Hawkeye Talk

Some people claim (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, perhaps absurdly — I lean toward the latter) that gay people, on average, are less successful as parents. In a video that’s begun to go viral, University of Iowa engineering student Zach Wahls attempts to refute this notion without offering a shred of evidence beyond a single cherry-picked case (his own) to prove that children of gay parents sometimes turn out just fine (except, perhaps, for their ability to reason):

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The other side might just as well (i.e. just as pointlessly) argue that Mr. Wahls’s penchant for irrelevance proves the inefficacy of gay parenting.

What’s particularly disturbing to me is all the chatter about how eloquent this kid is, as if eloquence in the service of intellectual misdirection were somehow something to be admired. Odds are, this pernicious message was reinforced by the college writing courses that I complained about in Chapter 23 of The Big Questions.

Zach Wahls gives every appearance of being a likable and accomplished 19-year-old with a good command of the language, and, like many 19-year-olds much of the time, not much to say. Fortunately, that’s a curable condition. I’m counting on his engineering professors to undo whatever damage the English department has managed to inflict.

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69 Responses to “Hawkeye Talk”


  1. 1 1 Michael L.

    Mr. Landsburg,

    I agree that this kid pretty much has nothing else to bring to the table except his story. Nevertheless, his story was very interesting and brought a human face to the story. Can’t you have both the reason and emotion backing up what your saying? Can you really expect legislators (who may not have taken engineering or math classes) to understand logic?

  2. 2 2 Ryan

    Prof. Landsburg I wholeheartedly agree. I have wondered for a long time about the growing number of people who are incredibly eloquent but lack real critical thinking ability.

    I’ve mentioned a book a few times, but if you’ve never read “Innumeracy” by John Allen Paulos, you really should. 70-odd pages written by a mathematics professor lamenting the growing problem of innumeracy in our society while presenting entertaining statistics questions much like your own blog.

    This book changed my life for the better, and I really think you’d enjoy it, too. It’s on my bookshelf, right next to “The Big Questions.”

  3. 3 3 Tim C

    Michael L.:

    I’m fairly certain this post says nothing about emotion being an improper tool in the situation. It’s more about failure to bring any hard evidence to the table besides a not so random sample of one with a standard error of god knows how much.

  4. 4 4 Nick

    I would say that I tend to agree with most of the things you write on this blog. Frankly, I don’t understand what your point is this time around. His story does serve a purpose. It’s called counterexample.

    The claim that the religious right is making in order to justify their lawmaking is that:

    IF you are gay, THEN you cannot be a good parent.

    Although I do enjoy the emotion this kid brings to the story, I concede that it is irrelevant. However, he does prove their proposition false.

  5. 5 5 Dave

    I think a more cogent point would be: what sort of parent tells their child that they’d better believe in the unbelievable else they will burn in hell forever?

  6. 6 6 Jonathan Lanctot

    His speech is self-contradictory. Half-way through his speech, he talks about how his notion of being a family doesn’t derive from some outside certificate granted from the state, but rather because of “the commitment we make to each other”, and “the love that binds us together”. This sets up a strong argument to do away with marriage as a government institution, not to perpetuate it to yet another politically-protected class!

    His idea that gays should receive the “right” to marry is entirely derived from the idea of equal protection under the law: the law discriminates against gays. And yet, he makes the point himself: the law doesn’t actually effect the relationships he has developed with his parents. So why should we change the law if successful children are being raised by gay couples today? Doesn’t that point seem to favor the status quo?

    The point he’s trying to make in his speech seems to be: “Look, I was raised by gay parents and I turned out okay. Gay parents are no different from yours: we’re a family, no matter what the state says. Discrimination is bad. Therefore, please give gays the right to marry because it won’t change anything.” You have to get past the emotional delivery to see the lack of logic in the speech: it simply doesn’t follow.

    PS: I support gay marriage, although I find calling it a “right” as nauseating as the “rights” to healthcare, housing, or a job. I also support a state’s ability to define social institutions as their people please. I don’t see why marriage in California should be the same thing as marriage in Alabama. Isn’t that why we have fifty states?

  7. 7 7 Dilip

    Dr. Landsburg

    Your penchant for trying to come across as “neutral” by constantly shooting goals on both sides of the field leads one to question if you actually stand up for anything in particular. Is taking no position a virtue?

    All Mr. Wahls is doing is using his ability to be eloquent to state his personal experience. Nothing more, nothing less. Why you want to cook up a post over something that you obviously feel is irrelevant is beyond me.

