Teen pregnancy, sacred values, and magical thinking

03.08.2013, 1:51 PM

OK, more on the NYC teen pregnancy ads.  This criticism of the campaign caught my eye:

Haydee Morales, vice president for education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, said the organization was “shocked and taken aback” by the tone of the new campaign.  “Hurting and shaming communities is not what’s going to bring teen pregnancy rates down,” she added. She said that the campaign’s message — that teenage pregnancy leads to poverty — was backward. “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy,” she said.

The other night at our Center for Public Conversation I interviewed the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.   In the book, Haidt argues that every group (liberals, conservatives, environmentalists, evangelicals, you name ’em) has “sacred values,” by which he means ultimate or primary values.  Values that matter the most.  Values so important that, if you repudiate or fail to protect them, you are no longer an acccepted member of the group.

Haidt lays out a body of social science evidence showing that, when it comes to my group’s sacred values, my capacity to see or think clearly is radically compromised.  As he puts it, if truth gets in the way of one of my group’s sacred values, then I will almost always find a way, in  good conscience, to throw truth under the bus, in order to protect the value.  He presents much scholarly evidence to justify this claim, and I for one am largely convinced.

In my view, what we see above in Ms. Haydee’s comment is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  Clearly her group’s sacred values include non-judgementalism and inclusion.  And to protect them, she (intelligently and no doubt perfectly sincerely) engages in what can only be called magical thinking:  “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy.”   What is she alleging here?

She is stating her belief the the experience of being poor can can have an independent causal effect when it comes to the likelihood of teen pregnancy.  Being poor can help to “cause” this particular outcome.  But — and here we get the magical thinking — causality flows one way only!  Being poor can have something causal to do with getting pregnant or getting your girlfriend pregnant, but getting pregnant or getting your girlfriend pregnant can have nothing causal to do with being poor!  Being poor can help to explain an outcome.  Becoming a teen parent cannot!  Becoming a teen parent has zero meaning as an independent causal factor; that is, it does not explain or cause anything that is not already explained by the fact of being poor.

One doesn’t want to be rude, but to make this claim is to invoke magic.  As an empirical assertion, it’s obvious gibberish.  It requires, as Haidt says, throwing our rational capacity under the bus in order to protect a sacred value.

I not trying, here, to pick on one person or one group, or to score a partisan point.  Conservatives do this all the time.  Liberals do it all the time.  We all do it, all the time, says Haidt.  I strongly agree.  Except for me, of course. I never do it.


50 Responses to “Teen pregnancy, sacred values, and magical thinking”

  1. Diane M says:

    I had a similar reaction. I am often frustrated by what seems to me to be people reacting to a study with “but that hurts my/their feelings.”

    However, if you take Haidt seriously, telling people that they are engaging in magical thinking isn’t going to work.

    You can ask him for advice, but my first guess is that at least with liberals, you need to find a way to appeal to inclusiveness on this issue. I’m not sure what this means for convincing teenagers who might be liberal or conservative as Haidt defines it (it is more temperamental that just politics in his definition).

    But for convincing adult liberals you want something different than pointing out that it doesn’t make sense. (Just to be clear, Haidt does not think that conservatives are making decisions based on reason and studies either.)

  2. Mont D. Law says:

    Your argument is pretty muddled. Is your contention that the poverty/teen pregnancy link is some how a balanced equation and if something true in one direction is automatically true in the other? Because that seems to be a non-starter. To even make your argument you would have to show two things. That teen child bearing rates are the same regardless of socioeconomic status and therefore Poverty has no impact. And that teens with greater social and economic resources have identical outcomes to teens that don’t.

  3. La Lubu says:

    Huh? The link you provided to the Economix blog contradicts your argument that Haydee Morales is speaking merely from her “sacred values”. I assumed she was speaking from the empirical evidence you offered as a link.

  4. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – I don’t think you have to show that poverty has no effect on teen pregnancy to prove that teen pregnancy has an effect on future poverty.

    I think it’s actually pretty well established that whatever class you come from, you have a better chance of staying out of poverty if you can finish school, get a job, and get married before you have kids.

    I suppose it’s possible that getting married before you have kids is the most important thing so that finishing school first doesn’t matter, but I doubt it. If having a kid young keeps you from getting an education, you’re not going to have any chance of getting out of poverty.

    In any case, it is clear that being a teen mother makes it more likely that your child will grow up in poverty and have problems that make it harder for them to get out of poverty.

    For me the bottom line is to think about what advice I would give a real teenager. It would always be get your education and don’t get pregnant/make a baby.

  5. fannie says:

    The notion that hoards of people dislike some findings merely because of “hurt feelings” is one of the most frustrating and pernicious myths about conversations about studies, in my opinion.

    I suppose that some people probably do actually tune some findings out because the findings hurt their feelings. But oftentimes, certainly in the case of the Mark Regnerus study as just one instance, it seems that that’s kind of the opposition’s caricature of what critics of some studies do.

