In Defense of Dangerous Ideas (Even the Really Inconvenient, Nasty Ones)

In a gently provocative Chicago Sun Times opinion piece adapted from his  introduction to John Brockman’s very uneven Edge anthology, What’s Your Dangerous Idea?, the great Steven Pinker  comes to the qualified defense of  intellectual dynamite. 

Pinker opens with a list of propositional questions well chosen to delineate some — but not all — of the boundaries that otherwise thoughtful people reflexively erect to stifle open discussion when parlor chat takes an awkward turn. In the spirit of the The Hoover Hog’s longstanding commitment to the free discussion of all things inflammatory, I shall turn shortly to these questions and offer my thoughts, along with some irresponsibly provisional best guess hunches.

Before jumping in, however, it is interesting to reflect on the criteria Pinker proposes to qualify how we are to think about the unthinkable.  Being a man of science, it is unsurprising that certain epistemic ground rules might seem justified before traipsing off into intellectual minefields. Thus Pinker’s first qualification is articulated:

By "dangerous ideas" I don’t have in mind harmful technologies, like
those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like
those of racist, fascist or other fanatical cults. I have in mind
statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and
argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to
challenge the collective decency of an age.

This may sound reasonable enough upon first pass, but is such a restriction really justified?  Is it even consistent with the implications of some of the propositions that Pinker is content to leave on the plate? I don’t think so. The problem with omitting "harmful technologies" or "evil ideologies" from the mix becomes clear when you consider that many of the questions reserved for rational contemplation proceed upon normative grounds that, if affirmed, would tend to undermine the intellectual basis for assigning pejorative distinctions in the first place.

By way of illustration, consider just one of the questions that Pinker endorses as being consonant with the safely delimited spirit of ostensibly dangerous discourse:

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

By asking whether morality of any kind can be sustained on purely ontological grounds, we implicitly admit that the answer may tend in either direction.  (The answer to Pinker’s query, by the way, is yes; there is no objective basis for morality.  Next question, please.)   But if one concludes that no ultimately empirical justification for morality can be sustained, then asserting the inherent superiority of one ethical system — or ideology — over another will remain exceedingly difficult and arguably futile. Further assuming the that the relativist-normative games that follow can claim no transcendent rules,  Pinker’s casual invocation of the term "evil" begins to seem odd.  I would imagine such a term, with all its metaphysical baggage, should be reserved for the full skeptical treatment. As should the unquestioning dismissal of viscerally unseemly ideologies or technologies. 

My considered sense is that Pinker’s public-spirited humanism has gotten the better of him.  Like many provocative thinkers of the hyper-educated Third Culture, he favors the aura of danger but shrinks from the implications when the specter of genuine danger enters the frame.  My moral sense tells me that fascism, whether understood in colloquial or academic terms, is indeed a mighty bad idea. So, I hasten to insist, is communism.  But when I look into the maw of a meaningless universe, a universe in which moral claims may be rationally understood as necessarily tentative or merely preferential (as Pinker implicitly allows), I am at a loss to see how one can rationally proscribe the bounds of ideation to exclude any flavor of discourse. 

Was the invention of  atomic weaponry an inherently immoral accomplishment? It’s hard to think of a more demonstrably "harmful technology" in the history of human affairs, yet one’s answer to this question will to some extent depend on one’s response to Pinker’s provocative question about the etiology of human morality.  I seem to recall that at least one "serious scientist and thinker" voiced, and later retracted, an opinion about this very issue.  Would Einstein’s initial views on the matter be disallowed by Pinker’s criteria? Should Martin Heidegger’s metaphysically impenetrable defense of National Socialism be foreclosed from discussion?  Is Pinker suggesting that Hannah Arendt’s bed-buddy was less than a serious thinker?  If  we are free to consider that "evil" is a metaphysical chimera, then I submit no holds be barred.