  8. 8 8 Ken B

    @Steve: I quite agree with your larger point, the damage English departments do to young minds. From what I have seen students don’t even learn much about English. I expect few English grads will pick up on your small grammatical error: the latter of two not three. You mean to say you lean toward the last. (More is expected from mathematicians!)

    It is not just eloquence that is admired this way. So are rage and commitment. I recall talking (with a brilliant mathematican alas) who described himself as a “committed socialist” — this as a way of ignoring one of my arguments.

  9. 9 9 Ken B

    @Ryan: Innumeracy is a good book but … During the Bush-Gore recount Paulos penned an op ed in which he stated that Bush’s lead was less than (some analogy he made with DNA). I did the calculations and I found he was off by a factor of over 3 million. I wrote to him and pointed this out. His response was yes his numbers were off by that much but so what, the actual numbers don’t matter, he was making a point.

  10. 10 10 Steve Landsburg

    Nick:

    His story does serve a purpose. It’s called counterexample.

    It is a counterexample only to the assertion that 100% of gay parents fail, which is not a position that (as far as I know) has ever been advanced by anyone. If this had been a randomly selected instance, it would be (minor) evidence against the actual assertion, which is that gay parents are more *likely* to fail. Because it is cherry-picked, it is not even that.

  11. 11 11 Nick

    Steve —

    I completely agree that it is not evidence against that assertion. Although I think you must be missing a lot of what the religious right pushes forward as their evidence against allowing gay marriage. For instance, this piece was published in the Baltimore Sun this past week:

    http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-same-sex-marriage-20110201,0,2030527.story

    Anyway, I’m sure we mostly agree on this topic. For the record, I would prefer the state to be out of the marriage business entirely, but so long as it is involved I support gay marriage.

    If I could add anything else to my previous post, it’s that I think that stories like Zach are important because they can put a human face on the argument. Yes — a sample size of one shouldn’t determine legislation. But that sample size of one may change the minds of citizens whose opinions are shaped by bigotry or ignorance. And that sample size of one may also convince other samples to come out and tell their story too.

  12. 12 12 math_geek

    In his defense, persuasion is not about the tools we use to understand the world, it’s about the tools other people use to understand the world. I can use data and logic to come to conclusions personally, but if many other people use anecdotes as evidence, then we can A) either spend our time trying to convince them that data and logic serve as superior tools to anecdotes or B) Use anecdotes to try to convince people of conclusions that we have arrived at with data and logic. While A may appear nobler, B is often more expedient.

  13. 13 13 Ken B

    @Nick: the article you link does not make the argument you assert. It is quite clearly a statistical argument based on statistical studies. To present that as “the assertion that 100% of gay parents fail” is a straw man.

  14. 14 14 Nick

    @Ken B: I do see your point and certainly it wasn’t my goal to offer up a straw man argument. True, the article does offer up some statistics (…and then draws dubious conclusions from them.) But I still do find parts of the article to be at least borderlining my original argument:

    “Does Maryland need children? Do children need a mom and a dad?
    The answer to both questions is: ‘Yes.’”

  15. 15 15 bob sylvester

    Some kids do well with one parent. Some do well in an orphanage. In a foster home. Having been adandoned my a parent. Having seen a parent die tragically. Despite having an emotionally absent parent? Does this mean we simply apportion children to any of these circumstances or rename any of them “marriage?” In a phrase, so what?

  16. 16 16 Ken B

    @Nick: I don’t think so. You quote the editors’ conclusion. At issue is not the conclusion but the nature of their argument. They could write that conclusion after presenting an argument that gay parents fail 98% of the time. A cherry picked counter-example will still not be a refutation.

  17. 17 17 Daniel Hewitt

    Jonathan Lanctot,

    This sets up a strong argument to do away with marriage as a government institution, not to perpetuate it to yet another politically-protected class!

    Well said. And this is from somebody who disagrees with you on the idea of gay marriage itself. I do believe strongly in the traditional defintion of marriage, I’m just not prepared to use force to impose that on anybody else.

    Why are we surprised by the bitter conflict that results from the belief that the state MUST sanction private contracts? The human right thing is correct on one level…we all have the right to associate freely and enter into voluntary contracts with each other, without asking the state for permission.

  18. 18 18 Will A

    If you are looking for anecdotal examples of how different departments equip their students it might be good to look at faculty as well.

    The following is a link talks about a study “proving” that gay parents are better than average parents:
    http://www.healthfinder.gov/news/newsstory.aspx?docid=639859

    Dr. Nanette Gartrell who has severed on Harvard’s Medical School Faculty studied Lesbian parents who had children using IVR (artifical insemination). Apparently these children end up better than the average child.

