27 March 2012

Unhealthful News 210 - Values and science (featuring more lunacy from Wisconsin)

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about a move in the Wisconsin legislature that would basically declare that being a single mother (however that situation came about) constitutes negligent behavior that contributes to child abuse.  Understandably, there was an uproar about this; not surprisingly, it pretty much overlooked the epidemiology of the situation that I mentioned.

It was pretty clear that the epidemiologic observations (that a child is indeed better off in a two parent household all else equal, and that children in a household with a male partner of their mother who is not their biological father are at enormously greater risk of suffering physical abuse), while based in evidence, were rationalizations, not the real motives.  Other statements by the bill's sponsor made it pretty clear he was not actually trying to improve the lives of the children, let alone their mothers.  A few days ago, that was compounded by a comment by a co-sponsor of the bill, which finishes off any doubt that this has to do with caring about people:
Instead of leaving an abusive situation, women should try to remember the things they love about their husbands, Representative Don Pridemore said. "If they can re-find those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place it might help,"
(h/t to epidemiologist blogger Tara C. Smith for finding this, though I cannot quote her tweet about it without risk of getting my post censored by vocabulary-based filters)

This madness is fascinating in the context of the buzz about the new book by psychologist-turned-political-analyst Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind.  The gist of the buzz (admittedly an oversimplification of the ideas, though so is the book -- if you want a more complete summary, this review provides one) is that behavior of many voters on the American political right baffles thinkers on the left.  The latter think the former are just being duped by the 1% to vote against their interests.  Haidt argues that the conservatives just have a broader set of "moral" concerns.  The claim is that conservatives understand liberals' values of compassion and fairness, and share them to some extent, but also consider as moral values such things as order, loyalty, authority, sanctity, tradition, and feelings of disgust.  These latter concepts are sufficiently foreign to liberals, the claim goes, that it is very difficult for them to even recognize these as morals that someone might have. 

One conclusion that gets drawn is that those on the right just have a richer and deeper moral sense than those narrow thinkers on the left.  I realize that Haidt's intention is to offer a useful positive (i.e., descriptive) analysis, not a normative one, but there is something remarkably disturbing about the moral relativism that leaks through in the the conversation.  Ironically, American liberals are often characterized by or criticized for cultural/moral relativism.  But, this story claims that they do not extend that to a large portion of their fellow citizens. 

Whatever you might think of that observation, it should be clear that there is a good case to be made against relativism in the Wisconsin case.  Some "moral values" are just not, well, moral -- they are not defensible under any set of modern Western moral guidelines I can think of, other than appeals to out-of-context statements from ancient Hebrew mythology.  A taste for sanctity, order, tradition, and authority might explain the urge to support public policies of denying reproductive freedom or encouraging a woman to keep an abusive family together.  Similarly, a sense of disgust and authority leads some people to want to punish tobacco users or deny rights to homosexuals.  But remember that a taste -- for wealth and power at the expense of others -- also explains the behavior of the 0.1%.  All are understandable, can be put in evolutionary terms, etc. but that does not make any of them ethically defensible.

Bringing this back to the epidemiology, I would argue that the use of epidemiologic claims as rationalization for a motive that is in no way motivated by the science is deplorable.  Moreover, it is evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the position.  If someone is not willing to stand up and say "I think people should not be allowed to use tobacco or cannabis, regardless of its effect on health" or "in-tact families are the only moral way to live, even if they are unhealthy on net", then let them do so and see how their ideas stand up with the polity.  But if they are going to twist the evidence to try to pretend they are motivated by creating better physical or social/emotional/developmental health, then we should cry bullshit.

Importantly, from where I sit, it is pretty clear that Haidt and the others who try to put this in terms of standard American party politics are working along the wrong spectrum.  The most ridiculous cases seem to come from Republican state officials.  But Democratic officials and the Democrat-leaning permanent government (the long-term employees in the bureaucracy) pursue their taste for non-humanistic principles with (often junk) epidemiology rationalizations -- they are just usually better at disguising it. 

I follow the comments and observations of hundreds of people who share my inclination to condemn junk science and disingenuous rationalization in pursuit of personal "moral" tastes.  It is fascinating to observe that for the substantial portion of them whose political identity is tied to these feelings, there are remarkably similar numbers who believe that the worst offenders are the political right and who believe it is the political left.

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