The Other Thing

Pinker proposes another caveat in his defense of dangerous ideas that, upon consideration, is also difficult to reconcile with his stated premise.  The second qualification seeks to exempt rank kookery and mendacity from the fray of permissible discourse, and Pinker’s stated motives are indeed laudable:

Let’s exclude outright lies, deceptive propaganda, incendiary
conspiracy theories from malevolent crackpots and technological recipes
for wanton destruction. Consider only ideas about the truth of
empirical claims or the effectiveness of policies that, if they turned
out to be true, would require a significant rethinking of our moral
sensibilities. And consider ideas that, if they turn out to be false,
could lead to harm if people believed them to be true. In either case,
we don’t know whether they are true or false a priori, so only by
examining and debating them can we find out. Finally, let’s assume that
we’re not talking about burning people at the stake or cutting out
their tongues but about discouraging their research and giving their
ideas as little publicity as possible. There is a good case for
exploring all ideas relevant to our current concerns, no matter where
they lead. 

Recognizing that Pinker has parsed this exclusionary clause with enough qualifying adjectives to dilute any strong objection, I want to play on the drift of what’s being suggested.  And I want to emphasize a conspicuous omission from the roster of gut-stirring questions that can scarcely be attributed to oversight.  Most of you know where this is going.

If it is suggested that the Apollo moon landing was a government-sponsored hoax, it doesn’t much matter whether the person advancing the claim is motivated by paranoia or ignorance because there will always be scientists and rational thinkers who are willing to point out the myriad problems with such a position.  When the 911 Truth squad puts out reams of spurious scholarship purporting to demonstrate that the attacks of September 11 were the result of an elaborate government conspiracy, serious engineers and technical experts are likewise quick to refute such claims, often in elaborate detail.  The same rational correctives apply to far flung AIDS conspiracies, creation "science," and various and sundry strands of paranormal flummery.  When I was a kid, James Randi was like a fucking hero to me, and for good reason.

The charlatans and true believers who trade in wide-eyed conspiracy theories are seldom portrayed as seriously dangerous thinkers. Whether they are operating from a position of hucksterish self-interest or earnest credulity, the reasoning they employ typically resides in thoughtless opposition to Ockham’s razor.  They remain colorful figures in the American pastiche.  It’s easier to ignore them most of the time, and occasionally to explain why and how they are mistaken.  No one even considers putting conspiracy mongers and kooks behind bars.

Having long been fascinated by the subject of intellectual taboo, I can assert without reservation that there are literally two propositions that stand out as uniquely incendiary.  The first is the idea that Pinker openly entertains in  his excellent contribution to "What’s Your Dangerous Idea." To cite the title of his essay, it is the idea that "Groups of People May Differ Genetically in Their Average Talents and Temperaments." When The Bell Curve scared the shit out of the very best people over a decade ago, there was already a massive corpus of scholarship that was consistent with this unthinkable nostrum, and in subsequent years the evidence that long documented differences between racial groups — most importantly with reference to intelligence — have a partially and even significantly genetic basis has only grown stronger.  And as Pinker notes in his essay, advances in genetic testing signal the development of dispositive methods of investigation that many people, clinging desperately to their timeworn copies of The Mismeasure of Man, would sooner leave untried.

Clearly, the grand stature of this taboo stems in large measure from the widespread, if seldom articulated, fear that it may be true.  And it probably is.  We’ll know soon enough.

Chances are, you’ve already guessed the other distinctively formidable taboo that troubles our collective imagination.  It’s the one Pinker doesn’t mention.  It’s the one I strongly suspect he is seeking to exclude (erroneously, if sincerely) with his above quoted ground rules.  It’s the one that, if voiced in most of the western world, can get you thrown in jail.

A recent essay by the ever-provocative and erudite Theodore Dalrymple explores a little investigated socio-cultural phenomenon, the tendency of interested cultural constituencies to credulously believe genocide stories, even when historical evidence proves wanting.  The essay, published in the New English Review, is entitled "Why Intellectuals Like Genocide."   Dalrymple focuses specifically on an academic scandal that erupted among Australian scholars over the publication of a work of dissident history.  The book is called, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, by  Kieth Windshcuttle. Its central heresy:  it "sets out to destroy the idea that there had been a genocide of Tasmanian aborigines carried out by the early European settlers of the island."