    If this results are correct, it might also be the case that children of parents who can afford $ 12,000 – $ 15,000 IVR treatments do better than the average child. It also might be the case that “planned” children do better than the average child which includes unplanned pregnancies.

    Apparently, the study had no control group of children of straight parents who went through IVR.

    The advanced concept of that a study shouldn’t compare Apples to Oranges seems to have missed Harvard Medical School. My hope is that doctors from Harvard Medical School can find a way to cope with the damage their department did to them.

    Of course, this is America where emotional “facts” rule over statistics. And if your goal is to try and convince as many of your fellow Americans as you can, you better get all emotional in your speech and if you make illogical statements all the better. It shows just how much conviction you have.

    I used to disagree with John Boehner on a lot of issues, but now that I’ve seen him cry a bunch of times and the humanity that is in him, I’m more willing to go along with whatever he says.

  19. 19 19 math_geek

    Will,

    I don’t know if your last two paragraphs were directed at me, but I never said it was smart that people relied on anecdotes and emotions to determine their beliefs, merely that they did so. If you logically believe Policy A, and want to get policy A implemented, and emotional arguments are the most effective way to get policy A implemented, then that is a strong consideration to using them.

    I can argue that Rand Paul’s proposed immigration policy would cause substantial pain to a large number of people without any real benefits, increase government spending (which he claims to oppose), and has the dangerous capacity to create the first second class of American residents in our society since pre Civil Rights African Americans, but I may not even be able to finish those arguments before people stop listening. It may be more effective to find noble examples of hard-working immigrants and ask why Rand Paul hates them so much. It’s not dissimilair from the pet rescue and Children’s Fund commercials on TV.

  20. 20 20 Val

    Honestly, I saw it as adding a human face, instead of just leaving the whole conversation as “other.”

    Elsejournal, I reminded someone of the concept of Monkeysphere. (http://www.strange-loops.com/politicsmonkeysphere.html) That one can easily empathize with an individual, but groupings, particularly large ones one doesn’t see a connection with, are far harder.

    Zach, as a good looking eloquent speaker, may manage to get some people to stop long enough to actually listen to the other side.

  21. 21 21 Will A

    math_geek:

    If the last 2 paragraphs were directed at you it would probably be more in support of what you were saying. I haven’t looked at the polls, but my guess is that once people saw Boehner cry, that he was looked on more favorably by Americans.

    Look at Bush and Clinton. They were very good at speaking to the masses and dumbing down their speech and bringing it to an emotional level.

    I guess my point would be that if you want to convince people in America you better use emotional speech and you better use facts that back up your point (whether or not those facts are valid/consistent).

    I personally believe that this is not a good thing for our country. I’m not so sure though that the English departments in our universities are the cause of this.

  22. 22 22 Ken B

    @will A: ” I’m not so sure though that the English departments in our universities are the cause of this.” Exacerbating not causing. But that’s quite bad enough.

  23. 23 23 Will A

    Ken B:

    I guess I would want to see the study that shows a studying University English classes makes a person less of a critical thinker.

    An experiment like:
    Take 2 groups of people in their 30′s who had never been to college. One group never goes to college. The other group takes only the University English Classes needed for a degree. At the end of the study compare the critical thinking ability of those who took and passed all classes versus the others.

    It seems counter intuitive to me that the group that took and passed the English classes would have less critical thinking skills.

    However, if your point is that English Majors don’t think as critically as Economic or Statistic Majors, then I would agree with that.

  24. 24 24 Seth

    What about these two points?

    1) Sense of family doesn’t come from the state.
    2) They’re voting to codify discrimination.

  25. 25 25 Ken B

    @Will A: Well I think you are ignoring the opportunity cost. People who study math or economics or law are taught to think critically, and suffer in their studies if they do not learn to. That is not so true in some soft subjects, especially in some schools. But indeed I would go further, and suggest that people who take English or Sociology etc in heavily pomo pc departments learn to overvalue cherry picked and emotionally charged examples at the expense of rational thought. (Steve’s point is that this video going viral is an example of that sort of thinking at work.) Belief is easy, proof is hard. Not learning that, and not learning to adapt to that, is harm.

  26. 26 26 Ken B
  27. 27 27 Will A

    The study doesn’t surprise me. However, proving that going to college doesn’t necessarily improve a person’s critical thinking skills doesn’t mean that going to college makes critical thinking skills worse (exacerbates).

