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July 29, 2006

Form, Title, and Influence in Parenting

Having come to feel the inadequate breadth of my reading, I've been devoting those extremely sparse spare moments in my schedule to catching up with history, rather than keeping up with the all-too-repetitive present. Consequently, despite the urgings of a reader or two, I've entirely missed the latest bout of John Derbyshire's musings on parents' inconsequentiality.

This morning, however, I happened to peruse a few of his latest posts just prior to reading the passage in G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy in which that great essayists declares the importance to his life of his nurse's feeding him on fairy tales. Something that I'd already thought reoccurred to me: that Derbyshire appears to be arguing out of affection for his conclusion (and the contrarian position that it allows him to take). If this were not the case, surely a such a lover of science as he would see that he is reasoning in a puddle of muddied terminology. Consider:

Why do you think that wealthy people employ platoons of nannies, and send their kids to boarding schools? The old English aristocracy neglected their kids for a thousand years. Winston Churchill barely knew his parents. He seemed to work out all right.

And juxtapose:

Suppose, for example, my reader's daughter had an identical twin sister, who had been adopted at birth by a quite different family, one with lackadaisical parenting practices, but in a near-identical neighborhood. Same genes; same outside-the-home socialization opportunities. How different would her adult personality and life outcomes be? We don't have to guess, because in a world of billions, it happens often enough to tell us. Answer: Much less different than you'd think. With a different set of genes, my reader's daughter might have run away from home by now, in spite of all his admirable parenting efforts. That happens too.

What, precisely, differentiates the nannies and school masters of the English aristocracy from the adoptive parents of the hypothetical twin? If Churchill hardly knew his biological parents, it seems to me that the differentiation is principally one of the title of parent, but not the role. To make the terms of our analysis equivalent, we would have to ask whether the particular nanny (or collection of boarding school mentors) mattered, for they were, as a matter of role, the parents.

One can reasonably assume that Derbyshire would reply that, well then, we'll broaden the assertion to state that "parent figures" more generally don't matter as much as we'd like to think. In making this distinction, though, we highlight a point that has been made before in this debate: Derbyshire presumes to "tease out" various aspects and choices rightly attributed to parents in order to declare that parents don't matter. If we attribute to pure fate, he says, the choice of mate (and the genes that he or she brings to the table), as well as the choice of geography and even (remarkably) the choice and provision of "outside-the-home socialization opportunities," then we can declare parents' influence to be minimal. Well, if that's the game, then I'll lay down my pen in defeat and admit that it makes very little difference to their development whether I, as a parent, prefer to part my children's hair on the right or on the left.

(I'm beginning to suspect, by the by, that Derbyshire's argument is fundamentally a denial of the existence of soul. What else of substance could he possibly be minimizing on the part of "you, the parent" if he seeks to "tease out" everything of substance that parents do?)

It merits noting, while in proximity to the example, that this narrowing of terms, combined with an exaggeration of the intellectual ramifications of doing so, appears to be almost a habit. Here's Derbyshire's handling of testimony from the aforementioned reader:

A typical extract from a reader email: "My teenage daughter is not allowed to date any boy who does not first apply to me for permission. So far I have turned two down as unsuitable and approved another two. She appreciates my help because it allows her to escape undesirable attentions without embarrassment."

Well, I have no problem with any of that, and hope my own daughter will be that compliant when the dating years start. Whether she will or not will depend on her personality, large components of which are know to be heritable.

Derbyshire may have allowed more, here, than he realizes. This particular reader, he admits, appears to have been blessed with a child who actively seeks, and is willing to heed and learn from, her parents' guidance. Once again, though, the strategy is to narrow the terms away from evidence that is inconvenient to the a priori aesthetic conclusion that parents don't matter: the very fact that the daughter listens is partly genetic, so the influence that the parent thereby has may be discounted.

Stepping back from the necessity for science to be seen as discovering something new in our old universe, we can plainly observe that it is merely treading water in a patently unastonishing pool of knowledge. If the contention is that some children will be naturally more resistant or immune to direct parental influence, then I don't imagine that many parents would line up to argue otherwise. If the contention is further that parents who wish to shape even fiercely self-reliant children's lives must often resort to less direct methods — such as determining the other person to contribute to their genes and the environment in which they grow — then I don't imagine that many parents would fail to laugh that such a thing ought to be paraded as a society-shaking insight.

Perhaps a few might even muse that it is, in fact, science itself that doesn't matter nearly so much as some might like to believe.

