The Ornery American     Print   |   Back  

WorldWatch - September 11, 2005 - Freakonomics Or You Have to Find the Facts Before You Can Face Them - The Ornery American

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card September 11, 2005

You Have to Find the Facts Before You Can Face Them

When the crime rate started dropping in the 1990s, it took everyone by surprise. All the experts had predicted that crime would continue to rise in the radical way it had during the 1970s and 1980s.

Experts were talking about how we'd have to adapt to a society dominated by fear, living in gated communities, paying for far more prisons and police forces.

And then ...

It didn't happen. Instead, crime rates started to fall. All kinds of crime, across the board. And not just in one place, in many places.

Why Did Crime Rates Fall?

The innovative policework in New York City was given much of the credit, but the same thing was happening in cities with no new theories or practices.

All kinds of theories were advanced, but they all fell apart against statistical realities -- none of them explained why crime rates fell at exactly the time they began to fall.

Except for one explanation. Abortion.

Try to set aside your personal opinions about abortion and let's look at history.

In 1973, Roe v. Wade made abortion permissible throughout the United States. The floodgates opened, and vast numbers of abortions were performed. As a result, vast numbers of children were not born.

Ah, but which children? The vast majority of the abortions were among women who would have been raising their children without a father; substantial numbers of these women were addicts. And even the abortions performed on middle-class women were somewhat more likely to be the result of liaisons in which one partner or the other, or both, had poor impulse control.

In other words, the fetuses that were aborted, had they been born, would have become children who were statistically the most likely group to become criminals. Raised by single mothers, in poverty, with genes that might not provide them with much ability to foresee the longterm consequences of impulsive actions.

The crime rates began falling exactly when that generation of children would have reached adolescence and those with such tendencies would have begun their criminal careers.

It certainly looked as if we killed off much of our criminal class in the womb.

Proving Cause and Effect

Of course, a causal assertion like that is hard to prove -- though people make even more sweeping assertions on less evidence all the time. But we're far more likely to accept, without evidence, the causal assertions that fit our beliefs. Those that don't fit, we try hard to ignore.

This one doesn't fit anybody's beliefs. The pro-abortion group is generally on the Left, and if you had tried, in 1973, to introduce abortion as a means of killing off the criminal class of the 1990s and 2000s, they would have opposed it.

Likewise, anti-abortionists tend to be among those who are concerned about law-and-order issues. But if, in 1973, you had proposed that the most effective longterm crime-control measure would be to allow abortion, I doubt that many anti-abortionists would have been persuaded that this was a good idea.

Why? Because it's eugenics, plain and simple. Hitlerian logic. Purifying the race by preventing the birth of the class of people who are most likely to degrade the quality of life for the rest of us.

So few would have dared even suggest such a thing in 1973; but a group of judges decided to perform this eugenics experiment on the American people, and now we're seeing the results.

Or are we? Nobody wants to believe it. There's no way to prove that the unborn babies we killed would have grown up to be bad people, or that crime rates have anything to do with abortion. I know my first reaction to this idea was repugnance and rejection.

Except ... 1973 wasn't the beginning of legal abortions in the United States. There were states that legalized abortion several years earlier.

And guess what? In those states, the crime rate began to fall exactly that number of years earlier. The fall in crime rates marches in lockstep with legalized abortion fifteen to twenty years before.

Maybe the growing awareness of this fact is part of the reason why even though most Americans find abortion itself to be a morally appalling act and wish it were rare instead of common, we are also reluctant to give up the relative peace and safety that killing all those babies has brought to us.

That's another causal assertion, and one far less likely to be true. Abortion as class warfare is not something that any political group I know of is likely to openly approve of. So we have to ignore or deny the evidence.

Well, there's a book -- and a mini-movement -- that is trying to cut through all the fog and insist that we face facts in all sorts of areas of American life. It's called "Freakonomics," and it gets its name from the book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt (economist) and Stephen J. Dubner (science writer).

This book should be required reading before anybody is allowed to vote.

Not really. I think democracy absolutely depends on the continuing right of the ignorant and misinformed to make all the core decisions in our society, and I would never place a mandatory restriction like that on people's right to vote.

But I do believe such ignorance should be voluntary. And as long as we can't get the facts on issues like this, how can we possibly become anything but ignorant and misinformed on almost everything?

Trusting Experts

To ferret out accurate information on all the important subjects is beyond the power of any individual, however. So the way democracy works is, the ignorant have to rely on the advice of trusted sources who have found accurate information on particular topics.

Trust is the basis of human life in large societies -- those of us who aren't police and firemen trust them to learn their work, just as the police and firemen trust the grocers and schoolteachers, and the grocers and schoolteachers trust the doctors and plumbers and electricians, who trust the accountants and garbagemen and bus drivers and car manufacturers and garage mechanics.