    I read countless anti-equality blogs and news articles that pretty much ignored all substantive critiques people were making of the Regnerus study and instead claimed that LGBT people and progressives Just Didn’t Like the Results, or that we were whining that it hurt our feelings, and that that’s why we were really rendering critiques.

    So, that myth also seems like part of this mechanism that Haidt is referring to as well. You like a study’s finding? Good. Ignore all substantive critiques, and keep telling yourself that critics are just being overly-emotional about it!

    With respect to Ms. Haydee’s soundbite, I don’t know, I’m skeptical that her thinking is as unidirectional and simplistic as you claim it is (and I think your representation is fair, based upon what she said). I just don’t think the entirety of her actual opinion is probably contained in that soundbite she gave. Soundbites don’t lend themselves well to nuance or clarity, but….I don’t know, is it a big startling revelation to anyone who seriously thinks about this that teen pregnancy can be both caused by, and an effect of, poverty? I don’t think so.

    Lastly, I’m glad you included the poster, above, of teen dads being targeted, since it shows that, contrary to my initial impression, this campaign isn’t only stigmatizing and shaming teenage girls. Shame them all, I say!

    But seriously, putting all of this aside, it seems like the real issue with respect to this campaign is not whether or not teen pregnancy causes poverty (or results from it), but whether or not shaming campaigns actually work in the instance of teen pregnancy.

  6. Diane M says:

    LaLubu, you got me to look at the link. It’s very interesting actually. They’re not talking about poverty, they’re talking about income inequality.

    Apparently higher income inequality is correlated with a higher rate of teen pregnancy. Why?

    Interesting question, although, of course, it might not be the cause.

    To get back to the blog post, I don’t think that showing that poverty or income inequality causes teenage pregnancy means that teenage pregnancy isn’t also causing the young woman and her children to be poor. (Unless it’s actually better for you and we should all give up on education and tell our daughters to have babies young and then go back to school?)

  7. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: In my view, what we see above in Ms. Haydee’s comment is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Clearly her group’s sacred values include non-judgementalism and inclusion.

    No, David. Haydee Morales’ comment appears to be based on the sacred values of factual correctness. The best modern research indicates that, in the aggregate, teen motherhood has little effect on your subsequent likelihood of being poor. On the contrary, poorer women are more likely to become teen mothers. Possibly because they have fewer career prospects anyway, and therefore less reason to defer childbearing, and possibly also because they’re less likely to favor abortion.

    See this article: http://www.nber.org/papers/w17965

  8. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: but getting pregnant or getting your girlfriend pregnant can have nothing causal to do with being poor!

    Except it doesn’t. Read the study.

    Not that I necessarily endorse people having children too young, but 1) it’s not the end of the world, 2) plenty of teen parents turn out fine, including quite a few that I know of, 3) if I ever have kids, I plan to make it very clear to them that while they should wait on sex till theyre legal adults, *it would be better for them to have kids ‘too young’ than never to have them at all*.

  9. My interpretation is that the effect of poverty on teen childbearing is greater than the reverse. Here’s the conclusion from a study by Dohoon Lee, whose dissertation committee I was on:

    “As in most of the previous studies taking alternative approaches, the propensity score matching results show that socioeconomic disadvantages inherent to teen mothers account for a nontrivial portion of the effects of teen motherhood, suggesting that the selection bias problem results in an overestimation of its negative effects. However, when teen mothers are compared to their matched counterparts who are similar in every observed preexisting characteristic except for teenage childbearing status, teen motherhood still has modest but significant negative effects on various early socioeconomic outcomes.”

    The effect of having a baby on *early-adult* socioeconomic outcomes is “modest but significant.” On the other hand, the likelihood of having a baby as an unmarried teen is much higher for poor women – there the relationship is strong and well-documented.

    You might not like the absolute certainty in the claim, but the Planned Parenthood person is more right than wrong, empirically.

    In addition, I stress *early* because it’s quite possible that by the time they’re 30 the teen-birth disadvantage will be gone and their poverty-level non-teen-birthing peers will have fallen down to their level.

    The paper is free at: http://www.demographic-research.org/volumes/vol23/25/default.htm

  10. La Lubu says:

    What Philip said in his last paragraph. When low-income women postpone childbirth, all they’re doing is postponing the childcare/work struggle that contributes to poverty. Women in their thirties who were teen mothers are at an advantage because part of their childcare/work scramble happened during ages when they weren’t expected to work full-time, and they had greater assistance from both their own family (their own parents and grandparents being younger and in better health to assist) and from programs to keep teen mothers in school. Women who waited were more often left with themselves as their only resource.

  11. Diane M says:

    @fannie – I agree with you here:

    “It seems like the real issue with respect to this campaign is not whether or not teen pregnancy causes poverty (or results from it), but whether or not shaming campaigns actually work in the instance of teen pregnancy.”

