There have been a number of stories in the news of late purportedly concluding that research now says having more than two children can make you lose your mind. Of course, such dramatic findings tend to get plenty of sensational media attention and can be alarming to pro-family citizens. But is it true? There are very good reasons to be doubtful.
What does this new research actually say? The New York Post reported bluntly, “Having lots of kids could make you literally lose your mind, Columbia University researchers say.” The more sober Science Daily explains, “a new study found that having three or more versus two children has a negative effect on late-life cognition.”
But reading the actual study in full, as The Daily Citizen did, tells a very different story, giving plenty of reason to be skeptical of such a finding.
First, the author’s disdain for families larger than two children is clearly communicated, warning, “having an additional child often incurs considerable financial costs, such as the cost of extra food, clothes, leisure activities, transportation, schooling, and a car with more space or a larger house … and increased the likelihood of falling below the poverty line.” They add having more children is “related to women’s lower labor market participation” and “lower earnings.” These scholars conclude, “parents with more children can experience more stress, have less time to invest in cognitively stimulating leisure activities, and have less time to relax” and increased “sleep deprivation for the parents.” Yes, they are unapologetic in their negative picture of having kids. The only positive things the authors mention about having larger families is “having children decreases the risk of social isolation among older individuals” and “could raise the level of social interaction and support…” That’s it, the only positive thing they have to say about having children is it could protect against loneliness. They couldn’t come up with any other life benefits of having more than two children. At least they didn’t hide their anti-natalist cards.
Second, the study makes the very curious statement that having two children, one of each sex, can be very fulfilling. But parents who have two kids of the same sex can end up putting themselves at risk by having more children in order to finally attain their missing boy or girl. They assume this is a very bad thing. The authors make this statement as if it is a completely reasonable conclusion,
In sum, the sex composition of the first two children is a reasonable instrument for establishing the causal effect of having three or more children versus two children on late-life cognition.
The inherent value of children and their enriching effect on the life of the family and larger community does not even figure to them.
Third, these authors claim that going from having two children – which they say does not negatively affect later life mental cognition – to three or more creates a “negative effect” on brain function “similar to being 6.2 years older.” And by just having a third child!
If this conclusion seems questionable to you, a non-scientist, there is good reason. These researchers explain their conclusion was only established in some European geographical regions, but not all. This indicates the dynamic, if true, is more culturally, rather than objectively, indicated. They also admit that no other study has reached their conclusion and some of the research they present on reasons why “is only suggestive” and “highly tentative.”
The admitted fact that no other research has reached such a conclusion means we should all take this news with massive caution. This is because it is becoming well established in the social science world that the overwhelming majority of studies performed there are unable to be replicated in subsequent analysis. This was established in 2005 by Stanford University scholar John P.A. Ioannidis in a widely cited published study entitled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Professor Ioannidis explains, “Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true.”
This conclusion has only grown stronger in the intervening years. According to a recent major cover story in The Washington Examiner, the Reproducibility Study conducted at the University of Virginia revealed that an attempt to replicate 100 key academic studies over three years resulted in a replication rate of only 39%. That is not a good track record for something claiming to be so authoritative. The academic journal Nature released a survey in 2016 reporting that 70% of the 1,576 scientists they questioned admitted “they’d tried and failed to reproduce another group’s experiment.” Half of these scientists failed to reproduce their own findings. Nature explains the problem here:
It is highly likely this new and solitary finding on three or more children contributing significantly to late life decline in mental acuity would fall under the irreproducibility category. It has not been reproduced by any other scholars, an essential requirement of the scientific method, and the finding runs contrary to basic, universal human experience. How many people on their death bed look back on their lives and wish they had fewer children and greater mental acuity? There is a word for such people and it’s not a flattering one.
Often times, common sense knowledge about what humans cherish is stronger and wiser than provocative published research. That is certainly the fact of the matter on this new assumption.
Photo from Shutterstock.