The Ecological Fallacy

May 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The ecological fallacy is alive and well. Ross Douthat, the New York Times’s other conservative (the one that isn’t David Brooks), breathes life into it in his op-ed today on Red Families v. Blue Families, the new book by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone.

First Douthat gives props to the “blue family” model:
couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees tend to cohabit early and marry late, delaying childbirth and raising smaller families than their parents, while enjoying low divorce rates and bearing relatively few children out of wedlock.
Then there’s the “red family” for whom the stable, two-parent family is more a hope than a reality:
early marriages coexist with frequent divorces, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate keeps inching upward.
Blue looks good – good for the couples, good for the kids, good for society. But Douthat finds a moral thorn among the blue roses – abortion.
The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term.

So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.
Douthat is channeling Balzac: Behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Behind every more modest fortune – say, enough to live in Danbury if not Greenwich – is a more modest crime, i.e., an abortion or two.

But here’s the fallacy: Douthat makes it appear that the Connecticut residents who are getting those abortions are the same “couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees” we met in the paragraph on blue families. The illogic goes like this:
Blue states with higher levels of income and education also have higher levels of abortion than do Red states.
Therefore more Blue chip people have more abortions than do Red necks.
No, no, no (I hear myself repeating to my students). You cannot assume that a correlation at the state level also exists at the individual level. Just because wealthier states have higher rates of abortion, you cannot assume that wealthier individuals have higher rates of abortion. To make that assumption is to commit the ecological fallacy.

In fact, the Connecticut women who are getting abortions may also be relatively poor and uneducated. The difference is that abortion may give them access to further education or employment – not a graduate degree and a 6-figure job, but something better than what they could expect were they in Alabama. Or Montana.

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