    For me this is a real question. We certainly use cautionary campaigns to try to change people’s behavior for things like smoking, littering, jaywalking, unsafe sex, causing forest fires, drunk driving, or using too many plastic bags. I don’t think it’s shaming to point out the consequences of an action, although the result may be that smokers and litterers feel they are being criticized.

    So do those campaigns work? Some of them seem to, although having laws in place also helps.

    I would really like more information on whether or not this kind of campaign works. So far the criticism of it seem so over the top that it’s hard for me to believe them.

    fannie – “The notion that hoards of people dislike some findings merely because of “hurt feelings” is one of the most frustrating and pernicious myths about conversations about studies, in my opinion.”

    Unfortunately, I think there are times when people really do object to the results of studies on the grounds that they will make people feel guilty. That is a real thing that happens.

    I linked to some pieces a while back related to single motherhood where people objected to articles or essays that talked about the research, but didn’t ever challenge it substantively.

    I remember another study coming out a while back showing that children whose parents divorced were still behind in math a few years later – the reaction was why are we making divorced parents feel bad? I thought that was particularly silly since if you are getting divorced, it might help to know what you need to do for your children and in this case, you could actually do something about it (hire a math tutor).

    One of the problems with the reaction that a study will make people feel bad is that it doesn’t deal with whether or not the results are true.

    It can just shut off debate and leave the impression that the results were good, but nobody wanted to believe them.

    Sometimes the results were good, of course, and not dealing with them means you go down the wrong road and don’t get to the goal you really wanted to.

    One of the hazards, though, of this type of argument is that later on, when a study is just 100% flawed and wrong, people can dismiss criticisms on the grounds that they are based on feelings.

    So while I sympathize with you when people have a knee jerk reaction to criticism of the Regnerus study and say you’re just being PC, I also think there are times when people explicitly object to studies because of the way they make people feel. I think that’s bad and hurts us all in the long run.

  12. Good point, LL. Dohoon Lee used propensity score matching. The other approach has been to compare young women who had babies with those who had miscarriages. Turns out that’s not so simple, but the latest paper I’ve seen that takes that approach concludes there is probably a negative effect of having a baby, but again it’s modest:

    “…teenage childbearing likely reduces the probability of receiving a high school diploma by 5 to 10 percentage points, reduces annual income as a young adult by $1,000 to $2,400, and may increase the probability of receiving cash assistance and decrease years of schooling.”

    Again, this is based on data for women only in their 20s now: http://www.nber.org/papers/w13847

  13. Diane M says:

    @Philip N. Cohen – Great information. It looks like poverty causes teen pregnancy more than the other way around.

    However, it does remain true that having a baby when you are a teenager increases the chance that you will be poor when you are a young adult.

    What do you think would make the other women become equally poor later on? Is it really fair to assume that this will happen?

    What about the next generation? Has anyone looked at the effect of teen parenting on the next generation being poor and controlled for the teen mother starting out poor?

  14. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – What you are saying here makes a lot of sense to me, but I get something different from it than you do, I think.

    “When low-income women postpone childbirth, all they’re doing is postponing the childcare/work struggle that contributes to poverty. Women in their thirties who were teen mothers are at an advantage because part of their childcare/work scramble happened during ages when they weren’t expected to work full-time, and they had greater assistance from both their own family (their own parents and grandparents being younger and in better health to assist) and from programs to keep teen mothers in school. Women who waited were more often left with themselves as their only resource.”

    For married women, the childcare/work struggle doesn’t lead to poverty. It may make them personally earn less, but they and their children are able to survive that because there is another earner (or child care provider).

    In addition, their family get the benefits that come from having a parent who is able to focus more on child-rearing. Some of those benefits may be financial and can offset the financial costs to the family.

    So if a woman is going to end up an unmarried or divorced parent, then waiting longer to get there may not help as much. But if she can either stay childless or rely on having a partner who will help her raise her children, not getting pregnant as a teenager is beneficial.

    Although I find myself coming back again and again to the thought that I and I think anybody I know would actually tell a teenager that she should wait, finish her education, and not get pregnant.

  15. Diane: Hypothetically, if all having a baby does is postpone the start of your low-paid, dead-end service-job career, then you will be harmed by the baby behind in your 20s, but by age 30 you will be equal to those women who waiting until they were 23 to take time off from their low-paid, dead-end service-job careers. In other words, by age 30 you’ve got two women who have worked for 6 years and spent 4 years raising a child in poverty, it’s just the order is different. That’s hypothetical – I expect some movement in that direction but it’s an empirical question how much. I don’t think we have that study yet.

  16. Diane M says:

    @Philip J. Cohen – But for some of the young women, they were more likely to not finish high school. So they might have an even more dead-end job.

    And there might even be a few women in the group who would go on to college.