Charles Murray (to whose explanation and use of science I attribute much more credibility than Derbyshire's) has added a post that seems to bring some mitigating middle ground to the discussion (particularly his specification that the debate is addressing the group of parents who are already doing an adequate job). But there remains a science-constructed distinction that doesn't seem to me to justify the broader conclusions:

"Nonshared environment" is still incompletely understood. It can be things like a particular teacher that one child has an another doesn't, or a friend. If one child grows up with both parents but a younger sibling doesn't, that's nonshared environment. But most of the nonshared environment is even more diffuse and mysterious. Accidents in the womb, for example. A health issue for one child and not his sibling. In any case, when you think of influences on children as divided into genes and environment, with genes playing a major role, you then have to divide what's left into two bins, shared and nonshared environment, and the nonshared environment is much the bigger bin. This is not some far-out idea that a few studies support. It is pretty much ho-hum, what-else-is-new mainstream science by this time. Parenting is, under most circumstances, part of the shared environment that explains so little.

It's the last sentence that rankles. Take merely the example of "number of books in the house" that Murray puts on his list of components of a "shared environment." Are we talking merely the presence of large numbers bound sheets of paper, or is the "shared environment" a function of the content, as well? I require no convincing that the "nonshared environment" in which one sibling reads a particular book and the other doesn't can have a tremendous effect on their development. Nonetheless, isn't it within the scope of "parenting" to increase the odds that children will or won't read a particular book? Wouldn't it be part of parenting to decrease the odds of illness and injury that might shape one sibling differently from another? To steer them clear of dangerous friends?

Look, I wouldn't dream of denying the importance of the accidents of life (which, after all, resonate with something of the divine). Still, I wonder if it isn't the case that "the nonshared environment is much the bigger bin" for the reason that our analysis is being performed among a relatively homogenous group. As Jonah Goldberg pointed out in resonse to Derbyshire, "in the days of the Old English Aristocracy — quite a far distance from the formative days of humanities evolution on the plains of Africa — social mores were much stronger." As shared social mores disperse, surely the mores of the individual parent will matter more.

Murray writes that we "have it within our power to screw up our kids; we can't do that much to make them better, compared to the way they would turn out with another set of parents who maybe aren't as good, but aren't conspicuously bad." It seems to me that he's merely noting that years of social development have led us to an effective system. Not to hum relativist, but "conspicuously bad" is in the eye of the beholder, and I'd say that a significant motivation for strenuous objections to the conclusion that parents don't matter is the conviction that such loose talk will inspire changes to our culture that will degrade its shared effects.

That's an awfully large risk to be making in order to defend the scientific discovery that "just 'a little below average parenting' isn't that big a deal in its effects on kids' outcomes."

An excellent follow-up from Goldberg, particularly his closing:

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.

Posted by Justin Katz at July 29, 2006 11:36 AM
Marriage & Family

(I'm beginning to suspect, by the by, that Derbyshire's argument is fundamentally a denial of the existence of soul.)

It's not just his argument - it's his entire outlook. He doesn't believe in theology, he doesn't "get" philosophy, he treats culture as immutable and deterministic - the only thing he puts any stock in is science. He makes various arguments that support some conservative positions (e.g. take out Saddam, restrict immigration), but his rationale for these positions mainly comes down to a utilitarian argument - it will make things better for the US, and he doesn't care about those not in the US.

Posted by: Mike S. at July 29, 2006 1:38 PM

Yeah, no need to suspect anything. Derb has pretty much said outright that the self doesn't exist. This is a guy who sees Stephen freaking Pinker as the end all be all word on the human person, for Pete's sake (okay, maybe EO Wilson too).

Anyhow, we definitely got some choice quotes out of him this time. In response to Jonah accusing him of scientism and pointing out that science not being able to explain something doesn't mean it doesn't exist:

I do not, however, believe—and I really can't believe that anyone believes I believe—that what science can't explain "doesn't exist." That would require me to believe that, say, in A.D. 1800, the Sun did not exist, since the mechanism by which the Sun generates heat and light was not known at that time. Jonah, I believe that in 1800, the Sun DID exist. OK?

Wow... just wow. Talk about simply not getting the point at all. Can he really, genuinely be that much of a clueless philistine? It's hard to believe, but my eyes say yes.

Notice, btw, that this amounts to a confession of logical positivism. NR really needs a solid philosopher in The Corner to give the guy a good schooling now and then.

