Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thomas Sowell Looks at Nature v. Nurture and Realizes That You Have the Brainpan of a Stagecoach Tilter

Last week we met Thomas Sowell, a black libertarian/objectivist economist and purveyor of tautologies and fact-free scary stories, toasted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and FreeRepublic, because he puts a nice minority face on policies that punish minorities. Reading Sowell talk about race and social welfare programs is like pulling up outside a Louisville mansion and having the black lawn jockey statue come alive and say, "Wow, thank God there aren't any black people here. Nice Town Car."

On The Atlasphere, an objectivist singles website, a tagline appends each of Sowell's reprinted columns, indicating that he's written dozens of non-fiction books. This sounds impressive until you read Sowell and understand that his ideas are usually unencumbered by reality. On the rare times that they go for broke and attempt to describe things that exist, they shout unconnected ideas into the ether, making pronouncements about things either mutually contradictory or irrelevant to each other.

This is one of those times.

Sowell's latest column, "Justice and Injustice," offers 709 words that might as well have been clipped from paragraphs from a score of existing columns and thrown together on the basis of which opening phrase from each graf seemed like it followed the preceding one. It takes him 550 words to arrive at his point, by which time he's already thrown out ideas that undermine it. Don't take my word for it; take us away, Uncle Tom....

A heartbreaking social statistic is that children on welfare have only about half as many words per day directed at them as the children of working-class families — and less than one-third as many words as children whose parents are professionals. This is especially painful in view of the fact that scientists have found that the actual physical development of the brain is affected by how much interaction young children receive.
He delivers a seemingly innocuous opener, aside from the offensive passive voice, which reminds any reader that Sowell writes badly and earns money doing so. He also fails to mention what kind of interaction is critical to young children, but that's hardly worth bothering with. It's only science and sociology, so mentioning any research relevant to it is probably secondary to digging up outlying studies for a new book about how black people actually exploit upper-middle-class whites.

Even if every child entered the world with equal innate ability, by the time they were grown they would nevertheless have very different mental capabilities. Innate ability is the ability that exists at the moment of conception, but nobody applies for a job or for college admission at the moment of conception.
Aside from slyly shoehorning conception as the determining point of ability, this bit has no real point, other than to show you that Sowell already doesn't know what he's talking about by graf #2. Fetal brains don't develop until the fifth week. Anyone applying for college at the moment of conception would be literally brainless, which only invites ugly comparisons to the author of this column. Besides:

Even between conception and birth, other influences affect the development of the brain, as well as the rest of the body.
These influences exist during the five weeks preceding fetal brain development, so already Sowell's initial point about innate ability is quashed by the fact that innate ability has already transcended basic "genes" and "DNA" to accommodate the effects of the mother's behavior and environment. This is important because:

The mother's diet and her intake of alcohol or drugs affects the unborn child. Differences in the amount of nutrition received in the womb create differences even between identical twins. Where one of these identical twins is born significantly heavier than the other, and the lighter one falls below some critical weight, the heavier one tends to have a higher IQ in later years. They may be the same weight when they become adults, but they didn't get the same nutrition back when their brains were first developing.
So far so good — although bear in mind that Sowell will eventually drag this weird conversational charade around to criminality, which explains why he mentioned drug or alcohol intake during pregnancy.

Inequalities have so many sources that this fact undermines the simple dichotomy between believing that some people are innately inferior and believing that discrimination or other social injustices account for economic and social differences.
Sowell engages in a pointless exercise with himself. He props up the idea of innate ability only to undermine it by conceding that environment and other people can constrain/promote development. Then he uses his argument with himself to point out the fallacy of a false dichotomy that he himself has to proffer. I don't know who believes that people are who they are solely by genetic determinism and who believes that people are who they are solely from environmental influence, but Thomas Sowell has met them for the sake of this column, and they are wrong. You'd think that he means to suggest a synthesis of factors helps to shape a human being and always will, but here you would be mistaken. These are two dynamic factors that happen not in tandem but in order.

Yet people who are afraid of being considered racists, or believers that the lower classes are born inferior, often buy the notion that only the sins of "society" can explain why some people end up so much better off than others.
This is probably because "buying" the notion that they're inferior on the basis of race or class would be racist or classist. Sowell opens his column by talking about individuals, then has to move to collective groups of people to point out the gutlessness of admitting that inferiority sometimes happens. It's a cheap bait and switch, going from the specific to the general. The only benefit from this move is to score a facile shot about weak-kneed liberal political correctness. If he'd said, "Some people are literally born with fewer biological advantages for intelligence, and even good schooling cannot make up the difference between them and innately gifted students," he'd invite little disagreement. But by moving the conversation to race or classes, he can correctly describe a liberal reaction to large groups such as those — namely, that their lack of advancement is not biological or class-oriented but rather geared to levels of opportunity — while making the liberal response seem effete and afraid to deal with "the facts," which he's changed by pluralization and collectivization. Allegedly collectivization is anathema to libertarians/objectivists, but when you're trying to obscure the meaninglessness of your argument, any port in a storm, I guess.