Dalrymple is mining the episode for greater verities, of course, but his account of the ensuing disputation is significant.  Here’s the passage that struck me:

It is, of course, possible,
that the professors and the intelligentsia were so convinced that there had
been a genocide, and believed that the evidence that it had taken place so
overwhelming, that any person who denied it must have been an extremely bad man.
On the other hand, if the evidence was so overwhelming, they should have been
able easily to produce sufficient of it in public to convince someone like me
(and many others). This they have not done, and so one must conclude that, at
the very least, the historical question is an open one. And if the question is
still an open one, the fury directed at Windschuttle was quite disproportionate.

What is an open question?

Everyone is quite sure that Holocaust revisionists (I’m sorry, deniers) are ill-motivated cranks and anti-Semites who have no respect for accepted scientific and scholarly methods of inquiry.  I think it’s fair to suggest that the average right-thinking person harbors little doubt that those who questions the scale or enormity of the intentional "Destruction  of the Eropean Jews" during the Second World War can be readily branded a "malevolent crackpot" who is "engaging outright lies, deceptive propaganda, [and/or] incendiary
conspiracy theories," if not far worse.  Those who question the official history of the Holocaust are routinely compared to moon landing conspiracists, and to the conspicuously  nonexistent faction of hate-mongers who deny the existence of slavery.

The trouble is, no one is assaulting or  incarcerating the people who say "we never went to the moon." The trouble is, no one has ever claimed that slavery "didn’t happen," and if they did they’d be laughed out the next Klan meeting. The trouble is, people who are confident in their assumptions about the spuriousness of the other side of genocide almost never deign to read the actual arguments advanced Holocaust revisionists, the better of which often turn out to be disarmingly scrupulous and falsifiable

And the trouble, just as with the bugaboo over genes and racial difference, is that deep down people suspect there may be something to it all.  People fear that where the claims of Holocaust skeptics are concerned,

we don’t know whether they are true or false a priori, so only by
examining and debating them can we find out.

Importantly, Dalrymple’s essay does not focus merely on the public row over Windschuttle’s thesis.  He also outlines the case that intellectually abetted belief in genocide stories "has parallels elsewhere." He writes:      

I remember when I lived for a
time in Guatemala
reading the most currently-celebrated account of
colonial Guatemala
, called La patria delcriollo.
In all of its eight hundred pages the role of epidemic disease in reducing the
number of Indians after the arrival of the Spanish was not mentioned even once,
not even in passing, though it is almost certain (that is to say as certain as
it can be) that the overwhelming cause of the decrease was epidemic disease.

Why was it not mentioned?
Because the author wanted to present the current, supposedly lamentable state
of Guatemala
to be a direct consequence of the colonial era, which
was itself a time of genocide. This being the case, there was only one thing to
be done: to found the state anew, to start all over again, to build a new state
from a better blueprint. It is not very difficult to see what role the
intelligentsia would have in constructing the new society: a very powerful,
indeed directing one.

Set aside the question of political motives for the moment.  Embedded within Dalrymple’s anecdotal case studies, I think there resides another, more intriguing, possibility.  Might it be that there is a universal human tendency for peoples to believe certain stories about their own historical subjugation, much the way people seem to believe supernatural accounts of their creation? 

Lately, there has been much scientific speculation about the existence of something akin to a "God gene," or some innately bound aspect of our common nature that predisposes people to believe stories of the divine.  This idea is echoed in Daniel Dennett’s treatment of "belief in belief," and it may find some evolutionary support in David Sloan Wilson’s group-adaptationist account of religious phenomena.  But for now, let’s just say it’s an open question.

OK, then.  Turn to page 363 of the Pantheon edition of Arno Mayer’s well regarded Holocaust history, Why Did The Heavens Not Darken, and you will find the following text:

Sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable.  Even though Hitler and the Nazis made no secret of their war of the Jews, the SS operatives dutifully eliminated all traces of their murderous activities and instruments.  No written orders for gassing have turned up thus far.

Having duly noted that there is in fact little to no reliable trace evidence to confirm the existence of the Nazis’ primary murder weapon (which may seem a bit odd to the most people who assume the whole sordid business to be so well documented  as to render revisionist skepticism prima facie absurd), Mayer goes on,  noting that:

Most of what is known is based on the depositions of Nazi officials and executioners at postwar trials and on the memory of survivors and bystanders.  This testimony must be screened carefully, since it can be influenced by subjective factors of great complexity.

