Saturday, November 19, 2005

Unintelligent Non-Design

The “intelligent design” movement has been criticized as just the old theological creationism dressed up in bogus science. I think this is unfair – the observations of the natural world that intelligent design promoters rely on are just as empirical and careful as that of most scientists. They make a compelling case that some natural structures are so complex and functionally integrated that it would seem impossible for them to arise solely by small incremental mutations of previously existing structures. One possible explanation is that they were designed by a Designer. This sounds like exactly what the Bible says God does, but there are other possible theories of how there could be a Designer which was not the biblical God.

The science of intelligent design is good and modest, as most real science is. The possibility of design and a designer that it opens up is suggestive and interesting. Intelligent Design theory cannot prove that there is a Designer. And no other kind of theory, no matter how good its science, can prove that there is not a Designer.

Paul Bloom, a psychology and linguistics professor at Yale, has an intriguing article in the current Atlantic, “Is God an Accident?” He reports on fascinating research that he and others have done on how children understand physical things and psychological things. Little children understand that the body dies, but believe the mind lives on. Even infants seem to understand basic physical processes, like falling. Intriguingly, infants seem also to grasp basic social processes, like helping. These ideas do not arise simply from teaching and socialization.

Bloom has a theory of what to make of these empirical findings, which he expresses in this metaphor:

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby’s brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks.

From this metaphor, he develops a theory of the origin of religion. Our brains rightly understand the physical actions of physical objects, and the psychological actions of psychological objects. We then accidentally cross the two kinds of understanding, and infer the existence of two other kinds of phenomena: the psychological actions of physical objects, and the physical actions of psychological objects. From the first kind of inference, we make the error of anthropomorphizing, seeing intentions, will, and meaning in the actions of non-human, and even non-living objects. From the second kind of inference, we make the error of believing that things we imagine have physical existence. In other words, as Bloom says in conclusion, God is an “accidental by-product of our mental states.”

This is an intriguing idea. I can see its appeal as a way to solve the intellectual puzzle of why we believe in beings we cannot see. But Bloom distorts the possible alternatives to make his theory seem true and scientific. The only alternative theories for the origins of religion that he considers are that it is the opiate of the masses, a lie told by the powerful to bolster their power, or that it is a socially functional fraternity, based on an arbitrary set of beliefs enforced to hold a social group together. In other words, Bloom simply assumes that the only serious explanations for religion are secular ones. Is that a scientific conclusion? No, it is a premise, a belief statement. Does Bloom’s theory of the origin of religion rest on compelling new science? No, it rests on a metaphor – “akin to two distinct computers in a baby’s brain.” This is also a belief statement, one that we are not even meant to take literally.

As I noted at the outset, “intelligent design” has been criticized as just the old theological creationism dressed up in bogus science. Bloom’s “unintelligent non-design” is just the old atheism dressed up in bogus science.

Let’s keep the real science. And let’s stop pretending that it can explain things it can’t.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Happiness is Not the Main Point of Marriage

The National Fatherhood Initiative has just released “With This Ring,” a report on their new National Survey on Marriage in America. They generally found very strong support for marriage among all groups in society. The report also notes that very high proportions report that their marriages are very happy or very satisfying. Sixty-nine percent said their marriages were “very happy,” and 88 percent said they were either “completely satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their marriages.

In fact, the proportion saying that their own marriages are very happy is so high that some researchers think this really means that the respondents are just telling the survey givers what they want to hear or what is socially expected.

Another possibility that “With This Ring” considers is this:

A generally high level of marital quality is to be expected in a society, such as the United States, in which persons in unsatisfactory marriages are able, and often willing, to resort to divorce to deal with the situation. If poor marriages tend to end quickly, the average quality of intact marriages will be high, as is apparently the case in this country.

The authors of the report note that if poor marriages end easily, that is not really testimony to the strength of marriage as an institution. I think this is a fair point. A brutal divorce triage would weed out the weak marriages. This is probably a bigger cause of strong reports of marital happiness than is people lying to survey researchers.

