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Friday, May 09, 2008

An obvious misconception.

When I teach my students I often use extreme examples to make points. Given certain professional interests of mine, this means that I sometimes bring up the literature on sexual assault and rape. These are, of course, unpleasant subjects, but they also tend to capture and hold the attention of students. What can I say? I am not above sly tactics to amplify my pedagological effectiveness.

Sometimes, however, students have asked me some odd questions when I reveal my interest in studying rape. Particularly, one student once remarked, "Wow. What is wrong with you?"

Well... many, many things, but none of those grievous failings drive me to study sexual assault. It isn't that I have some secret yearning to rape someone, it's that it's a serious social problem that I would like to see reduced. Nevertheless, students sometimes assume that because we study something we must, therefore, be supporters of it. An annoying little misconception that can be difficult to correct.

I bring this up because we have an example of this exact process on that paragon of scientific accuracy,* Conservapedia. They recently posted the following headline on their "news" section:

For those who hate pictures, it reads:

Professor values - Harvard Psychology Professor: Children Can Send Marriage Into Downward Spiral.

The implication is clear: it's only because of the horrible values rampant among academics that we could ever possibly suggest that kids don't make people happy! We're such bastards. Well, most likely we dare to suggest that kids don't always make people happy because that's where the data lead. If we examine the link Conservapedia provides, we find a news story on the subject that provides some insight:

Marriage has been shown, through research, to be an unending source of joy, a Harvard professor said at an Australian conference this week.

But introduce children into the relationship and that joy may plummet, according to a report from the Australian Associated Press.

"Figures show that married people are in almost every way happier than unmarried people — whether they are single, divorced, cohabiting," Harvard University psychology professor Daniel Gilbert told the Happiness and its Causes conference in Sydney.

"Married people live longer, married people earn more money per capita, married people have more sex and enjoy it more," AAP quoted Gilbert as saying.

But, despite the belief that children are the apples of our eyes, they actually can have a negative influence on marriages, according to the report. And more kids equals more sadness, Gilbert said.

So, really, the researchers aren't saying "kids are bad," they're just observing that lots of children may detract from happiness. And if you asked them, I'd guess that they would argue it's because kids are expensive, time consuming, and stressful little critters to have around.** This isn't to say that kids aren't rewarding but, really, how is this research any different from the usual claim that having kids is wonderful, but extremely difficult? Answer: it isn't. Of course, Conservapedia could have pointed out that, according to research, marriage is a good thing as it leads to more sex and greater happiness but then they wouldn't get to bad talk academics. Can't have that, can we?

While Conservapedia makes a lot of mistakes with science this one is insanely basic. Look, really and truly, when we study rape and murder and disease it isn't because we think rape and murder and disease are awesome. Rather, we usually regard them as problems and would like to correct them. In this case, I doubt the researchers said "How can we make people stop having children?" but rather were just interested in helping people be happy. Having discovered that kids make happiness difficult in some ways I strongly doubt they'll advocate that we stop breeding and go joyously into racial*** extinction, yet we may as well have all the facts. Hell, if just talking about or studying a topic a lot makes you an advocate for it, then Conservapedia must be one of the biggest supporters of homosexuals ever. Seriously, if you search Google for "Homosexuality" Conservapedia is the second hit:

I guess Andrew Schlafly absolutely loves gay people. Yeah. Sure he does.

And the biggest irony of this entire fiasco? It's the headline right below the one about "professor values":

Or, in text form:

"There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a 'war on science.'"

Because if there's anything we've learned today, it's that Conservapedians totally get science.


* Hey, quote miners, just so you know: that's sarcasm.

** Thanks Mom and Dad!

*** Meaning "Homo Sapiens." I haven't become a white supremacist or some nonsense like that.

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Blogger JordanBaker said...

That reminds me of the not entirely relevant, but tangentially helpful quote, "The critic need not feel kindly toward the people he criticizes. But he ought to acknowledge his connection to those people: If he were a stranger, really disinterested, it is hard to see why he would involve himself in their affairs." -Michael Walzer, The Company of Critics

Saturday, May 17, 2008 9:02:00 AM  

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