    As I said above, I think that the lack of critical thinking is hurting the United States. My point is that the lack of critical thinking skills in America doesn’t have to do with English departments, it has to do with the American society not valuing critical thought.

    In my opinion, the following will be truths for a long time in the U.S.:
    - The majority of Americans will believe that statics/math/probability are a waste of time since “you can prove anything with statistics”.
    - Americans won’t buy into any argument that can’t be boiled down to a bumper sticker.
    - The wealthy Americans will be those that understand the value statics, math, probability, and critical thinking. I.e. they will have these skills or be smart enough to hire people with these skill.
    - Producing critical thinking English Majors will not have a major bearing on the above 3 points.

  28. 28 28 John

    The kid did speech and debate at Iowa City West, a fine school for that. The coach, Woodhouse, is quite awesome.

    I can’t imagine that Iowans would deny gays the right to insemination. Was that what the hearing was about? Can I assume that this was a hearing related to gay adoption? I think gay adoption is legal in most places in the U.S. I don’t think it’s that big of an issue. If the speech was at a hearing about gay marriage, then it really seems out of place.

    I think we place a lot of emphasis on good vs. bad parenting, but the evidence suggests that unless you’re a horrible parent you won’t have that much influence on your kids beyond genetics. Further, if conservatives can accept that homosexuality is based largely on genetics and is not a choice (as most of appear to claim), then it is unlikely that if a gay couple adopts a child from straight parents that they will be able to raise the child to be something different than what its genetics would largely predict it to be. If a gay couple produces a child with the cooperation of a straight person, then genetically this might mean the child might have some probability of being homosexual greater than if two straight parents did. It would be interesting for an investigation into that. If that were the case and if the conservatives also believe in evolution (which I doubt), I would suspect they would prefer the gays to adopt from straight parents rather than produce children that might have a greater-than-average chance of being homosexual.

  29. 29 29 Scott H.

    Its interesting that you would single out this poor boy for lack of critical thinking when this subject as a whole is notorious for its vacuous arguments.

    I had a whole huge write up on this but erased it. The shortened thesis is:

    This debate is not so much about parental failure versus success. Its about maintaining the high status of the classical family versus gay parents and single parents.

  30. 30 30 Harrison B

    Wow. I don’t get offended much, but this may take the cake. How can a personal story as honest and articulate as his be condemned. I’m unsubscribing from this blog.

  31. 31 31 DividedLine

    “Fortunately, that’s a curable condition. I’m counting on his engineering professors to undo whatever damage the English department has managed to inflict.”

    What evidence is there for this statement? If this were true, why is it that students can graduate from MIT and Harvard with engineering degrees, yet not know how to solve a simple third-grade problem in science: lighting a light bulb with a battery and wire?

    You can see for yourself in this video. Start watching at 1:30.

    http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=76

  32. 32 32 John

    Harrison B,
    I don’t see anything remotely controversial in his blog. It’s a shame you will unsub.

    Anyway, you seem to lack the same faculties of reason as the speaker in the video. The fact that he grew up to be successful and well-adjusted from a homosexual couple merely proves that it is not impossible for a homosexual couple to raise someone to be successful and well-adjusted. It is merely an anecdote about one person. It does not prove anything about the abilities of other homosexual couples to raise children.

  33. 33 33 Nick

    After reading some more comments, I’ve thought about some additional points. John is absolutely correct when he says “It does not prove anything about the abilities of other homosexual couples to raise children.” But so what? Why does this need to be proven? It certainly doesn’t seem to matter for heterosexual couples. I don’t even interpret anything he says as making that claim anyway.

    I’m sticking with my initial positive reaction to this kid’s story. Perhaps he should have also said that it doesn’t need to be proven, or that it’s impossible to prove that other homosexual couples are capable of raising children. But I hardly think that point holds any persuasive value. That’s not his fault though — it’s the fault of his narrow-minded and much less logical audience.

  34. 34 34 Chicago Methods

    I agree with Nick here. The fundamental question of, “Can homosexual couples raise childeren?” is like asking where an electron is at any given point in time – it’s a nonsense question.

  35. 35 35 MW

    As a more general principle, this is why I think much of journalism is intellectually bankrupt. An interesting example told well is often used as a stand in for a general principle, rather than a mere anecdote.

  36. 36 36 dave

    and this is a good point as well. what if the video does not go viral? how many views is considered viral? there is more than one video channel devoted entirely to viral vids. does this video need to show up there to count? should we count views gathered from this blog?

