The whole “Thinking Like a Fox” comes from Philip Tetlock’s work at UPENN, where he’s found that prediction makers tend to be most wrong when they make broad, unequivocated statements. The problem is that when a person makes a prediction that’s really, really, wrong, no one is usually around to point out how wrong they are – so on the rare occasion they get it right, they trumpet it to the roof tops without talking about all those times they were just as wrong.
So I was glad to see this article over at BigThink. It looks at the famous Newsweek prediction from 1986 that claimed “an unmarried woman in her 40s was more likely to be killed by a terrorist that get married.”
The report warned that a college-educated woman who was still single when she turned 30 had an only 20% chance that she would ever marry. If she hadn’t married her Prince Charming by the age of 35, the chance she ever would fell to 5%. If, heaven forbid, a woman was still single at age 40, well the probability was incredibly small (although probably significantly more likely than being killed by a terrorist).
The fact that the article forecast that the probability of a single 25-year-old college-educated woman ever marrying was only 50%, in a period in which over 90% of women married at some point in their life, should have been everyone’s first clue that there was something horribly wrong with these predictions.
Thanks to the passage of time, and the availability of U.S. Census data, I can tell you now how many of these college-educated women who had dared to postpone marriage into their 30s and their 40s fared on the marriage market in the years following this publication.
By 2010, 75% of college-educated women who were exactly 30 years old and single in 1986 had married at some point in the intervening 24 years. 69% of women who were exactly 35 and single in 1986 married their Prince Charming and even the old maids, the women who were 40 at the time that Newsweek made these dire predictions, were more likely than not to marry before their 65th birthdays – 68% married.
I’m always happy to see a sensationalist, meme-generating, bull-s**t statistic get its comeupannce.