    Which gets me to another question that I keep having on this site. There is data now suggesting that women who have some education are more likely to have kids out of marriage than in the past. They are women who have some hope of a job that pays a little better and rewards you for longevity. So what’s going on there?

  17. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Women in their thirties who were teen mothers are at an advantage because part of their childcare/work scramble happened during ages when they weren’t expected to work full-time, and they had greater assistance from both their own family (their own parents and grandparents being younger and in better health to assist) and from programs to keep teen mothers in school.

    This is an excellent point.

    It’s often not actually that irrational for poorer women to have children young, rather than waiting.

  18. Teresa says:

    Hector said:
    It’s often not actually that irrational for poorer women to have children young, rather than waiting.

    You’re right, Hector. And, it’s not irrational for poorer women to want children. Children give most persons a reason to suit-up, show-up, and grow-up; and poor women are no exception. From the small population of poor, unwed women I know that have children, they see their children as the best things that have happened to them. They view them as gifts, not burdens.

    I think we tend to think of poor, uneducated and ill-educated persons, as persons without virtue. Perhaps, it’s just me that sometimes does that.

  19. La Lubu says:

    Diane M., I agree with you that in theory, married women are better off because of the second income. But how that plays out in the lives of women without college educations is that we (more often than not) aren’t in the position to get married. We aren’t seen as marriageable by the kind of men willing to provide that second income, and we aren’t wiling to risk marriage to the kind of men that aren’t. College has become a de-facto sorting mechanism not just for a living wage, but also dating and mating as well.

    So mind you, I do think young women are better off not having a child in high school. But it doesn’t eliminate the fact that her chances of having the kind of marriage you describe are quite slim. Yes, having a child in high school increases her undesirability as a partner…..but without a college education, she’s already undesireable as a partner.

    BTW, I can’t help but notice that the posters geared toward young women are about possibe harms to a resulting child. The posters geared toward young men are about the impact on his wallet. Is NY strict about child support? Is it unforgiveable debt there? I ask because Illinois is fairly liberal about reducing back child support owed; a friend of mine was awarded ten cents on the dollar for back child support. Illinois is pretty easygoing about teen fathers, since (like teen mothers) they aren’t likely to have a job, and if they do, that job isn’t enough to support themselves. Teen father programs here focus more on trying to encourage maintaining a parental relationship with their child and information on childhood development and positive parenting skills—-it isn’t about child support, ‘cuz (sing it with me!) “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’…..”

  20. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Yes, having a child in high school increases her undesirability as a partner…..but without a college education, she’s already undesireable as a partner.

    You mentioned something to that effect on the other thread, and I didn’t respond there, so I’ll respond here. My problem with what you’re saying here is that you’re doing exactly what Fannie criticized me for, generalizing an overall statistical trend to suggest that it’s not possible for the opposite to happen.

    About 25% of college educated men end up marrying a non-college educated woman. That is indicative of some preference for college-educated partners, yes. It also suggests there are *plenty* of college educated men who *don’t* require a college educated partner. It is somewhat harder for a woman without a college education to find a marriage partner, but it’s *nowhere near impossible*. Most of us know people who have done it (like my best friend- he has a master’s degree, his wife never graduated high school). Again, 25% of college educated men is not a small number.

    (Personally, as someone who’s about to get my doctorate in a couple months, I’m most certainly *not* looking for an equally educated partner, and I generally am criticial of men who only want to date within their class: I consider that to be snobbery, plain and simple).

  21. There is a third possibility with causation: another factor causes both of the noted factors. For example, if your parents were never married when you were born, you are six times as likely to live in poverty as your peers, and, when controlling for family income, more likely to get pregnant as a teenager than your peers.

    Girls who don’t have fathers, but whose fathers are living, crave male approval and acceptance. They often seek that through sex. So yeah, you can blame poverty for teen pregnancy, but it’s a bit like saying the Titanic sunk because it split in half. In reality, the cause of the disaster was something that happened long before the particular sign of that disaster were present.

  22. La Lubu says:

    Diane M., interesting you mention the “some” college factor. What I see is that *some* college isn’t enough to increase one’s marriageability. Marriageable men (meaning: financially stable, emotionally mature, and egalitarian minded) have a strong preference for college-educated women. Not just college-educated men; cops, firefighters, tradesmen…..they’re not marrying the gal who stocks shelves part time at the big box store. They’re marrying college women. And they can, because the numbers are there—plenty of women to choose from, and their earnings are high enough that they don’t get written off as potential partners despite not having been to college.

