Department of Awful Statistics

Don't Worry, Dads: Those Kids are Probably Yours

Reports of widespread cuckoldry may be greatly exaggerated

02.07.13 4:01 PM ET

Ever heard that statistic that 10% of kids are not actually descended from the putative father?  Yeah, me too.  Razib Khan sets both of us straight:  

I often encounter this “fact” in a biological context, where someone with an advanced degree in biology will relate how it turns out that there is a great deal of delicacy in situations of transplant matching because of this fact. When pressed on the provenance of this fact most demur. The reason people demur is that the factual basis of this assertion is very thin. In particular, very high estimates of cuckoldry come from databases of disputed paternity, which are obviously going to be a biased sample. A more thorough survey suggests that there is a wide variation in misattributed paternity across populations.

In the interests of disabusing the public of this myth, I point to a paper from Germany, Estimating the Prevalence of Nonpaternity in Germany. The sample consists of the families of children who require bone marrow transplants. The authors note two important conditions: 1) the details of the results as they might relate to paternity are not divulged, 2) none of the parents refused to be typed. Since susceptibility to childhood cancers are evenly distributed across the population the biases introduced in other surveys presumably do not apply to this situation.

Why does any of this matter? Because models of paternity uncertainty are important priors in shaping our view of the course of human evolutionary history. Sexual jealousy and mate guarding loom large in evolutionary psychology. I don’t particularly know how high paternity certainty impacts these arguments, but it needs to be brought to the fore, rather than relying on an old chestnut of wisdom based on nothing.

It's amazing how many widely circulating facts turn out to be something like this--a single study of a non-representative population.  Ideally, we'd all check before we cite.  Unfortunately, given the time constraints of modern life, we need people like Mr. Khan.