The Corner

Parenting & The Limits of Science

Okay, so: yesterday I had the C-bomb dropped on me by having Charles Murray get Derb’s back on this parenting stuff. I’m afraid I remain unshaken in my resolve to call shennigans on this whole thing.

But first let me build some bridges. It is hard for me to keep track with what, exactly, Derb’s position is. I don’t mean this to sound as snarky as it might. It’s entirely possible that he’s been perfectly consistent – and accurate — but we are talking past each other. Here’s how I see the state of things. He says parenting has little impact on personality, I remain confused as to whether personality includes character. He says that peer socialization is a big part of the game, but that parental socialization accounts for at best 10% of a child’s outcome as an adult. In the post(s) that started all of this, Derb basically said that fathers have a negligible impact on how their kids turn out, beyond buying a nice house for the kids to grow up in alongside and among decent peers.

Also, I fear that in my zeal to beat back the cold and pitiless dogma of Derbism, I have overstated my own beliefs. I have no doubt we are born with considerable hardwiring. I also have no doubt that parents have a greater capacity for screwing up kids than they do for perfecting them. I am also willing to believe that Derb and Charles are entirely correct about what the science “says” at this moment. Though if I missed Derb’s detailed rebuttal to Rich’s earlier post on the science I apologize.

A few points:

1) Only a fool would dare argue with the combined forces of Derbyshire and Murray when it comes to statistical analysis. Which is why I’m keen on following Sun Tzu’s advice and pit my opponents against each other. So I feel compelled to note that Derb’s original argument that father’s don’t matter runs counter to much of what Charles has been writing for the last twenty years. For example Charles has written:

In the case of illegitimacy: When a large proportion of the children in a given community grows up without fathers, the next generation, especially the young males in the next generation, tend to grow up unsocialized–unready to take on the responsibilities of work and family, often criminal, often violent. The effects of absent fathers are compounded by the correlations of illegitimacy with intellectual, emotional, and financial deficits among the mothers that in turn show correlations with bad parenting practices.

And here is Charles writing for a British audience :

Does it make any difference? After all, Home Secretary Jack Straw assured England last summer that “we shouldn’t get into a paddy about the decline of formal marriage.” Other kinds of families, he said, “can do just as well for their children.” This statement is true in the trivial sense that there are single mothers, cohabiting couples, and step-families who bring up wonderful children. But many readers of the Home Secretary’s words probably understood him to mean that on average the children of these nontraditional families do just as well as the children of two formally married biological parents. That inference is factually, unequivocally wrong. There may still be rhetorical debate on this issue, but any fair appraisal of the data can lead to only one conclusion: No alternative family structure comes close to the merits of two married parents.

Rich’s initial column made precisely this point. And it is this point which got Derb’s dander up. So, I guess what I want to know is, how does Charles reconcile such assertions with Derb’s position?

2) Charles’s response to me was off point and unhelpful. I never disputed that good parents wouldn’t do a fairly equivalent job raising a good egg (i.e. a kid with a genetic inclination toward being a decent adult) who wasn’t their own biological offspring. Indeed, that Charles thinks this is the crux of the debate leads me to think he’s coming in very late in the game. Because, it seems to me, Charles is making more my point than Derb’s. Good parents matter, period.

Charles knows the data – and just about everything else – better than me. But, I’ve been reading all of this stuff for the last fifteen years about the increasingly clear scientific consensus that divorce is bad for kids, that single-moms are worse for kids, that daycare is worse for kids, that welfare programs which discourage stay-at-home fathers are bad for kids and that the best guarantee of a kid’s success is growing up in loving two parent families. Charles is free to scold me for not doing my homework, but I thought I had when I’d been reading him and his ideological fellow-travellers. I suppose that Pat Moynihan was now wrong those Irish slums?

3) Which brings me to why I think the “scientists” are looking for their car keys where the light is good. While I sincerely doubt that libertarianism is genetic, Charles’ example of Ted Kennedy raising his son is a good example of what’s wrong with this whole argument. In a fundamentally decent society with an enormous amount of consensus about what constitutes proper behavior, who is shocked that scientists have a hard time telling decent kid #1 from decent kid #2? Maybe the Murray lad would be a libertarian if raised by Kennedys, but my guess is he’d be a far scummier person who thought that he could get away with things no Murray would. But even so, would the kid really score that much different on the psychometrician’s slide rule? In other words, I can’t help but think that one reason parents seem so negligible according to the data is that the scientists are working within one giant barrel of apples, when they think they’re comparing apples and oranges. Derb keeps referring to bourgeois kids being socialized into bourgeois society. But that begs too many questions. First of all, as Charles has noted, kids with no fathers do not get socialized into bourgeois society. They are the bad apples in the barrel. Second, in truly non-bourgeois societies, we can see that parents play an important part in socializing kids to values we consider criminal or unacceptable. Read up on Gypsies some time. In many communities kids are kept home from school, in order to keep them from being socialized to bourgeois values. Gypsy parents want their kids around to keep them as essentially criminal assets. I doubt Derb would object to this, but my point is that parents are essential institutions for the socialization of children. That bourgeois parents allow their kids to be partially socialized by bourgeois peers in no way diminishes the ultimate importance of parents (nor the need to keep parents as the chief authority over their offspring). This is the conservative argument about the role of families in a free society. All of this talk about “personality” misses that point.

4) But personality is important. If Derb and Charles want to say that if I’d grown up in some other decent family I’d still be a law-abiding, generally conservative, moderately self-indulgent thirty-something today. Fine (though I’m not so sure). But I would not be me. I might be someone like me. I might be nigh-upon indistinguishable from me according to some brain scan or University of Wisconsin questionnaire. I might like the same foods. But I would not be the repository of what my mother and father taught me. Sure, the easy lessons would be the same. Don’t steal. Be polite. Etc. Parents have a lot of help teaching those lessons. But my father was a unique creature, a peculiar duck, and the world will never see another like him. The suggestion that my personality – my me-ness – would be different in only trivial ways if I’d never known him strikes me as not only baldly absurd but deeply offensive as well. What makes me me, may be trivial to the guys in the lab coats and the social engineers, but that just shows how blind science is to so much that really matters. Science cannot see the poetry in life and because it cannot see it, it says it doesn’t matter much. Science cannot tell a joke, but that doesn’t mean jokes are unimportant things.

Derb says science “just tells us what is.” This is scientism. Science tells us what science can measure, nothing more and nothing less. To say that those things it cannot measure do not exist or do not matter is the gospel of the coldest and most pitiless of dogmas.

Update: I see that Charles has already added another point. I’ll read it more carefully later. But I see no reason now to revise or extend the above.

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