Dr. Jean M. Twenge discusses her 2014 ASME nominated article, “How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby,” from The Atlantic.
For her first article in a national publication, Dr. Jean M. Twenge is off to a good start. “How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby,” which ran in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, is nominated in the public interest category, which, “honors magazine journalism that illuminates issues of national importance.” Dr. Twenge is a psychology professor at San Diego State University, but she is no stranger to more mainstream audiences. She’s penned three books, including The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant. For her nominated piece on female age and natural fertility, Twenge was driven by the media’s recklessness when reporting scientific data. The popular narrative, according to Twenge, drew on antiquated statistics and in vitro fertilizations that gave mothers-to-be an unrealistically negative view of pregnancy past age 30. Dr. Twenge concluded that fertility does decline with age, but not as steeply as once thought, and “a vast majority of women in their late 30s will be able to get pregnant on their own.” Zinio chatted with Twenge over the phone. This interview has been condensed and edited.
How did the article get published in The Atlantic?
My relationship with The Atlantic began around 2010, when deputy editor Don Peck interviewed me. Since then I wrote a piece for their website about my own research and my book The Impatient Woman’s Guide. The Atlantic has a strong tradition of writing about research and women’s issues, so I pitched Don the idea for the article. It took a while to get into print, I think the first draft was written in June 2012, but in that time more data on natural fertility became available, which really added to the article.
In the article you wrote that fertility data is, “one of the more spectacular examples of mainstream media’s failure to correctly report on and interpret scientific research.” Was this just benign neglect on the media’s part, or was there a different motive?
I don’t think we can know for sure. The majority of it is probably benign neglect, as you say. There are common statistics that get covered over and over, such as a third of women ages 35 to 39 won’t get pregnant after a year of trying, that people assume come from a study of modern women. It doesn’t. The data is based on birth records from 16th century France. It’s a glaring example of how original sources simply do not get identified.
The media goes both ways with statistics, often highlighting the extreme cases. There’s the constant drumbeat of how women in their late 30s will have trouble getting pregnant, and then on the other hand, a story will run about a 48-year-old celebrity having a baby, yet they’ll fail to mention she used donor eggs. The truth is never on the extremes. It falls somewhere in the middle.
Are there other fields that face a similar problem with the media’s coverage of scientific data?
Yes, it is not exclusive to fertility data. And it’s not just journalists; academics make these mistakes, too. My experience with my own research being covered in the media has mostly been positive, but I know a number of academics that forgo interviews because they fear they will be misrepresented.
Research and data get simplified and lost for two main reasons. One, the people covering it do not have training in statistics and, two, they lack training in the scientific method. There’s a tendency to present science as politics, where there are two opposite but equal viewpoints. This is hardly ever the case. The two most glaring examples of this are the climate change and evolution “debates” – which aren’t debates. There’s an enormous amount of scientific evidence for both, yet articles still quote the “other side” as if it had equal merit.
Was there any negative feedback from the article?
Almost everything was positive. Some comments about my own experience such as, “she got lucky, now she thinks everyone can do it” did annoy me. That was not the point of the article, and they clearly did not read it thoroughly. The point was that my experience is supported by the data, and is not an exception to it.
You mentioned that friends and associates were astounded when you mentioned one particular statistic drew data from birth records from 1670 to 1830. When you talked to doctors in the field, were they equally surprised of these findings?
I didn’t interview fertility doctors, per se. My main sources did research on fertility and had expertise in natural fertility. They had conducted the research I thought was better – that on modern populations of women who were trying to get pregnant. In some cases it was hard to get people on record (going back to the reasons academics don’t interview for media). They’re busy people. One source was very open, and another took a couple of e-mails to draw answers.
Your personal journey to motherhood is at the forefront of the article. Was that an important element to connect with readers on an emotional level?
My training as an academic says you take yourself out of the equation and start with the data. For a magazine piece, though, it’s better to start with a narrative that illustrates the principles. My story represents the journey of many women and couples. Deciding when to have children is an emotional and personal thing. Bringing emotion into the story helps convey the data in a way that numbers can’t.
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