  37. 37 37 Brian Goegan

    I think when you are presenting a case to idiots (such as those who ignore the real evidence put forth in peer-reviewed journals), then the argument this kid is making might be the most effective one. And I think most people like this video not because it’s the greatest argument for gay parenting ever put forward, but because it shows someone standing up for their beliefs. People like it because it’s like the end of a movie, not the end of a psychology seminar.

  38. 38 38 Harold

    It is lamentable that arguments based on research are often less persuasive than those based on emotion. It must result in poor descision making. The arguments against gay marriage are essentially based on emotion, fear, hatred and ignorance. You can counter this with well-researched statistics until you are blue in the face without making any progress at all. I wish that the evidence would persuade people, but so often it does not. That means that sometimes an emotional appeal is the only thing that can get you anywhere. The man in the film may be completely aware of the hollowness of his arguments as evidence. He may also be aware that presenting the argument in this way will actually persuade many more people to his point of view. To criticise his ability to reason based on this evidence alone is unfounded. It is the folk who have (possibly) made this “go viral” that need to be criticised.

  39. 39 39 Ken B

    @Chicago_Methods: Of course it’s not a meaningless question. How parents treat kids matters, and how kids develop in different environments matters. It’s an empirical question. Which I believe is good news for advocates of gay marriage. But it needn’t logically have turned out that way.

  40. 40 40 John

    “People like it because it’s like the end of a movie” – Well said.

  41. 41 41 Chicago Methods

    Fair enough Ken. I guess I just wonder how strong the correlation is between gay couples and raising constructive/destructive children though I haven’t read any psych papers on the subject.

    Certainly the Behavioral field could shed a little light on this subject.

  42. 42 42 Ken B

    @Chicago_Methods: Since we now agree on the logic we can discuss facts! I don’t know of any either. It is possible the effects could be bad but 1) the only theoretical basis we have for that is Freudian, and Freudian is another word for bogus 2) if there were studies showing damage we’d surely have heard from the anti crowd.
    So there seems to me no very strong reason to suspect ill effects. If we see them over time I’ll rethink, but I don’t expect to. (If we see good effects over time will many antis rethink?)

  43. 43 43 Drew

    “I’m unsubscribing from this blog.”

    Note: it will take two weeks for your unsubscription request to be processed. In the meantime, please enjoy two weeks of the complimentary editions of this blog which will continue to be delivered to your doorstep each morning as per usual.

  44. 44 44 Chicago Methods

    Right Ken. Concerning environmental impacts though, I would most-likely turn to the Behavioral field of psych.

    It’s unfortunate that for quite a long time, sexual abuse and homosexuality (among other things) has been incorrectly examined in the field of psychology. Heck, even now, psychology is predominently studied on a male population instead of including a female study.

    You have to admit that there are a few neo-freudians that make at least some sense. Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Carl Jung (though the whole collective unconscious thing is a out-there) to name a few.

  45. 45 45 Steve C
  46. 46 46 livex

    Mr. Landsburg,

    Your argument depends on the assumption that Mr. Wahls is specifically seeking to refute the claim that “gay people, on average, are less successful as parents.” Nowhere in the video does Mr. Wahls characterize the claim he opposes in that manner.

    It is a fact that many of the opponents of gay marriage both believe and claim that it is impossible for a gay couple to successfully raise a child. To refute that claim in a logically sound and valid manner, all you have to do is produce one counterexample, which is exactly what Mr. Wahls is doing.

  47. 47 47 Bradley Calder

    Prof. Landsburg, I don’t know what you arr talking about. The person in the video is brilliant. What could possibly go wrong if we make policy decisions based solely on anecdotal evidence?

  48. 48 48 James Peron

    Prof. Landsburg, as a seller of your books I admired you economics, but that said, you views here are awful. I guess I shouldn’t have assumed you were a libertarian. Don’t worry, we have stopped selling your books and won’t be suckered in the future.

  49. 49 49 Psychohistorian

    The general public often misunderstands the nuance of average-based arguments. The actual data might show something to the effect of, “Gay parents perform 2% worse (or better) on some metric of parent quality.” People will hear: “Gay people are bad (or good) parents.” This is particularly true because of the deep-seated fear and hatred of gay people. This video is an excellent rebuttal to an implied point. You are correct in that it is a weak statistical counterargument, but the original statistical argument isn’t really intended as a statistical argument. I agree it’s depressing that people buy such terrible arguments, but given that they do, you can hardly fault someone for using an off-topic but effective rebuttal rather than an on-topic but ineffective one.