Decades ago, Edward Banfield pointed out how the different ways that children from different classes are raised helps or hinders them in their later life. Yet he was demonized by the intelligentsia for saying what most people would consider only common sense.
Once again, Sowell's hydra-headed nemesis, The Intelligentsia — i.e. "People Who Know Shit" — rears its ugly head. Sowell doesn't mention why Banfield was demonized, on what points, regarding what research or toward what end. Doing so would only open this new feint to criticism on its merits. Better to dumb down Banfield to something so vague and possible as to give no offense, then sarcastically invoke his favorite put-down for smart people, so you can see how out of touch they are with "common sense."

Now, many of his other columns clock in at over 1,000 words, so presumably Sowell had at least 300 more to play with before turning this one in. But Banfield doesn't deserve that luxurious treatment. He doesn't need it, because Sowell needs that explication not to be there. This is probably because Banfield's conclusions have been rejected for a solid quarter century. The only prediction he made that has borne any fruit is that Great Society programs in inner cities would fail. He put the onus on the people in them, but their failure owes far more to the fact that whites fled the inner city and crippled the tax base that would have supported those programs. But, you know, whatever: he said something would happen, and it did happen. All the stuff between the premise and conclusion only fogs up moral clarity.

While it is heartbreaking to think of the large differences in ability and behavior that can be created by the way different parents raise their children, it is no less heartbreaking to think of other social differences that go back to the way kids are brought up.
This is a 700-word column, and "heartbreaking" has already made a second and third appearance only a little over halfway through. Also, bear in mind the causal timeline of this column: things happen innately, but with environmental causes, but gutless liberals won't say there's an innate factor, but this is all part of how parents raise their children, which happens in an environment with social differences, which are also dependent on rearing, but those are all on the parents. If there is a coherent point in here, neither the reader nor Sowell can find it.

For example, anyone who watches the television program "Cops" will see an endless succession of real losers who wreck their lives and the lives of others through sheer irresponsibility and lack of self-control.
I would actually pay money to watch COPS with Thomas Sowell. If you don't want to watch COPS with Thomas Sowell, especially if you can get him drunk, there is something wrong with you. The experience would be incredible. For one thing, I would hope everybody would want to ask him whether a poor person with no job prospects and the inability to feed himself would find it in his rational economic self-interest to steal something and gain the ability to feed himself and risk the chance of being incarcerated for a short while — thus feeding himself on the state's dime, three times per day. Rational economic self-interest is one of those things that only seems to happen in libertarian/objectivist schema when it deprives other people of things legally.

When one of these losers is being chased on the highway by a couple of police cars, and with a police helicopter overhead, you wonder why he doesn't just stop and give it up before his crazy driving kills himself or someone else. But you also have to wonder what his parents were doing while he was growing up that they couldn't raise him to become a rational adult.
As if the waters didn't need further muddying, now we're into an indictment of the parents of the people who appear on COPS. Sowell wanders from his familiar territory of the responsibility of the individual to a "nurture"-based critique.

A majority of the men in prison came from fatherless families. In some cosmic sense, it may not be entirely their fault that they took the wrong road. But that doesn't change the fact that it was the wrong road— or make it any less dangerous to turn them loose.
Why this graf follows the previous one beggars the imagination. First, Sowell shoehorns in another family-values buzz issue, which he doesn't prove at all with even a feint at facts. At the top, he subtly used "conception" to define the beginning of innate intelligence and, thus, cognitive life, despite the fact that it precedes the development of the brain by five weeks. Here, he insinuates the issue of an absence of fathers as contributing to criminal behavior, which is just saccharine joy to his predominantly conservative readership, which cleaves to both the idea of the nuclear man-woman family as the only stabilizing point of origin for a valuable and responsible citizen, and the idea that black males are almost always absentee fathers. This makes being a criminal and being black indivisible. Unless you wear tweed.