    Women who’ve only had *some* college have a much smaller dating pool than college-educated women, and usually have to adjust their expectations downward in terms of the personal qualities of their dating partners. And then, to no one’s surprise, this doesn’t usually work out. They (we) have a higher rate of unplanned pregnancy than college women because our jobs—while not rock-bottom in terms of pay and benefits—don’t usually cover birth control. So, we tend to pick over-the-counter methods that don’t have the same effectiveness (raises hand. I figured Delfen foam worked well for my mom over the years, so why wouldn’t it work for me? Surprise!). (And yes—I have good health insurance except it doesn’t cover any reversible BC, just sterilization…..because the plan is administered solely by white men in their late-fifties/early sixties, half union business managers and half contractors. Those guys are of an age where BC is a “woman’s problem”).

  23. “But how that plays out in the lives of women without college educations is that we (more often than not) aren’t in the position to get married. We aren’t seen as marriageable by the kind of men willing to provide that second income, and we aren’t wiling to risk marriage to the kind of men that aren’t.”

    Just pointing out the obvious here: plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and auto mechanics can make a very stable living (and often might have more in the bank than their liberal-arts educated peers). Young men, right out of high school, are working in oil fields in Montana and North Dakota for salaries that compare to those of lawyers and accountants. Such men often lament how women look down on their blue-collar work and would prefer a man who is in an office.

  24. La Lubu says:

    Hector, do you have a link to that? A link that breaks the stats down by age? Because college-educated men of my father’s generation were highly likely to marry a woman without a college education, but 25% of *this generation’s* college educated men *in the US* are marrying non-college-educated women? I gotta see the stats on that, since I haven’t seen anything remotely of the sort in my locale.

  25. La Lubu says:

    (Roxeanne…I’m a union tradeswoman. Yes, some of my ‘brothers’ are married to tradeswomen, but most of ‘em are married to college-educated women. Trust, none of these guys have a problem finding a date. The guys in North Dakota might just because of the gender disparity in that locale).

  26. Hector_St_Clare says:

    La Lubu,

    The graph is here, it’s from a 2008 paper:

    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/arts-and-lifestyle/2013/02/worst-cities-college-educated-women-trying-find-decent-date/4719/

    I have to say, you certainly have a point that there is *more* of a preference in the past for highly educated women, and men are *less* willing to date down in terms of educational/economic status than in the past. I don’t think that’s at all a good thing, and I actively choose to be an exception (as in, I’d actively prefer for my partner *not* of equal education/income/intelligence, etc.) But there’s no doubt that greater assortative mating is a trend, and that it further entrenches inequality and class divisions.

  27. Diane M says:

    Hector St Clair – I think that the article supports what LaLubu is saying. There are more couples without two college-educated people, but since there are more college-educated women than men, that’s because college-educated women are marrying men who aren’t college-educated. And maybe there will be even fewer college educated men left for women who aren’t college-educated.

    (This is kind of an aside, but I think if you have a doctorate, you are in a very small percentage of the total public and it would be a bit much to hold out for someone with another doctorate. In addition, you could probably find someone who did not have a doctorate but was well-educated and intelligent, just not as much in your field. And then there are people with other advanced degrees like law school or MBAs or MSWs, etc.)

  28. David Blankenhorn says:

    I certainly never meant to suggest that poverty is not causally linked to teen parenthood. My one and only point, and I honestly thought it was self-evident, is that in social life causation does not, cannot, flow only in one direction. If someone believes that it can — well, OK.

  29. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: If someone believes that it can — well, OK.

    I mean, of course it can flow in just one direction. Intelligence is causally linked to people using drugs, that doesn’t mean that using drugs will make you more intelligent. Quite the opposite. Maybe I’m missing what you’re trying to say, but it seems trivially obvious to me that, in social life, A can cause B without B causing A.

  30. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Maybe you mean that *correlation* is reciprocal- if A is significantly correlated with B, then the converse also holds true. Which is precisely why correlation is generally less interesting, and why in the absence of experimental manipulations (or natural experiments, like what the folks did with the miscarriages), correlation isn’t especially useful to establish much of anything.

  31. Kevin says:

    This poster makes me not want to have a kid, whether I’m a teen or not! Too expensive!

  32. David Blankenhorn says:

    OK, here’s another way to ask the question.

    I am a 17 year old boy living in the United States – that’s all you know about me.

    And now I tell you this: Tomorrow I’ll be with my girlfriend, who I love and with whom I’d like to have a baby. I saw a poster on a bus stop today that said “becoming a teen parent will cost you plenty!” but, who really knows what the future will hold, and besides, I really love her and I really want her to have my baby.

    And what happens in fact is either (A) my girlfriend gets pregnant and has the baby; or (B) my girlfriend does not get pregnant.

    Taking all of this information into account, and only this information, one argument is that a smart person’s ability to predict whether my girlfriend is going to experience poverty in the future is improved by knowing whether or not she is currently experiencing poverty, and is also and additionally improved by knowing whether what happens in her life is A or B.

    An alternative conclusion is that a smart person’s ability to predict whether my girlfriend is going to experience poverty in the future is improved by knowing whether or not she is currently experiencing poverty, but is not improved by knowing whether what happens in her life is A or B.

