Deciding which custody arrangement is in children's best interests often involve experts who bolster their recommendations by claiming they are reflecting "what the research says." The problem is that, unless they have actually read the studies to which they are referring and unless they understand enough about social science research methods to assess the validity of the findings, they may very well have been misled or "woozled" by other people's inaccurate or skewed reports about the research. This bamboozling process has been referred to as "woozling"; and the mistaken beliefs it creates are referred to as "woozles" (Nielsen, 2014b). This article describes the process of woozling and illustrates it with examples of woozles that arose from two widely disseminated studies on shared physical custody for children under the age of four.
To be clear about the terminology in social science studies and in most states' guidelines for determining child support payments, "joint/shared physical custody" (JPC) specifically means a custody arrangement where the children live a minimum of 35 percent of the time with each parent. In JPC families, there is no "residential" or "nonresidential" parent because the children are growing up in two homes where both parents have equal "legal" custody and where JPC is often arranged on a 50/50 schedule. Below the 35 percent cutoff, the custody arrangement is referred to as sole physical custody (SPC), where the children live primarily or exclusively with one parent, typically spending every other weekend, one alternative weeknight "visit," and a portion of the vacation and holiday time with their "nonresidential" parent.
WHAT'S A WOOZLE?
Nearly 30 years ago, the sociologist Richard Gelles wrote about the "woozle effect"(Gelles, 1980). Gelles was concerned about how the research on domestic violence was being misrepresented and misused by advocacy groups to increase funding for battered women's shelters and to raise public awareness. Gelles was particularly troubled because only those studies that supported a particular advocacy position were being presented as "the research", whereas those studies refuting the position were being ignored. As a result, many false beliefs about domestic violence were perpetuated--beliefs that Gelles referred to as "woozles." Gelles and Beverly Houghton who originally coined the term "woozle effect" compared these distortions of the data to the children's story, "Winnie the Pooh." In the story, the little bear, Winnie, dupes himself and his friends into believing that they are being followed by a scary beast--a beast he calls a woozle. Although they never actually see the woozle, they convince themselves it exists because they see its footprints next to theirs as they walk in circles around a tree. The footprints are, of course, their own. Pooh and his friends are, however, confident that they are onto something really big. Their foolish behavior is based on faulty "data"--and a woozle is born.
POP GOES THE WOOZLE: LET'S PLAY WHACK A MOLE
Using another analogy from a children's nursery rhyme, "Pop Goes the Weasel", a social science woozle often behaves like the weasel who keeps popping in and...