    Moreover, the whole issue is irrelevant. We wouldn’t say that poor people, or black people, or short people, or red-haired people, or any other group of people should be barred from marriage, even if we had solid evidence that they were, on average, worse parents. The only way we would ever ban a group from marriage generally would be if there was reason to believe they would be overwhelmingly inferior, which is certainly not the case for gays.

    Also, just to mention it, the argument that marriage exists for the benefit of children is historically totally wrong. Marriage was mostly an economic institution that served numerous other purposes – bonding families, dividing labor, controlling effective ownership of women.

  50. 50 50 Dexter

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/02/rhetoric_and_rationality

    Magical book! *snicker*

    The Daily Dish was entirely correct. I’ve never used this word in my life until now, but it seems appropriate:

    You were Pwned.

  51. 51 51 Jack

    Man, talk about missing the forest for the trees. This is the problem with over-thinking: you find a logical fallacy and believe that it strips the situation of all value. What you seem to miss is that the arguments surrounding this topic don’t follow a logical path at all. If they did, it wouldn’t even be an argument.

    I’m not claiming that the kid is a rhetorical genius, or that his speech carried any logical weight. I’m also not claiming that he helped or hurt his case (though I lean toward the former). I will assert, however, that some of the comments in this blog post do seem to prove that highly intellectual people can be, in many ways that matter, kind of retarded.

  52. 52 52 david

    Yes, I agree with Dexter. I’d be curious to see your defense of this post in light of WW’s objections.

  53. 53 53 Chicago Methods

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/02/rhetoric_and_rationality

    Very un-Robert Aumann of whoever wrote this. They won’t get anywhere with name-calling.

    There are reasons why their is a field called psychology and it doesn’t create poor research papers like this personal analysis.

    But of course, this is an opinion piece, and a political one at that, so I guess I shouldn’t expect anything less – especially from the internet.

  54. 54 54 Aaron Baker

    Mr. Landsburg:

    Do you care to comment on the rhetorical (and logical) asswhipping dealt you by Will Wilkinson in The Economist? Perhaps you’re still lying senseless on the mat.

  55. 55 55 Patrick

    “I’m counting on his engineering professors to undo whatever damage the English department has managed to inflict.”

    With absolutely no proof whatsoever regarding the young man’s previous or current experiences in any English courses, you cast aspersions at your colleagues across campus.

    Nice non sequitur, Mr. Logical.

    And, for what it’s worth, most English Department faculty teach literature, not reasoning (per se). You’d have to look to faculty in philosophy, speech communications, or a writing program (my own academic home) for the correct faculty to blame.

    So, even when you over-generalize, you can’t even get the target right.

    But I’m sure you’re a fine engineer.

  56. 56 56 JRinDC

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/02/rhetoric_and_rationality

    Your post misconstrues the intent of Mr. Wahls’ speech in defense of his family (would you prefer he said nothing?), and frankly just seems mean spirited.

  57. 57 57 Daniel

    The myopia in this post is rather staggering — if totally unsurprising. Is it somehow your contention that there is only one type of acceptable empirical argument — namely, large-n statistical analysis? Step outside — no, not of the University, that would be a lot to ask; just step out of your department and walk over to Sociology, Political Science, or Biology for that matter. In those departments, you will find a method called “the case study”.

    It may shock you to hear that significant amounts of thinking have gone into the development of methods of analysis based on an n of 1. Or that all case studies are by definition “cherry picked”, including on the dependent variable (quel horreur!). And that the purpose of the case study is to identify and study mechanisms only hinted at in large-n analysis.

    If you were to do this, you might rethink your presentation of the argument against gay marriage and child rearing. That argument is not an argument of percentages. It is an argument about mechanisms, sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes implicitly. And therefore, a detailed case study might be exactly the type of argument to challenge it.

    There’s a whole world out there. Have a look. And in the meantime, stick to economics.