I was struck, though, by what seems to me to be the bad effects of putting so much emphasis on marital happiness in the first place. Marriage has always been a complex institution. Even today, when most of the productive and governmental functions that families once had have been spun off to other institutions, most marriages serve multiple roles for the couple, their children, and society as a whole. Producing and rearing children, providing financially for both husband and wife through the ups and downs of each one’s work life, providing a discipline and structure for the lives of all the members of the family, and helping keep both husband and wife healthier in mind and body, are only some of the functions of marriage. And all of these roles are true benefits to the couple and to society even if, at any given time, husband or wife or both are not “very happy.”

Treating happiness as a primary function of marriage puts too much emphasis on happiness. The purpose of marriage is not to make you happy. Your purpose in marrying is not even to make your spouse happy. Most marriages are happy, and most married people are happier than they would be if they could not marry. Still, happiness should never be the prime measure of marital success. If we do take happiness, especially my individual happiness, to be the make-or-break measure of whether my marriage is working, then we will weaken marriage, indeed.

Happiness, like “self-esteem” and “community,” cannot really be achieved directly. Rather, they are by-product of doing other, more mundane but more substantial, actions.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lawrence Summers Was Right the First Time

I was going to stay out of this one, but Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, is still taking grief for remarks he made last January about women and science. This has been bothering me, so I will take this opportunity to weigh in.

In a conference on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce, “ President Summers was asked to offer “some attempts at provocation” on the question of “women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.” The full transcript of his remarks is available online.

This is the summary statement he opened with. I have turned it into a list for clarity.

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions.
1. One is what I would call the … high-powered job hypothesis.
2. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and
3. the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search.
And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

Summers then gave a decent overview of the state of research on each of these points.

In the sensible corner of academia in which I live, this occasioned some interesting, calm conversation over the lunch table, in which the evidence for each point was the main relevant question. Moreover, on the meta-issue of whether one could even raise such questions in an academic setting, there was no controversy. Asking, and attempting to answer, such difficult questions is what the academy is for.

Alas, Harvard is, evidently, not as sensible a place as Centre College. When Summers made his remarks, there was an immediate uproar. Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on his talk, saying later that if she hadn't left, ''I would've either blacked out or thrown up." There were calls for his resignation. President Summers felt obliged to apologize repeatedly, set up not one but two task forces to hire more women in science and engineering, and to stop asking politically incorrect questions. Not Harvard’s finest hour.

The controversy has largely been over Summers’ second point. Yet it is well documented that there are more men than women at the highest levels of math ability. Not zero women, just fewer of them. And not in the broad middle of the population, where most of us live our daily lives, but at the highest levels. As Summers said, he was talking about the miniscule population that is three or three and a half standard deviations above the mean, from which the “tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions”are filled —which, let us remember, was the topic of the conference to which he was speaking.

But that is not the most important point. Note that the controversy was not over his main point, but on a secondary one. Summers offered that the main reason that women did not make up half of the top 25 science and engineering faculties was because women were less likely to want to devote their child-rearing years to spending 80-hour weeks in the laboratory. Lab sciences are the least child-friendly of all the academic disciplines. Any professional with a demanding career puts in long hours. But I was able to do some of my work as a sociologist at home when the kids were little, and the same was true with my wife’s legal work. I could also take my children to work on occasion, as could my wife. A lab scientist, on the other hand, pretty much has to spend all those long hours in the lab, away from home and children. Moreover, a scientific laboratory is one of the most dangerous work places that a child could go to.

Some women, of course, are willing to put in the long hours in the lab. Nancy Hopkins started working obsessively with James Watson when she was an undergraduate. Early in her career she would spend long hours in his Cold Stream lab, then take the ten-hour train trip home to her husband. Hopkins is a very eminent and accomplished biologist, and an important member of the MIT faculty. I can find no report that she has children. This life is her choice, and I don’t criticize it. But it is surely relevant in studying the proportion of women at the highest levels of science and engineering that these careers are among the most difficult to succeed in while raising children.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Religion Matters More When Kids Are Old Enough to Want Real Answers

Parents of small children are a not especially sold on religion – it is only when the kids get to school age, and especially when the children are teenagers, that parents definitely see the value of religion.