We trust each other to do our jobs right. To obey traffic signals. To pay with genuine bills and coins. To give correct directions when asked. To keep our hands off stuff that doesn't belong to us, even when nobody's watching.

We trust certain people to tell us true information. Doctors will tell us the truth about our bodies. Accountants will tell us the truth about what we owe the government in taxes.

Then there are the public informers, who give us information, not about ourselves in particular, but about the world at large. Newscasters. Reporters. Historians. Science reporters. We expect them to provide us with as much accurate information as is available.

And we expect them to tell us, when they don't have information, that they don't know.

Why They Get It Wrong

The trouble is that too many of these reporters either deliberately lie -- they have an agenda (either the promotion of their own career or the advancement of a cause) -- or they are too lazy to question the lies and mistakes that others tell them.

The result is that we live in an age where on key political issues, ignorance is largely supplanted by misinformation.

That was fine in an age where people were generally suspicious of the rumors they heard. You were always ready to change your mind when better information came along.

But most of the disinformation and misinformation we get these days is couched in the language of science or scholarship. Because of the way it's presented to us, we think we know.

That's why we're suckered in by completely made-up "facts" like the claim that SuperBowl Sunday has more incidences of domestic violence than any other day of the year.

That never made sense. Yet it was presented to us as a statistic, and we assumed that it was based on something. We assumed that the reporters would have checked.

But they didn't. They quoted somebody, and they were too lazy (or too happy with the implications of the idea) to bother checking with people who would actually have the facts -- 911 responders and hospital emergency rooms.

If they had checked, they would have found out that it was absolutely false. A lie. A slander against men who watch the SuperBowl.

Why We Need Freakonomists

Often, though, the falsehoods we hear are not so easily checked. You have to know something about the mathematics of statistical analysis or the way studies are conducted in order to have a hope of evaluating the truth.

And sometime you actually have to have some facts -- you know, the kind you get by going out and working hard and asking stuff and observing.

That's where Freakonomics comes in.

Economist Steven D. Levitt found himself with all the skills and tools of his trade, and wandering attention. Instead of focusing on purely financial matters, he started applying all that statistical and scientific rigor he had been trained in to topics often considered outside the purview of the dismal science.

He -- and other nontraditional economists -- have started looking at the real world. They question some of the things we've been told and have believed for years, and discover that a lot of it is bunk. Guesswork, error, spin, or lies.

Catching Cheaters

In the effort to improve education rather than throwing more and more money at a system that gets worse and worse, the Congress and the President passed the "No Child Left Behind" legislation that mandated testing. But they didn't invent the idea -- state and local governments had been experimenting with standardized tests for years.

The trouble is, with budgets, salaries, and jobs becoming dependent on test results, the incentive for cheating on these tests has vastly increased.

And since in many places the tests are administered by the very teachers who will be rewarded or punished based on the test results, the opportunity to cheat is there as well.

How, though, do you catch them? Call an economist.

Freakonomics recounts in detail exactly how cheating teachers were caught by a close analysis of statistical anomalies. For instance, students who showed a dramatic improvement in their test scores one year, but the next year, with a different teacher, reverted to their previous patterns.

The trouble is, who actually wants to catch the cheaters? If cheating makes the test results look better, then the whole educational bureaucracy benefits, not just the individual teacher. The school board and administration can point to these "improvements" as marks of progress.

The only reason these cheaters were caught was because they had the bad luck to work in a district headed by a superintendent who cared more about the children's education than about good public relations.

Economy of Drug Dealing

Another Freakonomic study dealt with the economy of crack dealing. It's complicated enough that I won't try to detail it here. Suffice it to say that when someone actually got close to the crack gangs and studied the way they function, they resemble nothing so much as ... McDonald's.

The top gang leaders franchise crack dealing to certain gangs with certain territories. The "owner" of the local franchise rakes off huge profits -- which are shared with the top leaders, who become phenomenally rich.

But within the franchise, the actual drug sellers are rather badly paid. They stay with it either because they have no better alternative, or they hope to rise to a higher position.

They always have this possibility, of course, because the attrition rate in this violent business is high. But violent or not, it's still a business, and it keeps running because, in economic terms, it works -- or works well enough to satisfy those who carry it out.

Read It and Think

My goal is not to provide you with a synopsis of the book's results, because that would be pointless.

You need to read it yourself. Fortunately, this will be painless, because the book is wonderfully entertaining. You'll find yourself reading the good bits out loud to whomever you can get to listen. And believe me, I haven't even mentioned some of the best stuff.

