Today in prescriptive studies about how to conduct your love life: for a lasting marriage, women should pick men who are at least five years older, and have less education.
The study was published in the European Journal of Operational Research, which makes marriage sound like a matter of bolts and widgets. And this is essentially how the research — or at least the coverage thereof — treats it. After interviewing 1,000 couples whose relationships had lasted five years or more, the researchers found that while the man being at least five years older reduced the chances of divorce, when the woman had five years on her partner, divorce was more than three times as likely. Couples were also more likely to split if they'd been divorced before, but, interestingly, the effect was less if both couples had a divorce behind them. As a model of good marital decisions, the Telegraph and the BBC both held up Jay-Z and Beyonce — he's 11 years older than her, and unlike him, she graduated from high school.
Obviously this research has some fairly big problems. For one, the scientists seem only to have studied straight partners — gay couples, good luck figuring out which one of you is supposed to be older. Also, while the researchers say that people choose their mates "on the basis of love, physical attraction, similarity of taste, beliefs and attitudes, and shared values" (awww), they also advise that using "objective factors" like age and education "may help reduce divorce." Their advice has a certain think-with-your-head-not-your-heart appeal — it's probably smart to think about, say, whether you hate each others' families and whether you're going to fight a lot about money before you get hitched. But even these semi-objective factors seem to fall into the "shared values" category, and ticking off boxes about age and educational attainment frankly seems like how a robot chooses its bride.
But some of the blame for the study's obnoxiousness rests not with the scientists, but with the way Ian Johnston of the Telegraph and an unnamed journalist at the BBC have chosen to cover their work. Pretty much every time a study on marital success comes out — and this is not the first — journalists frame it as a referendum on who readers should marry. The Telegraph is the worse offender in this case, with the headline, "Men should marry young, smart women, say scientists," and subhead, "Men should marry a woman who is cleverer than they are and at least five years younger, if they want the relationship to stand the best chance of lasting, according to new research." Both of these make it sound like the success of a relationship rests on men's choices alone, and also conflate intelligence with education — the study itself doesn't seem to say anything about who's "cleverer," just who stayed in school longer. More than that, they turn a descriptive study of what worked for some couples into a prescription of what will work for "men."
This conversion from description to prescription is a huge problem in science journalism — it also rears its ugly head a lot in relation to weight studies, which reporters frequently frame as "thinner people are healthier, so you should be thin." Some editor somewhere has clearly decided that readers like advice about their lives more than they like science, and reporters both here and in the UK have set about turning the latter into the former. I'm not one to discount the legitimate findings of scientists — as David Roberts said in response to a recent poll that found only 57% of Americans "believe" in global warming, "if peer-reviewed science has no special status, then every aspect of human or ecosystem health is partisan." But peer-reviewed science can only tell us so much — it can reveal something about what has worked for other couples, but, fortunately or unfortunately, it can't say what will work for "you."