I was looking at the 2002 Religion and Public Life Survey, commissioned by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The survey asked several questions about the importance of religion in society, and especially for morality. They report the answers of those who have children under 18 at home, then break them down into those with kids under 5, with children 6 – 12, and with children 13 –17. In general, sheer parenthood is not a big differentiator on these questions. The age of the kids makes a bigger difference.

The Pew survey asked which of these two statements came closer to the respondents’ views:
A. Children are more likely to grow up to be moral adults when they are raised in a religious faith, or
B. Children are just as likely to grow up to be moral adults whether or not they are raised in a religious faith
Nearly everyone could choose one or the other. Overall, 62% of all respondents chose A. That is, nearly two thirds of Americans believe that adults will be more moral if they are raised religiously. Moreover, there is no difference between parents with kids at home (61%) versus other people (62%).

Yet when we look at parents of different ages of kids, we find an interesting pattern. Parents of children under 5 were less likely than other parents to think a religious upbringing was important – 57% to 64%. Yet the parents of middle schoolers reverse that pattern, with 63% saying yes, compared to only 59% of other parents. Parents of teens are even more likely to want a religious upbringing for their kids, with 65% answering yes, compared to the same 59% of other parents.

The survey then offered a parallel choice:
A. It is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values, or
B. It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.
Again, the parents of the smallest children were likely to take the less religious answer. 57% chose option one, which shrank to a bare majority (50.2%) of the parents of teens.

These are, admittedly, not huge differences. Most American, parents or not, think that religion is important in raising up moral adults. But it is interesting that parents show an increasing appreciation of the importance of religion for moral upbringing as their children get older. The parents of teenagers are especially likely to seek religious help.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Raising Boys Without Men (Part Two)

“I have come to take a stand against the recent tide of opinion and the rash of books asserting that boys must have a father in the home in order to grow to full manhood.”

Thus Peggy Drexler begins her conclusion of Raising Boys Without Men.
Her conclusion is true. It is also a straw man.

There has not been a rash of books asserting that boys must have a father in order to grow to full manhood. There has been ample documentation, though – especially David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America and David Popenoe’s Life Without Father – that boys are more likely to do better with a father than without. In any group, some will thrive despite risky conditions, and some will fail despite having all the advantages. Most members of the group, though, will respond in the normal way. That is the definition of normal. And most boys do better with a father than without. The fact that Drexler found a small, select group of boys who seem ok through middle school without a traditional father in their home is not really a disproof of the general claim.

Moreover, Drexler demonstrates the many ways in which the mothers she interviewed, especially in the lesbian couples, went out of their way to find father substitutes for their sons. The mothers, as well as the sons, sought out grandfathers, uncles, neighbors, mother’s male friends, coaches, and teachers, to be male role models for their sons. This is an admirable work-around for what the mothers themselves saw as a potentially risky absence in their sons’ lives. Most interestingly, in the lesbian couples, the birth mother tended to act like a traditional mother, and the “social mother” tended to act like a father. The single mothers, likewise, turned to “the village” for all kinds of help with their children, especially for men to be father-like to their sons.

As I noted yesterday, Drexler’s core concern, that sons raised only by mothers would suffer from “smotherlove” and be sissified, seems surprisingly old-fashioned. A more pressing question of the past decade has not been about boys with too much mothering, but boys with too little fathering. Fatherless boys cause most of the social problems that we face in America. Groups of fatherless boys – slum gangs – are the greatest domestic terror threat, posing a far greater danger than Al Qaeda or the white supremacist militias. (Those groups, by the way, seem to be disproportionately made of fatherless boys, too).

The boys that Peggy Drexler studied seem to pose no threat to society. On the contrary, the picture she presents is of boys who are unusually thoughtful and sensitive. Why are they so different from that other, more dangerous group of fatherless boys?