And, a few sentences later:

…there is no denying the many contradictions, ambiguities, and errors in the existing sources. These cannot be ignored, although it must be emphasized strongly that such defects are altogether insufficient to put in question the use of gas chambers in the murder of Jews at Auschwitz.  Much  the same is true for the conflicting estimates and extrapolations of the number of victims since there are no reliable statistics to work with.

So this is what it truly comes down to.  A question of whether the wholesale absence of documentary and physical evidence for a monstrous crime can be construed as sufficient grounds for questioning  whether and how the alleged crime took place.  Answer in the negative and everything will be fine.  Answer in the positive and you may get your ass thrown in jail.  I may be oversimplifying, but not by much.

Remember the tunnels under the McMartin preschool?  Remember Kelly Michaels shoving silverware into those poor preschool kidlings’ orifices?  Remember the evil Iraqi soldiers who tore helpless Kuwaiti premies from their incubators?  Remember those weapons of mass destruction that Colin Powell told us about?

Remember Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS?

Please, consider what Arno is saying.  Then consider some facts that no serious scholar disputes.  Typhus was epidemic in the concentration camps of Europe during the latter stages of  the war.  As is often forgotten, it was typhus that killed Anne Frank — at Bergen Belsen, not Auschwitz. As Dr. Franciszek Piper, former Director of the Auschwitz  State Museum acknowledges in a fascinating interview with (revisionist) David Cole, Hydrocyanic gas, the poison long purported to have fueled the killing machines at Auschwitz (under the notorious brand Zyklon B), was in fact used primarily for purposes of lice disinfestation and for the disinfection of camp barracks. A dual purpose. Consider also that there was never an operational gas chamber at Dachau.  And that among serious Holocaust historians of no relation to those who intend to revise or deny, few still profess to believe oft-repeated legends about lampshades and soap.

With reference to the canonical Holocaust history, virtually every claim of unique iniquity may yield just as plausibly to a less sinister interpretation.  Which good people are implored, in this instance only, not to consider.  Why?  Because the question is not open. Why?  Because the question is not open, and if you persist in asking, then there are consequences.    

A few years back, a thoughtful feminist literary critic named Elaine Showalter wrote an important book called Hystories that met with a remarkably hostile reception.  By dint of a fascinating psycho-literary interpretive approach, Hystories sought to explore and explain past and present episodes of sociogenic illness or delusion, more commonly — and some would argue, pejoratively — known as hysteria.  Had Showalter limited her focus to long forgotten stock market panics and witch trials, all would have been well; her core heresy — and distinction — lay in applying the same scientific and deconstructive  methods to the study of variety of politically sensitive modern phenomena, such as satanic ritual abuse, chronic fatigue syndrome, and perhaps most contentiously, Gulf War Syndrome

The explosive controversies surrounding Showalter’s book may have obscured the value of her astute sociocultural analysis, but I think she was dead-on correct to discern the narrative signs of somatization disorder in each of these variegated cases.  Moral panics may seem obvious in distant — or even immediate — hindsight, but from the trench of instant cultural experience, a skeptical perspective can seem preposterous.  (As far as I know, no one has yet bothered to debunk the now all but forgotten episodes of "cruise ship illness" that grabbed headlines a few years back, but the smart money suggests that their etiology was sociogenic rather than pathogenic.   I suspect but cannot prove that we are in the midst of a very similar kind of episode with reference to autism.  Time will tell.  Or maybe it won’t.)   

A few years after the row over Showalter’s book had died down, a similarly focused and far more provocative monograph appeared, and this time the potentially offended audience disdained to notice.  Pseudononymously authored by one "Samual Crowell," the name of this text (which was published, to the best of my knowledge, only in samizdat editions, but is now freely available online) was The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes. Its central aim, modestly stated in the subtitle, was to proffer "An Attempt at A Literary Analysis of the Holocaust Gassing Claim." By reading early accounts of German gassing atrocities in the context of contemporaneous cultural anxieties  that were resonant in a host of  widely read fictional narratives found in popular works by Sax Rohmer, Georg Kaiser, HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others, Crowell hoped to "show that the revisionist interpretation on the subject of mass
gassing was possible, and since possible, a particularly unworthy
candidate for censorship."

