Last year, we heard about “maths expert” and Oxford University prof who could predict divorces “with 94 per cent accuracy. . . His calculations were based on 15-minute conversations between couples.”

At the time, I expressed some skepticism because, amid all the news reports, I couldn’t find any description of exactly what they did. Also, as a statistician, I have some sense of the limitations of so-called “mathematical models” (or, worse, “computer models”).

Then today I ran across this article from Laurie Abraham shooting down this research in more details, so I’d share it with you.

First, she reviews the hype:

He and his colleagues at the University of Washington had videotaped newlywed couples discussing a contentious topic for 15 minutes to measure precisely how they fought over it: Did they criticize? Were they defensive? Did either spouse curl his or her lip in contempt? Then, three to six years later, Gottman’s team checked on the same couples’ marital status and announced that based on the coding of the tapes, they could predict with 83 percent accuracy which ones were divorced. . . .

“He’s gotten so good at thin-slicing marriages,” Malcolm Gladwell enthused in Blink, “that he says he can be at a restaurant and eavesdrop on the couple one table over and get a pretty good sense of whether they need to start thinking about hiring lawyers and dividing up custody of the children.”

In a 2007 survey asking psychotherapists to elect the 10 most influential members of their profession over the last quarter-century, Gottman was only one of four who made the cut who wasn’t deceased.

Then the good news:

Undeniably, Gottman has made enormous contributions to the study of marriage. . . . To back up the idea that it was the relationship that mattered, it was necessary to step into the flow, or muddle, of couples interaction–and Gottman embraced that task wholeheartedly. When he and a handful of other research teams began videotaping couples in conflict in the 1970s, the approach was revolutionary.

And now the bad news:

For the 1998 study, which focused on videotapes of 57 newlywed couples . . . He knew the marital status of his subjects at six years, and he fed that information into a computer along with the communication patterns turned up on the videos. Then he asked the computer, in effect: Create an equation that maximizes the ability of my chosen variables to distinguish among the divorced, happy, and unhappy. . . . What Gottman did wasn’t really a prediction of the future but a formula built after the couples’ outcomes were already known. . . . The next step, however–one absolutely required by the scientific method–is to apply your equation to a fresh sample to see whether it actually works. That is especially necessary with small data slices (such as 57 couples), because patterns that appear important are more likely to be mere flukes. But Gottman never did that.

Each paper he’s published heralding so-called predictions is based on a new equation created after the fact by a computer model.[emphasis added]

Hey–I think I’ve heard of that method! Whaddya know, a psychotherapist using a method guaranteed to appear successful in retrospect? Somewhere, Karl Popper is smiling ruefully.

Abraham follows up excellently with some numbers:

Then, suppose both the false-positive rate and the false-negative rate for Gottman’s equation are 20 percent (which is only an assumption, because, remember, Gottman doesn’t provide those figures; I chose it based on his assertion of 80 percent “accuracy”). False positives are couples whom the formula classifies as divorced who really aren’t, so with a 20 percent false-positive rate, Gottman would call 168* of the still-intact couples divorced (840 x 0.20). False negatives are couples who are divorced but whom the formula misses, so with a 20 percent false-negative rate, Gottman would put 32 couples in the married column who don’t belong there (160 x 0.20). In sum, Gottman would peg 296 couples as divorced–168 + (160-32), but only 128 of those actually would be, meaning his predictions would be right 43 percent, or less than half, of the time. Much less impressive.

These numbers might not be quite right–recall, these researchers don’t seem to have been coughing up any predictions–but they seem like a good start.

I eagerly await the Abraham vs. Gladwell showdown on Colbert. Could someone please tape that for me when it happens? You can record this on the same tape that already has the Bartels/Frank WWF bout, and the one where they challenge my namesake to see if he can read two full pages from his oh-so-well-reviewed opus of some years ago without the entire studio audience falling asleep. Oh, and if there’s room, you could throw in that clip of Johnny Carson and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s cat. . . .

P.S. It’s funny that Slate put Abraham’s article in the category, “Double X: What women really think about news, politics, and culture.” I guess that makes sense: There’s Slate Magazine for what men think, then that little Slate/Double-X category for women. Sort of like the “women’s page” in old-time newspapers. Who says journalistic traditions are dead?

P.P.S. Yes, I know I live in a glass house; most of my collaborators are men. Still, there’s something funny about seeing a “What women really think” section in a modern-day web magazine.