But here, suddenly, we reach a turn in the discourse. Sowell took pains to tell us that we are innately intelligent... but not really. We are actually biologically affected by circumstances affecting our parents. These circumstances are economic... but not really, because Banfield says — in a vague and unaccountable way only referenced — that our parents are at fault for economics. Or something. But, you know, what were criminals' parents thinking? What did they do? And did they have a father? These things are all environmental and maybe even situational, until someone commits a crime. Then we're into individual, absolute and deterministic territory.

No doubt such concerns are behind efforts to "rehabilitate" prisoners or substitute "crime prevention" programs instead of incarceration. But magic words do not create magic realities.
I haven't omitted any words from his column. These are literally his next two sentences. Here, finally, we reach Sowell's actual point. We have gone 550 words into a man's wandering, contradictory and sloppy internal debate about Nature v. Nurture to arrive at a bog-standard condemnation of liberal programs to prevent crime or rehabilitate criminals. Perhaps someone with innate intelligence could have skipped to this conclusion, or perhaps someone nurtured by schooling could have realized from his environment the importance of putting this contention at the top of the editorial and then explaining it, rather than wandering pointlessly in a sociological wilderness before drawing a conclusion out of a magnificently vague conceptual asshole.

Innocent people have been killed by "rehabilitated" criminals who had been set free. And "prevention" programs do not prevent anything other than putting dangerous people behind bars.
Innocent people have never been killed by normal people. Thomas Sowell posts no facts about that; nor does he post any facts about prevention programs. Prevention programs practice a kind of nurturing and environmental conditioning, two things Sowell considers valid, except in the case of criminals, well, because. I mean, he said so and everything.

The pretense of having solutions can be more dangerous than the problem. Yet there are whole armies of shrinks and social workers, whose jobs depend on pretending that they have answers, even when no one has answers.
The absence of explicitly declaring a solution doesn't preclude offering the pretense of one. We can tell as much from what Sowell here has implied and obliquely declared. Prevention programs don't prevent anything; "rehabilitated" criminals exist only in scare quotes, telling you how unreal they must be. Any realistic solution relevant to his pronouncements has to include abandoning prevention and embracing lifetime detention. You can't stem the tide of crime by trying to inhibit it socially. You can only wait for it to happen, then imprison a guaranteed multiple offender — since "rehabilitation" is a quote-bookended fantasy — forever, ensuring he only does it once.

In terms of broader social policy, we need to make a sharp distinction between saying that some people are victims of a tragic fate and saying that they are victims of discrimination by employers, bias in the courts or the sins of other individuals they encounter. Scapegoating other people is not likely to help — and it can distract attention from the real problems, which are too serious to misdiagnose.
This concludes Sowell's verbal walkabout, and it's a tremendous testimony to his thinking. He buries the lede so fully that it fully appears only at the conclusion. More importantly, he buries the big debates with the lede, going out on contentious issues like employer discrimination and racial bias in the courts — as if these are things only incidental to the point and not major contributing factors to it.

Of course, his point trades in ideas and conclusions so nebulous, contradictory or unsupported as to be meaningless. There is innate intelligence, but not really. Moms, diet, circumstance, parenting, absent fathers, etc., can change that. So circumstance can determine who you are, but not economically or socially. The broad sweep of government or social justice is immaterial.

You are shaped by your environment, but only insofar as it is convenient for the tax base to say so. You have no choice but to learn from your surroundings and develop in reaction to them, but that begins and ends with the family. The "fate" — itself a deterministic word Sowell relies on, which would seem to undermine his usual Ranductive narrative of individualism — comes from home. But home itself is not impacted by economic or social woes. It's just home, a thing, independent of stuff. It's home base, protected with Love Charms from goblins, attacks and social inequality.

"Nurture" only exists within a specific confine and ceases with the 18th birthday or moving out of the house, whichever comes first. After that, determinism recedes to be filled up with the soft waters of individuated and wholly self-encapsulated intent. At that point, if you choose to be a criminal, no other force can inhibit you from the determinism of self-annihilation, created without respect to other pressures. Then, if you commit the crime, you likewise commit yourself to a nature of committing crimes again and again. You are a criminal best locked away.

Your nurture gone, your nature is now "outlaw"; that new nature will nurture only more crime forever. Thomas Sowell knows this, because he has seen people commit crimes and commit them again. Innate knowledge is a lie. People are shaped by their surroundings, especially good surroundings that believe in two-parent heterosexual families that know that life begins at conception. Those that stray have been abandoned, left to be shaped by false families and false ideals. They were created by bad circumstance. That is why they will always be bad. Even though people are individuals who act in self-interest, bad people are deterministically and always bad.

This is true, because Thomas Sowell cashed a check that someone sent him for saying so.