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December 12, 2004

Bayly on Kinsey; When is Good Scholarship a Bad Action?

Pastor Tim Bayly has a good webpost and December 3 Herald-Times op-ed on Kinsey's sex research. It raises questions I've avoided, I realize. The usual charge nowadays against Kinsey is that his research was rubbish, with a hidden agenda, sloppy methods, and deliberate avoidance of sound statistical sampling. Indeed, back in the 1950's there was an issue of the Journal of the American Statistical Association that contained a number of article by top statisticians (I think Tukey was one) that criticized his statistics. At the time, the pretence was that Kinsey himself was a disinterested, straitlaced scientist; we now know that he and his associates were involved in the practices they studied.

But that is not the subject of Pastor Bayly's webpost. Here is some of what he says:

Kinsey spent the rest of his academic career conducting these interviews and disseminating the data. He was convinced that publicizing peoples' private sexual lives would usher in a more peaceful age devoid of shame and inhibition.

But his efforts did not bring the dawn of Aquarian freedom...

So today, instead of community pressure being brought to bear against adulterers and sodomites, it's brought to bear against those condemning such crimes. Freedom is shrinking as IU's diversity advocates and the Bloomington City Council's Human Rights Commission use shame as a disciplinary tool against innocent souls caught in the act of expressing disapproval of sexual perversion.

Pity the poor widow who conscientiously declines to rent her upstairs apartment to an unmarried couple. She will soon learn what G. K. Chesterton warned of: "When you break the big laws, you do not get freedom; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws."....

Since Kinsey first began to expose men's secrets, incest, domestic violence, divorce, the poverty rate of women and children, and deaths due to sexually transmitted diseases have all increased dramatically. But no one seems to notice.

We cannot of course attribute the sexual revolution to Kinsey. He contributed to it, but he was part of a big movement, and not an indispensable part. The question I've avoided, though, is whether a true scholar who had researched the same subject as Kinsey should be criticized. What if someone had collected data on sexual behavior in a reasonably accurate way, doing good and unbiased scholarship-- but with results pernicious to society?

It may be that publishing news of widespread immorality is not pernicious to society, but for the sake of argument, suppose that it is. I think, then, that a scholar who so publishes ought to be criticized. It is as if some scientist were to come up with a formula for a cheap homemade bomb, and published it. The scientific discovery might be worthy of the Nobel Prize, but we should not admire him. There are various kinds of criminal behavior that are much more common than people realize. Would it be good to teach teenagers the truth about it, and how low criminal penalties really are? I think one of the problems of the inner city is that people there have a better idea of how limited is the reach of the police. When more people know more things, that does not always make our life better.

There is a danger in such thinking, I realize. Research on race and sex differences is dangerous because so many people think that to demonstrate even true differences is pernicious. Others think that to deny differences is what is pernicious. In the same way, many people think the results of the sexual revolution are good, and that Kinsey's work had a good effect even if its scholarly quality was dubious. In the end, I suppose I would encourage the discovery and dissemination that corrects misbelief. Partly this would be for lack of trust in whoever would judge which discoveries were pernicious, and partly because knowing the truth would help us correct bad situations. If sexual or criminal immorality is rampant, maybe it is better we should all know that, so even if existing social norms weaken, laws or new norms may arise.

The discovery of cheap bombs (or ways to cheat on taxes safely, for another example) is different. In such cases, almost everyone would agree as to the bad consequences of the good scholarship, and the usefulness for progress is much smaller.

Posted by erasmuse at December 12, 2004 08:05 PM

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I hadn't thought of it, but computer science is an excellent example. If you publish security holes, people will take advantage of them,but they can be fixed, too. It's a tough problem, which is why I come out so indecisively. I try to distinguish between information about the world and and information about techniques to change the world.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen at December 15, 2004 07:41 AM

The Comment feature is behaving oddly. Earlier this morning I wrote the last comment in response to someone who mentioned the computer science controversy. But now his comment has disappeared, and even then, the main entry said "Comments (0)" despite his comment being there. I've tried to fix up MT-Blacklist, and I hope comments now appear correctly. I'm also trying toadd Notifier, which will tell the commenter about responses and new comments, but I don't see it here now.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen at December 15, 2004 08:53 AM

I respect you when you take difficult positions like these, Dr. Rasmusen. I don't agree, but I respect you for them. It's infinitely more difficult to take an unpopular position, and being so overtly Christian and conservative has undoubtedly caused you some raps on the head.

Economists, as you know better than anyone, pride themselves on novelty and undoing our commonsense understanding of some phenomenon. So, it seems to me that your words make the research descisions of the christian economist (like me) possibly even more difficult. My research is on the family, and particularly on sexual behavior and fertility, and I've more or less avoided the ethical dimensions associated with selecting topics. I mostly approach economics as utility maximization - I do what I like. Probalby not the best ethic, but at times, it lines up squarely with my faith because to quote the guy in Chariots of Fire who said he feels God's smile when he runs, I often feel God's smile when I work. Not because I'm doing his will, but because I believe I am being that which he made me to be, and I think that pleases him. Still, I should be more cognizant of the morality of my research -e ven if it results in me doing the same things, I need to be more sensitive to it.

Posted by: scott cunningham at December 16, 2004 09:36 AM

What I find amusing about the Kinsey discussion is the lack of attention to the results of his expose on sexual preferences. If Kinsey's work was so revolutionary, can we see evidence of a positive impact from his work.

Are we, as a society, better off because of his work? While correlates to the decline in the human condition are clear, a causal link is weak at best. But as Dr. Rasmusen suggests, Kinsey nonetheless contributed to the sexual revolution that occurred.

The question still reamins, are we as a culture better for the discovery? To answer this requires a private matter to become a very public question (we certainly do not need more surveys about our sexual preferences that are more fantasy than reality). There was a time when private acts and thoughts were respected for being just that -- private. Now the preferences and practices of anyone "open" enough to expose his or her life to the world, gets filmed for distribution. But to what end? So we can compare our preferences with a perverted standard? Or diminish the intimate world of a monogamous sexual union for all to see and judge? Seems a bit odd to me and frankly borders on voyerism.

The Kinsey film seems to be the last vestiges of an industry that had failed to look deeply at the culture of narcissistic relativism. An informative and far more interesting story might one of people who delved into the depths of these "freedoms" and now admit to the meaningless and void that results. In the past 6,500 years, from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas to Alred Kinseythe story is the same...the human condition seeks meaning, purpose, and relationships.

Posted by: William E. Tellum at December 17, 2004 09:08 AM

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