Then there was this one:

And at the extreme left tail of the parenting bell curve, where the parenting is really, really bad—kids locked naked in the basement with cans of dog food—I think it likely does make a big

No s***, Sherlock!

Posted by: Deuce at July 29, 2006 5:33 PM

Btw, Justin, I think you made an insightful point here:

Are we talking merely the presence of large numbers bound sheets of paper, or is the "shared environment" a function of the content, as well?

This is a very, very important point. Of course the content, the meaning, of what is in the books is an invisible variable in Murray's analysis. How on earth would you measure meaning, or the difference in meaning between two books, in a quantitative way? And the same question applies to the parents themselves: How would you measure the contents of what parents teach their children?

Jonah brought this up early in the debate, when he mentioned that parents are the primary transmitter of beliefs to their children, and later, when he pointed out that the relative importance of "shared" and "unshared" environments are probably going to be depend on the homegeneity of the social mores of the group in question. Derb dismissed the contents of beliefs as "epiphenomenal". This strikes me as wildly idiotic for anybody to say, especially a so-called "conservative".

Are we to seriously believe that the meaning behind the words of The Communist Manifesto was epiphenomenal, and had no effect on the events of the past century? If beliefs are epiphenomenal, then why is Derb even bothering to argue for his beliefs in The Corner, since they will have no effect? In fact, how could he even argue for his beliefs? If his beliefs have no effect on his actions, then his writing is totally disconnected from the contents of his beliefs, and is therefore blind and irrational.

In his zeal to show that science, in his deified view of it, is the end-all, be-all harbinger of all truth, on the march and destined to rend asunder our every notion of morality, shred all common sense, and ruthlessly dispense with all of our most cherished notions about ourselves, Derb has rejected the one thing that marks *anybody* who can reasonably be considered a conservative, from the marginal to the hardcore, from the neo- to the paleo-, from the fundamentalist to the libertarian: the belief that ideas matter. And in so doing, he has contradicted his own ideas.

With that, Derb has abandoned the last vestige of anything resembling conservatism. A few weeks ago, Jonah suggested that Derb had become a progressive. Derb, of course, vehemently denied the charge. However, his constant, perverse assassination attempts on logic and wisdom in the name of "science" certainly put him closer to progressivism than to conservatism. That he has a (ever-shrinking) few government policy preferences that happen to be typically favored by conservatives hardly changes this.

Posted by: Deuce at July 31, 2006 2:09 PM

Btw, Jonah pegged that point really good here.

Posted by: Deuce at July 31, 2006 2:20 PM

re we to seriously believe that the meaning behind the words of The Communist Manifesto was epiphenomenal, and had no effect on the events of the past century? If beliefs are epiphenomenal, then why is Derb even bothering to argue for his beliefs in The Corner, since they will have no effect? In fact, how could he even argue for his beliefs? If his beliefs have no effect on his actions, then his writing is totally disconnected from the contents of his beliefs, and is therefore blind and irrational.

[Derb's response] Whoa, now you're getting all "philosophical" on me, and I don't "get" philosophy.....zzzzzz

Posted by: Mike S. at August 1, 2006 11:12 AM

I've got a great new term to describe him: "village materialist"

Posted by: Deuce at August 1, 2006 1:45 PM

I enjoy Derb's curmudgeonly prose, but it's wearingly common for him to get into a fight by straying far beyond his depth.

Derb fancies himself a great believer in science. But like so many fanatics, he doesn't really understand the object of his fascination. Let's return to Psych 101:

All psychological research begins with the null hypothesis, the assumption that nothing correlates with anything, and all groups are the same. The goal of psychological research is to disprove the null hypothesis. In fact, the statistics that we use in psychological research are based on the normal curve that we assume that the null hypothesis would generate: If the difference between the groups is extremely unlikely under the null hypothesis, then we reject the null hypothesis. That's how you win at psychological research.

If you can't reject the null hypothesis, then that doesn't mean that there are no differences between the groups. It usually means that the scientist running the experiment is incompetent, or that the procedure used wasn't sufficiently sensitive to detect the difference. Any idiot can be sloppy enough to fail to detect a difference between some groups. Research is only useful when it rejects the null hypothesis and demonstrates not only that there's a difference, but that the difference is likely not the result of sampling error.

You would think that a staunch champion of science such as Derb would understand this stuff.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at August 1, 2006 9:49 PM