    I am saying that, self-evidently (to me, at least), the alternative conclusion requires magical thinking.

  33. Anna Cook says:

    One doesn’t want to be rude, but to make this claim is to invoke magic. As an empirical assertion, it’s obvious gibberish. It requires, as Haidt says, throwing our rational capacity under the bus in order to protect a sacred value.

    You’ve obviously thought a lot, David, about Haidt’s work specifically and about how people come to truth(s) more generally, so perhaps I’m missing something key here. But I’m very troubled by the use of “magical thinking” and “sacred values” paired with “throwing our rational capacity under the bus”: the idea that when we are passionate about our values we are, by a similar degree, unable to listen to or evaluate data.

    This comes from spending time in self-identified atheist and other secular internet spaces where people use the phrase “magical thinking” with a similar dismissiveness as they use “wingnut.” It’s a very derogatory way of rejecting any evaluative method not deemed “rational” by the speaker/writer. As someone who grew up in a very religious (Christian) community, I have absolutely seen theological dogma enable rigid thinking and willful ignorance; I have also seen it inform deep commitment to intellectual exploration, deliberation, and growth.

    So this is perhaps a topic for a separate post, but like fannie I wanted to register my misgivings about the narrative that suggests that when someone comes to a passionate conclusion about a political issue we dislike, we can dismiss them by suggesting they’re simply using “magical thinking” and being “irrational.”

    This is a charge that has been used against women and specifically feminists for at least two hundred years, and I think we’re justifiably suspicious when it crops up anew to discredit the opposition.

  34. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: An alternative conclusion is that a smart person’s ability to predict whether my girlfriend is going to experience poverty in the future is improved by knowing whether or not she is currently experiencing poverty, but is not improved by knowing whether what happens in her life is A or B

    You’re looking at this the wrong way round. “Whether she chooses A or B” is not separable from all the other things going on at the time in her life. Because people make choices for reasons (somtimes good, sometimes bad ones). The only way to *causally* isolate the effect of the choice would be to run an experiment in which you assign people to different treatments (which would be unethical in the case of human subjects- which is part of why studying people is tricky) or to do natural experiments like the one with the miscarriages.

  35. Mont D. Law says:

    (An alternative conclusion is that a smart person’s ability to predict whether my girlfriend is going to experience poverty in the future is improved by knowing whether or not she is currently experiencing poverty, but is not improved by knowing whether what happens in her life is A or B.)

    I would agree with that. Based on only age you are just guessing. But the scenario you have laid out gives you one more piece of information. This 17 year old boy thinks it’s a good idea to have a baby. That speaks volumes.

  36. mythago says:

    @David, part of a civil discussion is engaging in that discussion, and not becoming petulant or hiding behind jokes when it seems that you might be in the wrong. Criticizing someone whose beliefs you think are incorrect as engaging in ‘magical thinking’, and smirking that of course you never do such a thing, is not really good-faith discourse. It’s engaging in precisely the behavior you describe, and then justifying it with a grin and an aw-shucks.

    Re ‘sacred values’, this is nothing new. It’s called cognitive dissonance, but I guess that’s not rooted in culture-war discourse enough to catch bloggers’ attention. I have belief A and B and they conflict, so I either must reject one or find a belief C that explains away the conflict. (Or, if I am sufficiently fanatic, I can believe both A and B anyway; this is what Orwell called doublethink.) And I am far more likely preserve the belief that I find emotionally important, regardless of its truth.

  37. La Lubu says:

    I am saying that, self-evidently (to me, at least), the alternative conclusion requires magical thinking

    Well, it’s something, but it isn’t magical thinking. That’s not a correct use of the term. “Magical thinking” requires some belief in magic per se, such that “if I perform this unrelated action or hold this particular thought, action x will happen in the real world”. Just believing that more information about any given subject doesn’t improve one’s ability to predict a future outcome may be foolish, but it isn’t magical thinking.

    With that said, the reason magical thinking is erroneous is not just because the “magic” involved is random, but because life seldom moves along A to B to C trajectories. Inputs are complex, and magical thinking doesn’t acknowledge or allow for multiple influences—just the “magic” of one influence that overrides everything else.

  38. Diane M says:

    I just want to recommend listening to the video with Haidt. It is fascinating stuff.

    Mythago, it may be related to cognitive dissonance or even based on some of the same research, but I think the “sacred values” he talks about are something a little different. It’s the things that would get you kicked out of your social group if you did them. He’s trying to explain the “culture wars,” so that is his focus.

  39. Alana S. says:

    i thought it was sex that caused teen pregnancy.

  40. Diane M says:

    Here’s my interpretation of the logic issue:

    If a causes b, it does not particularly follow that b causes a.

    However, it also does not follow that b does not cause a.

    So Morales can’t logically say that because poverty increases the chances of teen pregnancy, we know that getting pregnant won’t increase the chance that a teen will be poor in the future.