First, Drexler is only showing us these boys as boys. The subjects of her study had not even finished high school when the study ended. We do not see many of them in the real danger years.

Second, the enduring legacy of divorce that Judith Wallerstein writes about comes when the children of divorce attempt to marry, which they often delay for years. Only a few of Drexler’s subjects are the children of divorce. It would be interesting to see how this grab-bag of sons of “maverick moms” – lesbian couples, single-mothers-by-choice, divorced, widowed, and never-married mothers – made marriages of their own. My guess is that the children of divorced and never-married mothers would follow the pattern Wallerstein found, though this group, which Drexler seems to have selected because they are high functioning, will probably do a bit better than average. The kids of widows, single-by-choice, and lesbian moms will probably be more confident than the divorced kids that they can marry successfully, because they are less likely to feel that their fathers abandoned them. But only time, and a systematic research plan, will tell.

Third, and most important, Drexler obscures the difference that class makes in the lives of these boys. For her original study, Drexler chose stable, educated, older, white, business and professional couples. They appear to live in neighborhoods of similar families. These boys are worlds away from the sons of poor, young, single mothers in slums where few households contain stable couples of any kind. For Drexler’s main subjects, money helps keep their home and neighborhood stable and secure, and goes a long way to underwriting the “village” of coaches, teachers, and men-at-a-distance who fill in the gaps in the boys’ lives. Moreover, the lesbian couples’ families are, as far as we are told, very small – the focal boy, and maybe another child – so the double income of their white-collar mothers is not spread over many other kids. Drexler’s second set of “maverick moms, “ most of whom are single, are not as rich, and appear to have more kids. Still, with only a few exceptions, this is a middle-class-or-better sample.

Raising Boys Without Men is an interesting, but very limited, study. If it were called Raising a Boy With Functional Moms, Money, and Lots of Helpful Men and Women, Though Without Fathers in the Home, the book would be more honest, if a bit less surprising.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Raising Boys Without Men (Part One)

In Raising Boys Without Men, Peggy Drexler praises a group of “maverick moms” – lesbian couples, single mothers by choice, and a variety of single mothers not by choice – for raising the next generation of “exceptional men.” The core of the book is Drexler’s study of 16 boys raised by lesbian couples in San Francisco in the 1990s. She then supplemented this dissertation work with interviews with another 60 single mothers, half who had chosen to raise sons alone, half who had not. The lesbian couples, who make up the bulk of the analysis and examples in the book, are white, educated, white-collar, older women in stable relationships.

Drexler, a long-married mother, approaches the issue with some rather old-fashioned questions. Will boys raised by women only be sissies? Will boys raised by lesbians be gay? Sociology in the fifties and early sixties was concerned that over-mothered boys would not be manly enough. That question was largely laid to rest in the decade or so following. Likewise, research from the seventies and eighties found that children of homosexual parents were no more likely than average to be homosexual themselves, though they were more likely to be liberal in their attitudes toward sexual orientation.

Drexler did find that these boys were normal boys in most respects. They were typical boys in their interests and their play. I was pleased and a little surprised to find that Drexler expected this, as she agrees that much of the gendered activity of children is hardwired, and not simply the result of social convention and socialization.

Indeed, Drexler’s stronger claim is that the sons of lesbian couples are more sensitive to emotions and social relations than average boys are. Far from being morally retarded by growing up in a female-run household, Drexler seems to be saying that this small group of boys is morally superior to the average lad. She also seems to be making the same claim for the sons of the single mothers she studied, though it is hard for me to be certain about this as there are no real quantities reported here.

Drexler sets out to answer a too-easy question: Is it possible for lesbian couples and single women to raise good boys and men? It is practically a sociological truism that it is possible for good individuals to arise from any social circumstance, no matter how risky. The more difficult sociological question is, are lesbian couples and single mothers as likely to produce good boys and men as stable heterosexual couples are? Drexler’s sample is much too small, and much too select, to answer that question. Moreover, other research makes me think that she is mixing apples and oranges. Stable, two-parent couples generally produce better outcomes for kids than single parents do, regardless of any other factors. Calling lesbians couples, single-moms-by-choice, and women who become single mothers by divorce, widowhood, or inadvertent never marrying all “maverick moms” obscures very large differences among those groups.