Go ahead and read it.  No one will know.  If you’ve long been sold on the straw version of revisionist arguments that has been so successfully promoted by our self appointed intellectual gatekeepers, you may  be in for a real surprise. Crowell’s study is entirely consonant with the rationally trained skepticism that scholars and lay readers take for granted with reference to any other subject or event.  He makes careful, intriguing, and unexpected arguments.  And I should mention that he cites Showalter’s text appropriately. 

But whether his arguments should stand to careful criticism, we may never know.  Secure in their eternally reinforced assumption that any critical study of the Holocaust is inherently borne of mendacity and hate, scholars are never bothered to fashion a response. Like Steven Pinker, the intellectual classes who might otherwise take notice are content to consign such studies to the bin of kookdom, sight unseen. 

This is a grave mistake.  Crowell’s only lapse is to breach a cultural taboo. He simply failed to heed the admonition of Arno Mayer to believe accusations for which evidence is scant, or at least questionable. The same is true with reference to Robert Faurisson, David Cole, David Irving, Germar Rudolf, Ernst Zundel,  men who may not have been burned at the stake, but who have been subject to very real persecution, simply for advancing a singularly and quite literally dangerous idea.

I am going on at such length in part because I have nothing better to do. But also because I suspect, perhaps wrongly, that Holocaust Revisionism is the goblin Pinker has in mind in excluding the consideration of certain ideas from the realm of serious intellectual discussion and debate. I have little doubt that Pinker’s heart is in the right place, and I have little doubt that, like most intelligent people, he is confident that  revisionist arguments are beset with rational and empirical problems that are easily refuted and that have surely been refuted, and repeatedly, by reputable scholars from all corners. But such assumptions, whether or not they inform Pinker’s perspective, simply are not true. Where this, only this, subject is concerned, the light of day has been steadfastly denied in favor of the more ancient and tried tactics of censorship, intimidation, professional ostracism, and incarceration. 

Strip away the unique aura of taboo and the first thing you notice is that Holocaust revisionism proceeds on the very rational grounds preferred by Pinker and other top flight thinkers.  The central claims made by revisionists are soundly empirical and subject to the tools of scientific investigation. But more importantly, the arguments made at considerable risk, by revisionists, qualify as ideas that, "if they turned out to be true, would require a significant rethinking of our moral

Enough already.  On to Pinker’s questions. Because, conspicuous omissions notwithstanding, they really are a heap o’ fun.

Pinker’s List: The Hog Responds

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?

To which The Hog replies: Are you fucking kidding?  Does the Pope shit in the woods? 

OK, maybe I’m wrong to open with an indignant hurumph. After all, merely broaching this subject got poor Larry Summers into a groan-inducing shitstorm of trouble only a few years back, long after I had begun to naively assume that most academics had shaken off the remaining fetters of such PC-abetted blank slate fallacies.  But old habits die hard, even and especially among the professoriate, so iterations are probably unavoidable.

The broad strokes, as I understand them, are as follow. While the question of whether men on average are more or less intelligent than women remains open to debate, it seems well settled that  men and women differ in their average mental and emotional profiles.  In his magisterial study of human intelligence, The g Factor, Arthur  Jensen makes a strong but qualified case for the intellectual parity of the sexes, but J. Philippe Rushton and Richard Lynn have also presented evidence that men have may enjoy a slight overall advantage in cognitive abilities.  Importantly however, few scientists question that there are consistent and significant differences in the flavor of intellectual abilities that characterize the sexes; women are more likely to outperform men in tests of verbal aptitude, while men perform better in tests of mathematical and visual-spatial ability.   

The case that men and women think differently and that such differences manifest early in life regardless of parenting style and other cultural variable is as strong as it is intuitively obvious.  As for  differences with reference to emotional and temperamental traits, I refer readers to Steven Pinker’s exemplary treatment of the subject in his paradigm-shifting pop-science treatise, The Blank Slate, as well as to Simon Baron-Cohen’s engaging review of the primary literature in The Essential Difference.

Finally, if you still need convincing, check out this debate between Steven Pinker and  Elizabeth Spelke.  It isn’t even close.   

