Tuesday, October 14, 2003

CBS on Homeschooling

CBS News just did a two-part series on homeschooling. The first installment is called "A Dark Side to Home Schooling," while they managed to find an even more menacing title for the second: "Homeschooling Nightmares." (You can watch the video or read a nearly verbatim transcript at each of those links.)

The general theme is, as one might expect, quite negative. The first part focuses entirely on a single case from North Carolina, where a fourteen year old boy killed his brother and sister and then committed suicide. The family was living "in squalor" and, as it happens, claimed to be homeschoolers. Unbeknownst to North Carolina officials, the parents had been convicted of child abuse in another state. Although there was no apparent connection between the murder-suicide and homeschooling, per se, the point was made that homeschooling allows "persons who maltreat children to maintain social isolation in order for the abuse and neglect to remain undetected."

The second part expands the focus to murderous homeschoolers from other states. The infamous Andrea Yates is mentioned, as are a couple of other parents who killed their children while homeschooling. All in all, CBS claims to have "found dozens of cases of parents convicted or accused of murder or child abuse who were teaching their children at home, out of the public eye."

Seeing these two stories reminds me of all the reasons why I never watch TV news if I can help it. The stories, which pose as neutral reporting, are advocacy pieces from start to finish. The phrasings are designed to be misleading. For instance, in the quote above, CBS claims that "dozens" have been "convicted or accused of murder or child abuse." But CBS never specifies how many of those "dozens" were actually "convicted of murder," as opposed to how many were merely "accused" of "child abuse." And remember, being accused of child abuse could include any number of situations in which parents are falsely accused by a meddlesome neighbor and then cleared of any wrongdoing. In fact, some parents have been falsely accused of child abuse merely because they were homeschooling in the first place.

Nor does CBS explain why homeschooling necessarily played a causal role in any of these "dozens" of cases. It's impossible to say what would have happened, but I suspect that the North Carolina family, for example, would still have been living in "squalor" if they had sent their children to public school, and the 14-year-old might have committed the murder-suicide anyway. It's not as if public-schooled kids are never known to commit suicide or murder.

Then there is the very choice of subject matter. By singling out a few isolated instances of wrongdoing, CBS News makes it appear that these instances are more widespread than they are. I.e., CBS is taking advantage of the cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic: You overestimate the probability of a thing if you can think of a prominent example. (Read all about it in Tversky's and Kahneman's book Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.)

Moreover, CBS doesn't even attempt to provide a comparative look at whether homeschoolers murder or abuse their children any more often or to any greater extent than parents with children in public school. And that's the relative metric. It could well be that homeschoolers abuse their children at half the rate of public-schoolers. But even if that were true, CBS could still paint homeschoolers as potential abusers simply by doing what it did: Cherry-picking the few examples of heinous behavior in homeschoolers, and neglecting to provide any comparison to the public school population.

This is why, for example, social sciences such as epidemiology always look at control groups. No respectable epidemiologist would produce a study that said, "Out of the entire country, we dug up 6 female users of Bendectin whose children turned out to have birth defects." Instead, the epidemiologist might compare women who used Bendectin to women who didn't, and then look at the comparative rates of birth defects after controlling for other factors.

CBS didn't even pretend to do any of those things.

This, by the way, is what people usually have in mind when they complain that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. Not that the mainstream media features liberal commentators identified as such (as Fox News might feature conservative commentators in its talk show programs), but that the regular news reporting often serves an agenda behind the pretense of objectivity. I mean, imagine CBS News producing a two-part series called, "Public School Nightmares," in which it cherry-picked 3 or 4 instances in which public-schooled children were killed at school -- say, Columbine -- all with the heavy implication that the very practice of public schooling in and of itself was somehow to blame. Unimaginable, isn't it?

UPDATE: Be sure to scroll up for another lengthy post on the CBS homeschooling stories.

FURTHER UPDATE: More on the CBS stories from Joanne Jacobs, Daryl Cobranchi (scroll down for lots of posts), Mrs. Dutoit, and Live from the Guillotine.



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