Peggy Drexler did, I think, demonstrate her main point – sons of lesbian couples grow up to be regular guys. There are other questions, though, that her study raises, but does not fully answer.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Fighting the Culture of Fear is THE Centrist Issue

Extremists try to win the hearts and minds of the majority through fear. The culture of fear is equally a weapon of the left and the right. What they most want you to fear is what will happen if the other side wins.

Barry Glassner published a good book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, in 1999. He details the ways in which many of the things which are high on most Americans’ fear lists – pregnant teen girls and murderous teen boys, rising rates of drug use and violent crime, epidemic new diseases and plane crashes – are actually quite rare, and most of them are getting better. From recent news we might add a fear of pedophiles and serial killers, and, of course, terrorism. Glassner’s point holds true about these fears, as well: they are rare, and they are not getting more frequent.

Michael Moore made a similar point in Bowling for Columbine. In talking about shooting deaths, he used the wonderfully rich comparison of the United States and Canada. Both societies have many guns and a gun-accommodating culture. Yet their gun death rate is a small fraction of ours, even when adjusting for their much smaller population. Moore attributes the difference to a different culture – American culture promotes fear much more than Canadian culture does. Indeed, in the middle of the film, Moore interviews Barry Glassner about the culture of fear, while they are both standing at the street corner in South Central Los Angeles which was the heart of the Rodney King riots. Presumably, two middle-aged white guys – geeky, slow, obviously defenseless white guys, at that -- should have been at risk and felt fear in the heartland of black rage against white society. (In fact, most of the perpetrators of the Rodney King riots were Mexican-Americans, and most of the shop-keeping victims were Asian-Americans – but that did not fit the CNN story line). Yet, sensibly, they were not fearful, and were treated in a civil, even friendly, fashion by everyone they met.

Television is particularly egregious in selling fear. Television is actually, I think, a very bad way to find out what is going on. Television is driven by a need to show pictures. Most important things that happen do not produce interesting pictures. Most real news, in other words, does not make good television. So television shows good pictures – fires, car collisions, plane crashes, bombings, riots, shot and beaten bodies, and, when all else fails, crying victims of the above. These pictures give us the impression that these are the most newsworthy events. Rarely is that so. Since most people get their news from television, this mistaken impression is widespread in society. The cable news stations, if anything, make the problem worse, by repeating a few shocking headlines and pictures, and filling the rest of the time with reporters’ opinions. Local news stations answer the cable challenge with “how your innocuous possessions can kill you” stories. The best television news show, the PBS “Newshour,” is very boring television, indeed – all talking heads, with almost no pictures at all. And the “Daily Show” is a funny parody, but it is frankly fake.

Of course there are real threats in the world. There are terrorists, and tsunamis, and tsetse flies. But for most people most of the time, these are distant threats. Yes, millions die every day, and many of them from preventable causes. But the cause of prevention is also advancing every day, too. The fact that we know about deaths from around the world does not show that there are more deaths around the world, as much as it shows the great improvement in our news-gathering capacity. The fact that the 2004 tsunami was a worldwide cause for compassion shows improvement in the world. Even in the most dangerous places in the world, most people live without being attacked. Many of the bad things that happen in the world – drug addiction, alcoholism, gun-shot wounds, sexually transmitted diseases – mostly happen to people who live risky lives. If you don’t fool around with drugs, booze, guns, and sex, you are very unlikely to suffer any of these bad outcomes.

Sociology is a great help in combating the culture of fear. Sociology, more than any other science, in concerned with distinguishing the normal from the rare. We look at the whole bell curve, to see what is likely to happen to most people, and which things happen only rarely or mostly to those who live in the extreme ends of society. Of course, we should fight bad things, even if they are rare or are only likely to happen to other people.

But we need not succumb to a culture of fear. The facts, I believe, support a culture of cheerfulness.