Next question, please.          

Were the events in the Bible fictitious — not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?

To which the Hog replies:  I really couldn’t begin to guess. I suspect that Shakespeare’s histories are neither more nor less accurate, but honestly, I don’t even care. I suppose it wouldn’t much surprise me if Jesus and Moses turn out to be products of fictional imagination as a recent spate of thoughtfully heterodox scholars have suggested.  I’m out of my depth simply because religion bores me only slightly less than Arthurian legend and tic-tac-toe. 

If this is your cup of hemlock, however, a you might want to check out The Jesus Puzzle or Daniel Lazare’s more ambitiously conceived essay, "False Testament."

Next question, please.    

Has the state of the environment improved in the last 50 years?

To which The Hog replies: In the words of the late, great Julian Simon, I’ll bet on it.  Look up some of Bjorn Lomborg’s work, or just about anything by Peter Huber or Reason‘s outstanding science reporter, Ronald Bailey.  In addition to having a piss-poor empirical track record, environmental doomsaying is infused with a quasi-religious quality that begs for careful skepticism.   

Next question, please

Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage?

To which The Hog replies:  Prolly not. 

This is the one that made life so difficult a few years back for Judith Levine, author of the 2002 book, Harmful to Minors. Levine’s major transgression, as you may have forgotten, was to cite a  a meta-analysis of some 59 studies that examined the conventional wisdom through interviews with students who had experienced varying degrees of sexual abuse as children.  The research team behind the study was headed up by Bruce Rind of the Psychology Department of Temple University, no doubt an incorrigible pervert, who would have us believe that "[s]elf-reported reactions to and effects from CSA (childhood sexual abuse) indicated that negative effects were neither pervasive nor typically intense, and that men reacted much less negatively than women. The college data were completely consistent with data from national samples." Rind et al’s  paper, which was published in the APA journal, Psychological Bulletin, concluded that "[b]asic beliefs about CSA in the general population were not supported."

For all the din of the faux outrage that followed from the usual quarters,  Rind and Levine’s skepticism always seemed to me to be refreshingly sober and their conclusions simply intuitive. After all, people are adapted to be resilient. Once you accept that sexual abuse may not be such unalloyed life-shattering poison, it is the penumbral questions that become more salient. If the widespread belief in irreparable, lifelong, harm stemming from sexual abuse is largely unsupported by evidence, why are people so adamant in believing it must be true?  My hunch is that the self-appointed protectors of kid-victims often, but not always, harbor some latent sexual fascination with children’s long denied sexuality. 

I know that sounds cheap, but there is something insidiously creepy and potentially dangerous in the sort of idealized childhood innocence that many victim-advocates promote under the easily spun pretext of overweening concern. Taking James Kincaid‘s lead, we might chalk it up to a kind of Foucauldian dissonance rooted in the Victorian denial of childhood sexuality.  Regardless, the unarticulated fear is that if children’s sexual nature is acknowledged in any context, or if their emotional damage is in any way questioned, that  adults will feel free to fuck them.  The problem, of course, is that the one’s who know better already do.

Next question, please.      

Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?

To which The Hog replies:  Is nothing sacred, Professor Pinker?  To think that old cryin’ Indian PSA  buried in our collective childhood memories could be tainted even by the suggestion of less than noble savagery — well, it just don’t seem right. Yet the answer, on both accounts, is at least probably,  yes. As pre-industrial tribal hunter-gatherers, American Indians were, like their counterparts all over the world, warfaring peoples prone my dint of myth, economic ignorance, and common human nature to engage in environmental despoliation and the not-so-occasional inter-tribal atrocity.  The much maligned Thomas Woods devotes some discussion to these questions in his recent book,  33 Questions About American History That You’re Not Supposed to Ask.      

Next question, please.

Do men have an innate tendency to rape?

To which The Hog replies:  Makes sense to me, but you should ask the guys who wrote a book that really upset Katie Couric.

Next question, please.

Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades
earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to

To which The Hog replies:  The idea here, first formally proposed in a paper by Freakonomics author, Steven Levitt, is that liberalization of U.S. abortion law in the early 1970s can be independently linked to the
decline in national violent crime rates in the mid 1990s. "Unwanted"
children, the logic goes, are more likely to commit crime; and since
abortion supposedly reduces the number of unwanted children, it thereby reduces the number of children who would otherwise have grown
up to be violent criminals.  Steve Sailer has referred to the imputed mechanism as "preemptive capital punishment," which is harsh but accurate.      

When I
first encountered this argument back in 1999 or thenabouts, I remember
thinking it just had to be true. Levitt’s econometric trendlines were
impressive at a glance, and the underlying logic seemed almost
inescapable. But I’ve since done a good deal of reading on the subject
and I’ve gradually come around to a more skeptical – and nuanced –  view.

still don’t think it’s possible to rule out a "Levitt effect" in some time or context, but with reference to the American experience, the
weight of evidence seems increasingly against it. What’s more,
counterintuitive as it may seem, there may be good reasons not to rule
out an opposing tail effect, i.e. that legalizing abortion may have
actually had the effect of increasing rates of both "unwantedness" and crime.

Of course, the pitfall with this sort of thing is
that people assume you have some kind of agenda involving fetuses. I
don’t. I don’t even like fetuses. I just want to do my small part to
keep things honest and to promote free inquiry on a truly interesting and not entirely resolved

In that spirit, then, I’ve
put together a truncated chronology highlighting some key arguments in the debate as it has played out in various forums. So if you want to catch up on the twists of politely couched
acrimony (or if you simply enjoy wading through the finer points of
sociometric contention), just scroll down for the links and you’ll be
up to speed in no time.

Levitt’s most prominent critics, by the way, have been Steve Sailer, John Lott, Christopher Foote, and Ted Joyce. They’re all worth reading, but I personally find Sailer’s  prose to be more cogent and more entertaining. Levitt is good fun as well.

Some sources on the controversy:

The Slate debate (1999) – Steve Sailer and Steven Levitt’s debate

The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime (2001) – Levitt & Donahue set out the basic argument, as revised.

Abortion and Crime: Unwanted Children and Out-of -Wedlock Births (2001) – John Lott and John Whitley’s critique of Levitt & Donahue

Did Legalized Abortion Lower Crime? (2004) – Ted Joyce’s critique of Levitt & Donahue

Further Evidence That Legalized Abortion Lowered Crime (2004) – Levitt & Donahue’s reply to Ted Joyce

Measuring the Impact of Crack Cocaine (2005) – Levitt et al’s assessment of the confounding influence of crack-related crime

Pre-emptive Executions? (2005) – Steve Sailer’s article from The American

Testing Economic Hypotheses with State Level Data (2005) – An attempted refutation, arguing that once key variable are taken into account, the abortion-crime effect disappears.

Abortion and Crime: Who Should You Believe? (2005) – Steven Levitt’s response to mounting criticism      

Did Legalizing Abortion Cut Crime? – Steve Sailer’s collected writings on the controversy, with invaluable links to almost every relevant paper, rejoinder and resource available.   

Of course, the debate didn’t end in 2005.  Most recently, John Lott has re-entered the fray with a detailed discussion of the issue in Freedomnomics, a smart book cheekily marketed as a corrective to the Levitt-inspired vogue of trendily idiosyncratic economic scholarship.

Next question, please.   

Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?

To which The Hog replies:   It seems so, and I’m not at all surprised.  The reflexive assumption that fanaticism is a bastion for the hopeless and destitute is rooted in misguided liberal romanticism.  There may be a raft of psychological factors in play, but true believers of whatever stripe are also likely to be thoughtful people whose devotion to a cause  is in large measure based on reason and principle, however faultily conceived.  To paraphrase Bradley Smith, we are at our worst when we see other people as monsters.

Next question, please.

Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?

To which The Hog replies: There’s some impressive economic research  suggesting that legalized prostitution does indeed lead to a reduction in sex crimes, and a very significant reduction at that. If  true, the old feminist trope that rape  is never, repeat: never, about sex, becomes even more difficult to maintain with a straight face.

Next question, please.

Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?

To which The Hog replies: Yes.

Next question, please.

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

To which The Hog replies: Um, yes. And this one undermines Pinker’s first caveat, Q.E.D.

Next question, please.

Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?