In the process of reading it, you'll also be given a short but effective course in analyzing causal assertions -- or, in other words, you'll be trained to hear statistical assertions skeptically, because you'll have a clearer idea of how they can be massaged and manipulated and misunderstood.

You'll also be given a wake-up call about how many of the statistics on which we base public opinion and policy are simply made up.

You know, lies.

Like the claim that schools are unfair to girls (the so-called "Ophelia Complex") when in fact the opposite is dramatically true -- schools are actually hostile to boys. There is no evidence that the person who claimed to have proved the Ophelia Complex ever had any facts at all. But the claim spread through our society and shaped our perception of school, without any scientific basis whatsoever and in the face of substantial contrary evidence.

Why? Because so many people wanted it to be true. It would confirm their picture of the world.

Truth Doesn't Change Because We Want It To

Know the truth, and the truth will make you free, someone once said, and I believe it. In ignorance, we can't change the world -- or our lives -- for the better. And we can waste a lot of time trying to change things we can't change at all.

Truth, when we are fortunate enough to find it, is like bad-tasting medicine. It rarely comes as a pleasant surprise, because if it surprises us, it means we've been denying it for some time and have a lot of beliefs based on falsehood. It's hard to give up those beliefs.

Let's go back to that huge social experiment called "abortion" and its unintended effect on crime. Now that we know this information, we can decide far more intelligently what to do about abortion -- or, for that matter, about crime.

But let's remember that knowing a true thing about abortion does not mean that we know all the truth that should guide our decision. For instance, why was crime rising so fast prior to the time when the effects of Roe v. Wade kicked in?

One might guess that it was the Baby Boom -- lots of new teenagers, lots of new crime. But the facts say otherwise. The Baby Boomers were teenagers much earlier than the huge crime jump in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s.

The Other Experiment

No, the huge crime increases might well have been the result of an earlier experiment -- the "New Morality" and the Pill.

Before the New Morality of the late 1960s, our society had actually done a very good job of suppressing unwanted pregnancies without abortion -- and without the Pill. We hear it like a mantra today: "You can't stop teenagers from having sex." But we did.

Birthrates among unmarried women were very, very low back in the 1950s. And most such children were given up for adoption, because the social penalties for unwed motherhood were so harsh.

So were the social penalties for promiscuity. They were unfairly borne by women, of course, but even among man, there were many who regarded extramarital sex as always being wrong, and censured those who broke that rule.

Teenagers were also chaperoned and didn't start dating until they were much older than today. By the time they were free to date without supervision, far more of them had matured to the point where they could much better control their sexual impulses. In other words, we as a society helped parents protect their children from their own desires until they were old enough to be likelier to control them.

So the primary mechanisms that prevented promiscuity were social controls, internalized belief in moral stories, and fear of the consequences of pregnancy.

When the New Morality came along, most people did not embrace it. Even though films and novels tried to spread the new belief and normalize promiscuity and premarital sex -- and today have made many people believe it is completely normal -- slightly more than half our society still believes these things to be wrong. (And not without evidence.)

So which half embraced the New Morality? Could it have been the people with poor impulse control? The people most likely to be irresponsible parents? Unfaithful spouses? The people most likely to get divorced -- or never marry at all -- and thus leave children to be raised by single mothers?

The statistics suggest that the answer is yes. And their children -- post-New Morality but pre-Roe v. Wade -- were precisely the generation that was causing the crime boom.

It's a story. It might be true. And it ought to be considered.

We had two systems for controlling the birth rate of children most likely to become criminals.

The one we're using now consists of letting their parents kill them after conception.

The other involved using social pressure, stories, and incentives to keep them from letting the children be conceived in the first place.

What was the great evil of the old system? People's sexual drives were "repressed." This was the great crime of the fifties -- people were so "repressed."

But no one has yet demonstrated a single ill effect from "repression." For the simple reason that the other names for "repression" are words like "conscience" and "responsibility" and "impulse control." The virtues we link with adulthood.

We expected people to control themselves, and we kept them from having the freedom to act on their impulses until they had learned how to control them.

Compare this with the method we use today: Letting mothers have someone kill their babies for them. What we used to do with words and customs, now we do in blood. With eugenics.

And the third alternative? Sexual freedom without responsibility -- and the resulting children grew up to be disproportionately criminal, making the whole society less viable for everyone.

I pick A. I think B and C are both vile. That's my opinion. But at least I took the available information into account when I reached it. Mark my words, many people are going to be outraged at my opinion -- I can see them warming up their blogging fingers already -- but instead of arguing from facts, they will try to make the facts go away.

Nobody has to believe me. Find experts that you trust -- but do make sure they're worthy of that trust before you trust them. Do try to avoid the ones who just make stuff up, or who quote the liars without checking.

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.

Copyright © Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
 Web Site Hosted and Designed by