Thursday, 17 January 2008

Case Closed

Since my scepticism about the "married twins" story began attracting attention, I've become increasingly conscious that while I did express a fairly widespread (and growing) sense that something about the story didn't quite add up, I wasn't able to deliver a killer blow. Indeed, I didn't really try. Since no evidence has been put forward to substantiate the story, there's really no need to debunk it. Only an extraordinary suspension of disbelief by the world's media, led by the BBC, allowed the tale to be taken seriously at all.

Besides, if the twins exist, where are they? It's not enough to say that they are protected by strict secrecy laws. Such protections are normally only accorded to children, notorious ex-criminals and people in the witness protection programme: there's no suggestion in this case that the couple involved have been given new identities, nor is such a thing even possible. The coupe's identities were, at most, confidential: but such an extraordinary case, had it actually occurred, would surely have been picked up by someone at the time. Over the past few days, tabloid newspapers have offered to open the chequebooks to anyone who'll give them a lead, offering anonymity if necessary. Yet not a whisper.

Lord Alton told the House of Lords that he had learned of the case from the judge who decided it. Later, pressed by the Sun, he admitted that the judge he spoke to might only have been "familiar" with the case. To date, no judge has come forward, even off the record, to confirm having had such a conversation with the noble lord. The senior Family Division judge stated, on the record, that he was unaware of any such case. In any event, annulment cases normally only reach the High Court when there are complex financial issues at stake, or the legality of the marriage is in real dispute. Neither is likely to have been the case here.

So Alton's story lacks not only detail, verification and likelihood, it also lacks procedural plausibility. We are asked to believe that a case, in itself statistically extraordinary, was decided in a legally unusual manner, in conditions of strict secrecy, and without the senior relevant judge being made aware of it.

Alternatively, Lord Alton might have been mistaken. He might have mis-heard, or over-interpreted what he was told, or mis-remembered.

It's easy to imagine how Lord Alton might have come to hear about, believe, and repeat, a story that is not, in fact true. Much more difficult to imagine circumstances in which such an incident could have taken place in reality. That ought to be case closed.

And yet, and yet. A lot of people out there want to believe it.

According to some, indeed, the onus ought to be on the sceptics to disprove the story. Here, for example, is Andrew, writing on the BoingBoing site:


As an identical twin whose mother is an adoption researcher and support provider (no, I'm not adopted, but I've heard countless stories and read plenty of books about twins and adoption), I'd like to point out that stories like these are not as uncommon as you might think. Many of you have previously made this point, and I think that just because some guy on a blog came up with a couple not-so-well-thought-out ideas for why it might be an urban legend doesn't mean it is. I've met plenty of people, through my mother's work, who have had even more bizarre stories than this. Not to mention that in many cases of adoption, if there even are records, they are usually extremely difficult for a person to get, even if they have medical reasons to request them, and often are changed or filled in with incorrect information in the first place. These two people might not have even had copies of their birth certificates, or if they did they might have had incorrect info.


How does "some guy on a blog" answer that one?

Mathematics was never my strongest subject, so feel free to correct my arithmetic. I believe, however, that the following ought to be enough to put paid to this story.

The earliest year for which I could get figures for adoptions in Britain was 1974, when there were 22,502 adopted children. In the same year, there were 640,777 maternities, of which 1,873 were cases of mixed-sex twins. Which yields 3,746 individuals, or approximately 0.6% of the total. The figures for adoption of twins were not available to me, but, assuming all other things are equal, there would have been something in the order of 130 individual twins, the vast majority of whom would have been adopted together. Indeed, it is likely that all were.

(Some people have raised the well-known American case of Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein, who were born in 1968 in New York and adopted separately, as part of a research programme into the influence of environment on development. They were, however, identical twins, their separate adoption was deliberate and controversial, and it took place in the USA. Moreover (and this is important) they didn't meet by chance. Their meeting was the result of their seeking each other out. Almost all known cases of separated twins meeting have been the result of such endeavours.)

