Woozle Effect

Woozle effect, also known as evidence by citation, or a woozle, occurs when frequent citation of previous publications that lack evidence mislead individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence, and nonfacts become urban myths and factoids (statements presented as a fact, but with no veracity).

Woozle effect is a term coined by criminologist Beverly Houghton in 1979. It describes a pattern of bias seen within social sciences and which is identified as leading to multiple errors in individual and public perception, academia, policy making and government. A woozle is also a claim made about research which is not supported by original findings.

Woozle is the name of an imaginary character in the A.A. Milne book, ‘Winnie-the-Pooh,’ published 1926. Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet start following tracks left in snow believing they are the tracks of a Woozle. The tracks keep multiplying. Christopher Robin then explains that they have been following their own tracks around a tree.

In 1979, Houghton illustrated the Woozle effect showing how work by Gelles 1974, Published in the book ‘The violent home’ had been transferred from applying to a small sample to a universal sample by Strauss who had written the forward to the same book. Both of these where then cited by Langley & Levy in their 1977 book, ‘Wife beating: the silent crisis.’ In 1982, Professor Wakter R Schumm of Kansas State University School of Family Studies and Human Services, warned of the danger of the Woozle effect when he said of it that it could be used to mistakenly ‘set policy in the prevention and treatment of family violence.’ In the 1998 book ‘Intimate Violence’ Gelles and Straus use the Winnie-the-Pooh woozle to illustrate how poor practice in research and self referential research causes older research to be taken as fresh evidence causing error and bias.

The creation of woozles is often linked to the changing of language from qualified (‘it may,’ ‘it might,’ ‘it could’) to absolute form (‘it is’) firming up language and introducing ideas and views not held by an original author or supported by evidence. Selection of data and design of research instruments to gather raw data are linked to the creation of the Woozle effect on many fields of study. The woozle effect is seen as an example of confirmation bias and linked to belief perseverance. Due to the nature of social sciences, where empirical evidence can be based more upon subjects experiential report than absolute measure, there can be a tendency for researchers to align evidence with expectation. Social sciences are also seen as more likely to align with contemporary views and ideals of social justice, leading to bias towards those ideals and use of evidence to prove them. Woozles have also been linked to groupthink, where social conformity within a group’s accepted paradigm leads to the simplification, alteration and even deliberate ignoring of data which does not support the groupthink.

The terms woozle and woozle effect are most frequently cited and used in the field of interpersonal violence (IPV) and domestic violence. This appears to be linked to the terms originating in the subject field in the 1998 book, ‘Intimate Violence.’ Other academic papers and publications have used the woozle as a motif and to show the presence of the woozle effect in many areas, such as school management, nursing and gerentology, developmental psychology and public sector – governmental decision making. Woozle and factoid can be used interchangeably. In 2007, Gelles further emphasized the nature of woozles when he likened them to the fictional game TEGWAR (The Exciting Game Without Any Rules) which appears in the 1956 book ‘Bang the Drum Slowly.’ Gelles also traces the issues of woozles and TEGWAR around the field of domestic violence back in time to the 1990’s and refers to matters ‘Nine Factoids and a Mantra,’ showing how the woozle had taken precedent and facts were not relevant.

The 1962 AMA article on ‘The Battered-Child Syndrome’ Dr. C. Henry Kempe etal is used to illustrate the concept. The article was accompanied by an editorial which read: ‘it is likely that [the battered child syndrome] will be found to be a more frequent cause of death than such well recognized and thoroughly studied diseases as leukemia, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy.’ At no point did the original article make this claim, but shortly afterwards it was being reported that the work of Kempe etal did make the claim. A number of publications including ‘Time,’ ‘Life Magazine,’ and ‘Newsweek’ reported the editorial opinion, and not the findings of the original publication. It was also quoted by politicians and social activists. The same content was being quoted and referenced by the ‘New York Times’ years later in 1969.

It is frequently reported that multiple sources, primarily the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, report that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women ages 15 to 44 in the USA. The most frequent quotations read in the form: ‘In the USA, domestic violence ranks as the leading cause of injury to women from age 15 to 44.’ The claims can be traced backwards from Congress  in 1992 and to the Surgeon General, Antonia Novello, and then to researchers Flitcraft and Stark and the CDC in 1988, and on back to earlier works with Flitcraft and Stark from 1984 (Unpublished dissertation) and 1981. The creation of the woozle is traced to the period around 1988. Other sources quoting, referencing and containing contributions by Flitcraft and Stark do not hold the claim.

In 1997, Cathy Young of The Women’s Freedom Network (WFN), referencing newly published findings by the Justice Department, showed that the claim was false and incidence of Domestic violence far lower than indicated by the woozle. The WFN specifically pointed out that pamphlets, brochures, and literature being disseminated widely as both information and advocacy included false claims that: 1) 20% to 35% of women visit medical emergency rooms did so due to injuries caused by domestic violence, 2) Battering was the primary cause of injury to American women in the age range 15 to 44, and 3) Domestic abuse caused more injuries to women than rape, auto accidents, and muggings combined. In 2013, 16 years later, diverse groups are still quoting the same information as fact, groups such as Stony Brook University, the office of Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, and the US Federal Government.

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