  58. 58 58 SFChris

    There is an implicit argument here that marriage really doesn’t get you much of anything aside from social recognition. What’s the real difference? For some (younger, assetless, healthy) gay couples this is somewhat true and for others, like myself, this is patently false. It really depends on one’s circumstances and if any important governmental services are held hostage behind the marriage certificate. Consider immigration rights. I have been with my partner for 9 years. He is not a US citizen. Given that immigration rights are federal and that DOMA still exists we cannot get married and we are absolute strangers to each other in the eyes of federal law. We live our lives and commit our incomes so that he can continue going to a university on a student visa in perpetuity so that he can stay in the country. He (we actually) have spent upwards of $80,000 over the last 9 years pursuing college degrees that we could care less about. Our relationship has no permanent way forward when the embassy finally decides to halt our little shell game, or we start another with temporary H1B visas. Bottom line is, either I leave the United States and my career so that we can be together or our relationship of 9 years becomes permanently long distance and probabilistically ends. This is even more complex as we are both HIV+ and are very concerned about 3rd world health care in his native country. On the other hand if gay marriage becomes a reality, this all changes overnight. He suddenly qualifies for immigration rights and we do the normal cakewalk process of a K visa and he moves from temp to permanent residency. Since personal narratives seem to be irrelevant here, I’ll note that there were 36000 gay binational couples identified on the 2000 census and doubtlessly tens of thousands more that were not since the counting of gay people is itself controversial. If this was your life, you too would be pushing for gay marriage with every fiber of your being. The intellectual wankery about how much of which type of logical fallacy is on display here is, quite frankly, beneath my contempt.

  59. 59 59 Jim

    Where is the evidence that gay people are less successful parents?

    I would like to hear a rebuttal from Mr. Landsburg regarding the comments of Will Wilkinson of The Economist, but I have a feeling that Mr. Landsburg’s would be unwilling.

  60. 60 60 Aaron Baker

    Zach Wahls gives every appearance of being a likable and accomplished 19-year-old with a good command of the language, and, like many 19-year-olds much of the time, not much to say. Fortunately, that’s a curable condition. I’m counting on his engineering professors to undo whatever damage the English department has managed to inflict.

    I have to add to my earlier comment that Wilkinson doesn’t do justice to the insufferably snotty condescension of this post. I realize that “right-of-center economist” is not always synonymous with “patronizing jerk”–but I trust you understand why reasonable people make that mistake.

  61. 61 61 Michael Yuri

    The key problem, as others have already noted is Landsburg’s (unsupported) assertion that Wahls was “attempt[ing] to refute [the] notion” that “gay people, on average, are less successful as parents.” I suppose you might think this is what the gay marriage debate is about if your only contact with it is arguments by academics and policy wonks.

    But if you’ve spent any amount of time paying attention to the real world opposition to gay marriage this sounds absurd. The rank-and-file opposition to gay marriage has absolutely nothing to do with empirical data on the fitness of gay parents, and everything to do with a visceral feeling that gays are immoral or disgusting or weird (often, though certainly not always, backed up by religious authority). Occasionally, arguments about gays’ fitness as parents will appear, but usually only as a fallback position or an attempt to cloak a disgust-based position in the language of public reason.

    Zach Wahls’s speech is an eloquent effort to humanize gay families. And in response to a position that is fundamentally based on gut feelings and subconscious associations, this is perfectly appropriate.

  62. 62 62 May

    I confess to not having read through all of the comments above, so I apologise if I’m unnecessarily repeating points others have made. There also didn’t seem to be a whole lot of malice in your post and you probably don’t need hundreds of people telling you they disagree – but then, you have to expect comments if you post about controversial issues, and as repetition serves both a statistical and a persuasive purpose, I thought I’d go ahead.

    You seem to be slightly too concerned with fighting bad statistical understanding to have really heard what Mr Wahls was saying. You mention arguing by eloquence, another commenter refers to drawing on people’s emotions. Both miss the point, which should have been made clear by the last line of Mr Wahls’s speech. His counterexample and his rhetoric serve the same function as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s did – making people care about the fact that people still have to fight for the rights enshrined in your constitution over 200 years ago. Those rights aren’t illogical or irrational. Given that few Americans would argue that they are, the rational parts of this debate might be said to be established, and logic and reason might no longer be appropriate tools. As a wise man once said, it is difficult to remove by logic an idea not put there by logic in the first place.

  63. 63 63 Chicago Methods

    I have a confession to make.

    I live in the midwest, my major is Economics, and I was raised by rehabilitated sex offenders. I was adopted by my family at the young age of six-months-old and they came to accept and move on from their past life. At first my grandparents wern’t sure if this was the right idea, but they broke down after seeing how cute I was. It is unfortunate that nether of my grandparents are here today to see me speak this message. In any case, later on my younger sister was adopted by my family, which is really special to me because we have become really close.

    I guess my point is that my family isn’t any different than any other midwestern family. When I’m home, we go to church toghether, we eat dinner, we go on vacations. But we have our hard times too, we get in fights.

    In fact my mom was daignosed with a terrible disease in 2000 that put here in a wheelchair, so we’ve had our struggles. But we’re midwesterners, we don’t expect anyone to solve our problems for us; we’ll fight our own battles. We just hope for equal and fair treatment from our state.