    And we also can’t be sure that the opposite must be true.

    However, most of us believe that becoming pregnant when you are a teenager will increase the chances that you become or stay poor.

    Is that the case?

    Philip Cohen presented interesting evidence that:

    a) Being poor is more strongly linked to becoming a teen parent than being a teen parent is to becoming poor.

    b) Being a teen parent does, however, slightly increase the chance that you will drop out of high school. It is also linked with a lower income a few years later. We don’t know what will happen in the long run because the study hasn’t been going on long enough.

    Roxeanne D Luca has also sensibly pointed out that it might not be poverty per se that is the cause of teen pregnancy, but something that causes both poverty and teen pregnancy. She suggests that absences of a father is known to be linked to both things.

    @Philip J. Cohen – Does the study look at other factors that might be linked to teen pregnancy like absence of a father, lack of time with parents, etc.?

    Anyhow, I’m left with the impression that when Morales says that teen pregnancies don’t cause poverty, she’s wrong. Knowing that poverty causes teen pregnancies doesn’t prove that teen pregnancies can’t cause poverty. In fact, teen pregnancy seems to have some effect on education and future earnings.

    I wouldn’t call that magical thinking, but it does seem to me like wishful thinking. It does seem to me like emotions affecting logic.

    I do want to emphasize that Haidt criticizes both conservatives and liberals. He believes that all of us operate more on feelings than logic.

    Anyhow, I think this particular case seems to fall into the pattern he is talking about.

    At a certain point, I think we versus them takes over.

    Why exactly would being a liberal mean you try to prove that getting pregnant when you are a teenager won’t hurt you financially?

    Since this all came up because of the ads, it does come across to me as being really about the sense that teen parents should not be attacked.

  41. Diane M says:

    I also want to point out one of the possible implications of all this.

    We know that if you graduate high school, get a job, and don’t get pregnant before you get married, you have a 98% chance of not being poor.

    So if getting pregnant when you are teenager makes little or no difference to whether or not you become poor, that suggests that:

    Getting married before you get pregnant is one of the things that keeps people out of poverty.

  42. La Lubu says:

    We know that if you graduate high school, get a job, and don’t get pregnant before you get married, you have a 98% chance of not being poor.

    And yet, I did all of those things, and was still poor. What made me not-poor was getting into the apprenticeship. Having a skilled job with decent pay, benefits, and a future is what made the difference. The percentage of women who have graduated high school, gotten a job, did not have a child, yet still ended up poor (because their paychecks were/are poverty-level) is much higher than 2%.

  43. Teresa says:

    We’re all caught up in the chicken or the egg scenario. Let’s move this up a social class.

    We probably all know middle class teen girls who got pregnant, didn’t abort, and certainly did not end up poor. Why is that do you suppose? What were the factors that allowed these teen girls to continue with life relatively unscathed?

    a. The girl’s parents/family stepped in to mitigate possible bad consequences from occurring by encouraging
    b. She give the baby up for adoption upon her parents advice
    c. If not, arrangements were made for her to continue education, and find childcare to help with that.

    La Lubu has made it clear that being non-pregnant (?) does not improve your social demographics, once you’re in the lower class, at least in her case. Can we make a broad statement that says: in the America of today, once you’re in the poor class, a safe bet would say … you’ll die in the poor class: unless you have access to ‘good’ education providing you ‘good’ job opportunities.

    So, back to my original question. Why do middle class unwed mothers fair better than the poor? Is it all about the money?

  44. Mont D. Law says:

    (We know that if you graduate high school, get a job, and don’t get pregnant before you get married, you have a 98% chance of not being poor.)

    This is a meaningless statistic quoted endlessly in an attempt to shift attention from the most reliable statistical indicator of poverty which is race. And the second most reliable statistical measure, where you live. It’s victim blaming at it’s worse. Well if poor people could do these obviously simple things they wouldn’t be poor, so really it’s their own fault. And if we just find a way to force/shame them into doing these things poverty would be virtually eliminated. At it’s core it is rooted in the assumption of the privileged that the ease of accomplishing these three things is universal.

  45. David Blankenhorn says:

    Mythago:

    I am not trying to be smug or uncivil. To put it in the form of a general principle, I am trying to say that:


    When any two complex social phenomena interact over time, it cannot be true that A affects B but that B does not affect A.

    It can’t be true when A is poverty status and B is teen parent status, and it can’t be true in the case of ANY two complex human/social phenomena. (Hector: a key word is “social”; drugs don’t count; knives don’t count.) That is my only point, and I’m not trying to be smug about it at all.

    And because I believe that this point is self-evident, by which I mean empirically incontrovertible, and that therefore to deny it requires the at least temporary suspension or override of critical reasoning, I suggest that to deny it requires magical thinking. I’m not wedded to the word magical, and wasn’t using it in some technical sense; what I mean is, that it requires the overriding of critical reasoning in the name of a higher value.

