We Still Don’t Need No Stinking Evidence

February 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociology isn’t just “common sense,” we tell our students on day one of the intro coruse. First, one common sense proposition can contradict another. And in any case, the only way to find out if common sense is right is to look at systematic evidence rather than relying on intuition and experience. 

So here is Ross Douthat on Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast on Thursday, talking about his “Let’s Ban Porn” column in the Times (see this post from last week).  Asked about the negative effects of pornography, Douthat says,

I think we spend a lot of time in the media landscape today arguing about studies, and in certain ways in this case I’m appealing to cultural experience and moral intuition

Early in the discussion, Douthat had referred to the “experiment” we have conducted “in using not just pornography but hard core extreme obviously misogynistic pornography as a kind of broad based form of sexual education for young men.” He didn’t specify the outcome variables of this experiment, though the hosts of the show mentioned that at the same time that porn was spreading wildly, the subjects of the experiment (teenagers) were racking up lower rates of casual sex, pregnancy, abortion, and rape.

Nearly an hour into the podcast host David Plotz asks about evidence. Douthat referred to the relation between porn and “anti-social behavior writ large – depression, unhappiness.” I would have thought that unwanted pregnancy and rape were writ just a bit larger than unhappiness. But even with the variables he mentions, Douthat acknowledges that the studies showing a relationship between porn consumption and unhappiness come from a think tank that is hardly neutral (the Witherspoon Institute), and that these studies suffer from the problem of endogeneity, a word that here means that even if there’s a correlation, it’s hard to figure out which is causing which. (Douthat says nothing about the studies that contradict his desired result that porn makes kids unhappy.)

Douthat mentions other outcomes: “Young men are messed up. . . .Relationships just aren’t working that well. . . People seem really unhappy with the dating landscape.” If there’s evidence that all of these were different in some pre-porn paradise, Douthat doesn’t cite it.

For sex conservatives, the question of the evils of porn is just too important to be left to empirical evidence. Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a similar post (“Data? We Don’t Need No Stinking Data”). The names of the conservatives have changed (Kristol out, Douthat in) but the idea is the same.

Does watching porn or listening to make kids more promiscuous? Why waste time figuring out how to get data on the question? Just take it from Irving Kristol (William’s dad) from some years back writing in the Wall Street Journal:
Is it not reasonable to think that there may also be such a connection between our popular culture and the plagues of sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the increasing number of rapes committed by teenagers? Here again, we don’t really need social science to confirm what common sense and common observations tell us to be the case.
    Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies, and violent porn in our “rap” music is without effect? [emphasis added]
By “here again,” he apparently means that there are several other areas where we are better off not trying to get evidence.

In the years since Kristol wrote that, our popular culture became more sexual and more violent. But sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the number of rapes committed by teenagers all decreased.


David J. Littleboy said...

You wrote:

"In the years since Kristol wrote that, our popular culture became more sexual and more violent. But sexual promiscuity among teenagers, teenage illegitimacy, and, yes, the number of rapes committed by teenagers all decreased."

More in regard to your earlier post being discussed at Andrew Gelman's blog, but, Jay, it's even worse than that. Since the, say 1985-1995 period, not only is crime overall way down, but between college attendance increasing and the Flynn effect, millennials are not only way nicer people than us various generations of geezers, but they're smarter also. The whole "what is today's youth coming to" trope is more wrong than it's ever been, despite smartphones and porn. Millenials are really friggin' amazing. In real life, they really are. (Oh, yes Suicide going up: at least some of that is due to the vast increase in the number of guns owned by (mostly white?) Americans during the Obama administration. And articles that argue that psychiatric diagnoses are up? Well, no one had ADHD before we geezers invented it for millennials because we're too incompetent to deal with children. (It turns out that ADHD diagnoses are grossly skewed to the younger members of each academic year, i.e. it is exactly the students we're failing to deal with fairly who are "diagnosed" with it. It's seriously ugly.))

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the additional info.
I also got an e-mail from another self-identified geezer who asks: 'Is it that I am a sociologist or than I am geezer that makes me want to say, over and over again, "We've seen that before"?'