To which The Hog replies:  I don’t know about "society," but I would be better off.   

Next quetion, please.

Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?

To which The Hog replies: This is one of those ideas that seems nuts when first encountered, but increasingly plausible the more you study on the literature, much of which is rounded up here and here.  I also discuss the question of a gay germ in my less informed post, "A Natural History of the Fag Hag."

All I know for sure is, it’s never wise to bet against Greg Cochran.

Next question, please.    

Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents
the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would
consign them to a life of pain and disability?

To which The Hog replies:  Consistent with whose moral principles? Ours?  Or Peter Singer’s?  Without getting all deontological or slippery slopery, a nagging problem with this brand of utilitarian quandary is that the working assumptions tend to be tilted in favor of hedonically-challenged normalcy.  Notably, research has consistently shown that paraplegics and quadriplegics report being at least as happy their unafflicted peers, and I have yet to encounter a "victim" of Down Syndrome with a dour temperament.  Yet it’s hard to imagine an affliction worse than paralysis, and the data is pretty clear that DS babies are being selectively aborted, arguably to the point of near extinction

The safer approach, I submit once again, is to prohibit people from having children altogether. Problem solved.

Next question, please.    

Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?

To which The Hog replies: Judith Rich Harris and David C. Rowe say no, and I believe them.

Next question, please.

Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?

To which The Hog replies:  Maybe.  But Allen Dershowitz is still a douchbag.

Next question, please.

Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?

To which The Hog replies:  See Idiocracy and ask again.

Next question, please.

Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?

To which The Hog replies:  Baby selling for fun and profit?  I vote yes.

Next question, please.

Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?

To which The Hog replies:  As with the free-market adoption bugaboo, this is the kind of question that seems dangerous only in commensurate proportion to one’s beliefs about free markets.  As someone who is pretty well sold on the benefits of market driven competition, it’s a no-brainer.   Lives would  be saved because a free market in organs would provide the most efficient means of addressing problems of scarcity that are intrinsic to any form of centralized rationing.  After donating a kidney to her friend (the medical policy writer, Sally Satel), former Reason editor, Virginia Postrel, has written extensively about the politics of organ donation and the forever thwarted prospect of market-oriented solutions.

Next question, please.

Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?

To which The Hog replies:  As with all normative propositions, the answer will depend on your premises.  If you begin with the libertarian principle of nonaggression, as I prefer, the sustainable ethical position will hold that people should be free to do whatever they want, provided their conduct doesn’t forcibly intrude on the equally qualified rights of others.   Which leads to the question of whether cloning or genetic manipulation of prenatal organisms (or of preconceptional gametes) constitutes harm.  Which leads to the question of procreation itself.  Which, I’m very sorry, leads me to my previously articulated position of antinatalism — which, in a nutshell, is the view that because coming into existence is always to some degree harmful, no one should ever have children.  Which means no one should ever clone children either, since, once you get past the morally confused verbiage concerning nascent genetic technologies, cloning is essentially and ethically no different than creating people by fucking, or with some medicalized version of a turkey baster.

The question of genetic enhancement is slightly trickier, at least to the extent that it involves a genetically complete individual who may be assumed, for present purposes, already to have come into existence. Since the initial existential harm has been done, it seems logical that the parent-agents might be expected to utilize existing technology to the furthest extent possible to ensure that the hapless prenate has the best shot possible.  A problem with this position arises when you consider the inherent subjectivity that could bedevil many qualitatively directed genetic alterations that parents might favor in the interest of their already doomed offspring.  While few would argue against tweaking genes to prevent disease or infirmity, the prospect of genetically enhancing a person’s intellectual or physical traits might invite objection — most importantly from the subject, once grown — on any conceivable grounds.  My gut feeling on this is that it would appropriately be dealt with through torts, with wrongful life jurisprudence providing a workable starting point.

At their core, I think the value of bioethical questions concerning human cloning and genetic tinkering is that they point up  more fundamental  and little-considered problems with procreation itself.  When intellectuals raise dread Frankensteinian potential of or posthuman future, their arguments are often colored by conservative biases, but just as frequently their reasoning turns out to embrace many of the elements of antinatalism.  Their failure, as always, rests in not asking the next question.  Please.   

Is that it? 

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