    I have learned from and appreciated many of the comments on this thread, but none of them have caused me to question or re-assess this basic point.

    I’ve tried to make plain that I am not trying to score a partisan point here. I know that poverty contributes to the problem of teen pregnancy. And I know that I am in groups that cherish what Haidt calls “sacred values” just as surely as the woman from Planned Parenthood is or as any of us are.

    Mythago, Fannie, and Anna:

    Regarding your well-stated concerns about saying “magical,” I hear and appreciate what you are saying. I want to think about it some more. At the same time, I am concerned that you seem to be reading your own realities into what I am saying in ways that are completely non-recognizable to me.

    In this post, I was not trying to pick a fight with feminism, or with anything related to gender or sexuality; I could not possibly care less whether the quoted spokesperson from Planned Parenthood is male or female; my comments about magical thinking would been exactly the same, had the spokesperson been a man. And I am not trying to pick a fight with spirituality or with ways of knowing that are not bound by reason. That is simply not what I’m trying to do. I am only making the one point. I am not trying to pick any other fights, or make any other insinuations, or score any other political or religious or sexual points.

  46. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: It can’t be true when A is poverty status and B is teen parent status, and it can’t be true in the case of ANY two complex human/social phenomena

    You keep asserting this, but it seems to be pretty obviously not true, so I have to wonder why you keep asserting it, and what you seem to be missing. I’m not sure why you think social phenomena are any different in this regard than anything else. Social/behavioural phenomena are much more difficult to study than natural ones, because they involve rational agents with the capacity of free choice, and because there are ethical constraints on what sorts of experiments you can run on people. This differentiates the social ‘sciences’ (I dislike that term) from the natural sciences. However, I’m not aware that they are governed by different laws of causation, statistical analysis, or different standards of evidence. If you prefer an example regarding social phenomena: being religious makes you more likely to have a (slightly) larger family, but having a large family does not cause increased religiosity.

    Perhaps you’re confused by the fact that *correlation* is reciprocal, but we are not talking about correlations here, we’re trying to talk about chains of causation. I’d suggest you read a statistical textbook, then we might be able to have a more productive argument.

  47. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: (We know that if you graduate high school, get a job, and don’t get pregnant before you get married, you have a 98% chance of not being poor.)

    I’d love to know what the definition they were using of ‘poor’. (You can be above the poverty line and still qualify by most people’s definition of ‘poor’). On second thought, no I wouldn’t, since it’s probably just some typical case of people twisting words and concepts to get the result that they want. If there’s any magical thinking going on here, it’s from the people who think that abstaining from sex is going to put a paychcecck in your hand and a dinner on your plate.

    The sorts of people who are likely to become poor, are also likely to have kids as unmarried teens. That’s certainly true. It also, equally certainly, doesn’t establish causation. Having a child seems to *slightly* increase your likelihood of having economic difficulties in the long run, but that’s a much more modest claim than any of these people like Blankenhorn are making, and it’s also unclear how long the effects last. (Many childhood interventions to raise IQ, for example, have short term effects but don’t succeed in raising adult IQ).

  48. Teresa says:

    David said:
    … that it requires the overriding of critical reasoning in the name of a higher value.

    In this lies the nub of your argument, David. Let’s dispense with all the superfluities surrounding this. Will these Posters somehow provide critical reasoning to young, poor persons? Will they somehow ‘magically’ provide self-control to a young, poor person? You’re implying they will. Am I understanding you correctly, David?

  49. mythago says:

    it cannot be true that A affects B but that B does not affect A

    Except Morales never said that. She said ‘A doesn’t cause B; B causes A’. You are recasting her words into something that is easier to attack. That is bad-faith arguing.

  50. Anna Cook says:

    I am not trying to pick any other fights, or make any other insinuations, or score any other political or religious or sexual points.

    I appreciate that you are making a very specific point, David, and that in this instance it wasn’t intentionally dismissive of the argument due to religious, gender, or political bias. My point is that the language you (and Haidt) use to speak about bias, passion, and rational decision-making — here and in your video discussion — hooks into a much larger cultural discourse that is dismissive of emotion, passion, and religious conviction as valid components of evaluation and decision-making. You may or may not mean the phrase “magical thinking” to have anti-religious connotations, but the fact is that it DOES have those connotations for at least some of your audience, and when you employ that language you should be aware of that context because it informs how people listen (or tune out) what you are trying to say.

    To be clear, I am very pro-evidence (I’m an historian after all, and evidence is the bread and butter that makes historical argument possible). Evidence-based practice is, to my mind, a very good thing to aim for. But I think that what the evidence tells us is often complicated to discern (even if we can agree on what the evidence is). “Sacred values” don’t necessarily demand that we erase or alter the evidence; they simply inform how we choose to act upon that evidence.