was the REAL emotional reason, or just an intellectualization, however important.
In sum, while many of the women's voices we are introduced to in "The Childless Revolution" are interesting ones, the book overall is marred by major (and frequent) factual errors and a lack of serious analysis. Very unfortunate.