There are known cases of separated twins in Britain. In the 1970s and 80s, the social worker John Stroud was responsible for bringing several such people together, and encouraging them to co-operate with an American research project. However, his work relates to adoptions that took place at least 50 years ago. And even then, making such connections isn't easy. It's not the sort of thing that tends to happen by chance. In any case, Alton's story allegedly relates to a "recent case".

But let's imagine a scenario in which 50% of twins taken for adoption are separated at birth (almost certainly much too high a figure). That represents, on 1974 figures, around 60 individuals. Over a thirty-year period (say the ages of 20 and 50, when most people get married) there would therefore be 1800 potential long-lost twins. In a population size of 60 million, what are the chances of their meeting?

An average person meets, in the sense of getting to know reasonably well, approximately 1000 people in the course of a lifetime. Thus the chance of any person meeting any other person in Britain is roughly 1 in 60,000. But there are 1800 people to meet, so the odds of this happening for any individual should be reduced by the same factor, to a mere 1 in 33. There would, therefore, be 54 people who randomly met their separated twin. Yet stories of such random meetings are much rarer, which suggests that my initial figure was an exaggeration. Either that, or they remain ignorant of the fact. After all, most people who know each other only slightly don't compare birth certificates and adoption stories.

But we're not talking about random meetings of slight acquaintances. We're talking about marriage, which is much rarer: most people only marry once or twice in a lifetime. So for a person A, the chances of meeting and marrying a second person B, in a random sample of the population, is one in 20 million. In the case of separated twins, the figure can be reduced, agan, by a factor of 1800. This represents a possibility of one in 11,111. That works out as 0.16 marriages. Over a thirty-year period.

Alton's incident, therefore, is something that (if total ignorance prevailed, and there were no safeguards to prevent it) ought to happen once every 200 years. But only in a country whose population is 60 million. A century ago, it was half that. So let's call it once every 400 years.

Unlikely, but possible? No, because several safeguards would still stand in the way. Most adoptees know at least the basic facts of their birth. Under British law the birth of twins is recorded in a specific way, with the time of birth being recorded. And while the names of the parents are omitted from the birth certificate of an adopted child, the date and place of birth are retained. So no-one putting themselves forward for marriage ought to be in any doubt that they are adopted; in the case of separated twins, the coincidence of time and place would also be made apparent. A serious and fairly rare error would have to have taken place, or there would have to have been a deliberate deception, for the facts not to become apparent before the wedding. Factor in a error margin of 2%. Or, to be generous, 4%.

Even allowing for a higher percentage of twins being adopted separately than is known to be the case, therefore, we are still left with a situation that ought to occur in a country the size of modern Britain, on average, once every 10-20 thousand years .

And even then, it would be most unlikely to reach the High Court.

Alternatively, Lord Alton might be mistaken. Well, what do you think?

3 comments:

Emperor said...

"Besides, if the twins exist, where are they? It's not enough to say that they are protected by strict secrecy laws. Such protections are normally only accorded to children, notorious ex-criminals and people in the witness protection programme: there's no suggestion in this case that the couple involved have been given new identities, nor is such a thing even possible."

Also even if the twins identities are kept secret the actual court records would be publicly available wouldn't they?

Even if this went no further than a quick annulment there would be some kind of paper trail to follow and once judges get involved there would be plenty of proof available that wouldn't in anyway reveal their identities (they keep all sorts of people's details out of trial transcripts so there is a system in place to make this run smoothly).

Lord Alton could summon this forth with a couple of phone calls and a decent journalist should be able to find it in an afternoon, even with such skimpy information on offer.

So basically the secrecy angle is a cop-out which doesn't stand up to investigation.

The Heresiarch said...

Actually, I think this story is now completely played out. No newspaper or TV station wants to touch it. Why would they, it would just draw attention to their utter stupidity? Alton isn't giving interviews, for the same reason. And, of course, there's no PROOF that it's a hoax. How could there be?

I'm hoping the BBC will eventually put their hands up and admit their mistake. But I'm not holding my breath.

silas said...

Great series of articles, I too have been fascinated by how this story received its prominence in the press.

I am also of the opinion that it is an urban myth, dragged out in a debate just to back up an opinion presented in that debate.