    Being a student at a reputible school, the topic of rehabilitated sex offenders comes up occasionally in classroom discussions. Well, the question always comes down to: “Can rehabilitated sex offenders raise kids?” Then the conversation gets quiet for a moment because most people don’t really have an answer. And then I raise my hand and say, “Actually I was raised by a rehabilitated family and I’m doing pretty well.”

    I scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT, I’m actually an eagle scout, I own and operate my own small business. In fact if I was any of your sons’, I believe I would make you proud. I’m not really so different from any of your children, in fact. My family really isn’t so different from yours. After all, your family doesn’t derive its sense of worth from a document saying “Congradulations! You’re able to have kids!” No. The sense of family comes from the commitment we donate to each other. It comes from the hard times so that we can enjoy the good times. It comes from the love that binds us. That is what makes a family.

    So what my congressmen is voting for isn’t going to change us, and it isn’t going to change our families. It is to change how the law views us, how the law treats us. My congressmen is about to vote, for the first time, in the history of my state to codify discrimination into our consitution.

    He is telling the other members of my state that some among us are second-class citizens who do not have the right to support a child as he or she grows.

    Now I’m sure there is going to be a bunch of testimonys about how damaging rehabilitated sex offenders can be by raising children. But in my ninteen years, not once have I EVER been confronted by an individual who realized that I was raised by rehabilitated sex offenders. And you know why? Because the history of my parents have had zero effect on the content of my character.


    Of course some of you will read this message and start to get offended. Some of you might create a strawmen that I’m arguing that sex offenders raising children can be compared to a gay family raising children. Others will simply mock me. In the end, they are all so blind by emotion that they lack the critical thinking skills to realize that this is all nothing more than:

    Just Elegant Nonsense.

    Of course some bloggers will blog elegant nonsense about defending my right to use elegant nonsense to defend myself against nonsense; saying that it puts a human face to the discussion. But they too will completely miss the point that this is nothing more than:

    Just Elegant Nonsense.

    Of course others will cite psychological research papers in order to show that a rehabilitated family could or could not raise a child – and this is the correct thing to do because it puts at least a concrete foundation to the discussion. But it is unfortunate that most of these people will continue using elegant nonsense to defend other preconcieved nonsense. Mark Twain once said, “Statistics is often used as a lampost. It’s a thing that people lean on for support but don’t use it to illuminate a path.” In the end, these people will also miss the point that my speech is nothing more than:

    Just Elegant Nonsense

    However most of us, after listening to this speech, will simply just snap our fingers, say “pwned”, or “cool story, bro” as we listen to the bongos play softly in the ill-lit corner. We will continue on with our lives defending our preconcieved idea of a world-view (further differentiating our tunnel-vision) by using nothing more than a continuous cycle of:

    Just Elegant Nonsense

  64. 64 64 Steve Landsburg

    Chicago Methods: Bravo.

  65. 65 65 Ken B

    From the Economist article linked several times above:

    “Fallacious arguments can be the best means to noble ends. If we were to concede, for the sake of argument, that Mr Wahls did fallaciously attempt to rebut a statistical argument with an anecdote, it may remain that he acted not “in the service of intellectual misdirection”, but instead acted with exemplary rationality and morality by speaking eloquently in the service of justice”

    As I take it, Steve disputes the first sentence. Nothing Steve posted impuned Wahls’s character or motives. But sentence two is still a bad argument for sentence one. And the attitude embodied in the first sentence is the problem Steve criticized.

  66. 66 66 Josh W.

    @Chicago Methods

    Spot on. That was poetic.

  67. 67 67 Socrates

    I’d like to thank Steve Landsburg for being an intellectual prig and upholding standards of proof. That’s the economists special contribution to social sciences — to uphold standards of proof in the face of overwhelming emotional appeals.

    There is a saying in the legal profession that “Hard cases make bad law”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_cases_make_bad_law
    That’s because you can’t make good laws based upon exceptions. Cherry picked, heart tugging cases have driven policy debates and public opinions through things like film in the US for a long time. What social programs have been solved by these policies? Hard cases make good drama. For the good of society, laws based upon drama should be relegated to English Dept.

  68. 68 68 Socractes

    To forestall America’s steady decline into a Banana Republic, reason needs to reign in debates about public policy, not heartfelt appeals. Heartfelt appeals is the specialty of demagogues. As history has shown, only Anglo skepticism has saved the world from morally appealing fallacious reasoning found in Nazi Germany, former USSR. Here is a paper that makes a good start.
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1722155

  69. 69 69 Bradley Calder

    @ Chicago Methods

    Excellent post.

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