Dr. Althouse and Scott Adams

I cited a post of Dr. Althouse's the other day that was critical of her, but I think she's written the best thing I've seen written about the current controversy (and a companion, concerning a left-wing thinker in the UK who was fired for a column about rape):
Take note. That's something that if you say it, you will lose your job. It's now, officially, a topic that cannot be discussed anymore. Feminists used to have to fight to get sex without consent recognized as real rape. (Here's Susan Estrich's book "Real Rape," spelling it out in 1988 for people who were struggling with concept could bring it within grasp.) Now, you're on notice that making distinctions between types of rape could utterly destroy you. Don't talk about it.

What a victory for women in the war on women.

ADDED: There's a big difference between Akin and Galloway, and it's not just that one's a righty and one's a lefty. Akin is, I think, rather dumb, and he's obviously inarticulate. By contrast, Galloway is quite smart and articulate.

Ironically, it was Galloway who was talking about a category that could be termed — using language properly — "legitimate rape." When Akin said "legitimate rape," he was referring to the most serious kinds of incidents within the larger category of unconsented-to sexual intercourse, the acts that everyone will agree are rape.

The word "legitimate" makes it sound as though Akin were saying those acts are acceptable, but he only meant those are the acts that are properly referred to with the word rape. And this was all in the context of talking about abortion.

Akin wants to say abortion is always wrong, and he's got to deal with the widely held opinion that a woman who has become pregnant through rape ought to be able to get an abortion. How can he find a way to say no? What if it were true that when it's a really serious rape — an act properly categorized as rape — that the woman's body would repel the sperm? That would be really convenient as a way to fend off the argument that has worked so strongly against his absolute anti-abortion position. Of course, it's not true, so it's some highly stupid wishful thinking on his part.

Now, let's look at what Galloway said. He's talking about the kind of rape that's not at the core of what is reprehensible about rape. Like Akin, he's thinking about the most serious types of rape and distinguishing other acts that also get classified as rape, and he's legitimating those less serious acts. Akin was probably only trying to say that it would be good always to favor the life of the unborn over the interests of the woman (because if she got pregnant, she wasn't a victim of the harshest violence).

But Galloway wasn't talking about the innocence of the unborn at all. He was talking about the innocence of the man who has sex with a woman without her consent. He was saying that when a man is naked in bed with a woman who has already had sex with him, that man can proceed with another act of intercourse without acquiring her consent. He's saying that something that some people categorize as rape is not really rape.

So Akin and Galloway raise 2 different issues about rape. One is about access to abortion in a world where there is rape. The other is about the extent to which sexual intercourse should be criminalized. These are actually both things we should be able to talk about!
She captures a great deal of what I thought was important about the matter too. If we're going to be governed by citizen legislators, they'll be ordinary men and women -- which means they will sometimes be, or at least sound, dumb and inarticulate. It turns out that Akin is a former Army combat engineer, so he's probably not stupid as such; but as Scott Adams pointed out, we're all increasingly functionally stupid as the amount there is to know grows exponentially but our capacity to learn stays largely put. Outside of our functional area, then, more and more we're going to sound stupid even if we're really quite smart inside of our proper sphere.

So he said something that was wrong (probably, though as we've discussed it's actually very difficult to tell what to make of the numbers), and he sounded kind of dumb, but he did it in an honest attempt to explain the reasoning underlying his principles. That's good! In fact, it's the only way around the problem that Scott Adams is pointing us towards: the only way to take advantage of all this new knowledge is if we find a way to bring our stupid areas forward for correction by those whose functional area it happens to be.

We learned something from this (whether or not he did):  about where we stand as a republic on the question of rape, about the existence of a theory most of us probably did not realize was informing part of the abortion debate, and about what we think about that theory. We are all better off for having had this discussion, even though it made a lot of people angry and upset.

I gather Dr. Althouse takes that to be to the good -- and except for some sympathy for those who were upset by the remarks, the effect is good.  A legislator isn't elected to make policy about the one thing he or she knows about, after all:  they're going to be functionally stupid in a lot of the areas where they have to make law.  The freer they feel to talk in public about what they believe and why they believe it, the better off we will be as a nation.


Dad29 said...

Akin was referring to an essay by a Dr. Willkes (? spelling) who is an MD but not an OB/GYN.

Willkes (?) was affiliated with a national right-to-life group and propounded this theory about 'women's bodies rejecting rapist's sperm'. Akin had read that and believed it.

The rest is history, as they say.

E Hines said...

A couple of things. First, let me see if I can follow Galloway's pseudo-logic. He said, It might be really bad manners not to have tapped her on the shoulder and said, "do you mind if I do it again?" It might be really sordid and bad sexual etiquette, but whatever else it is, it is not rape....

So, it would be bad form for me to wake her out of a sound and pleasant sleep before having at it--and her--again. If I encourage her to sleep, then all is good? Can I encourage her in the first place? Can I encourage her with, say, some Zolpidem in her drink? That goes too far? But caveat emptor. Hmm....

The other thing is the idea of "functional stupidity." I don't entirely agree. Certainly the facts we think we know are growing exponentially. But on what does a thinking man make his decisions?

A physicist looks at our universe, and he understands a principle of gravity: "If I drop something, it's going to move to the bottom of the prevailing gravity well." Of course, some of the facts involved include how many sources of gravity are there in the area of the drop. Other facts can be derived from this simply principle--orbital mechanics, general relativity, the "appearance" of black holes, and so on, but the principle of a gravity field has remained constant for the life of the universe. The only thing that's changed, so far, other than the body of facts, has been our understanding of that principle.

Similarly, a mathematician understands the counting principle of addition, and so he understands that 2+2 will always equal 4, among other facts. Only an Orwellian politician will argue that the principle of counting doesn't exist, that there are occasions where 2+2 does not equal 4.

So it is with moral principles. Our understanding of morality may clarify (or erode) over time, and the facts we develop from our moral principles will grow over time. But the moral principles themselves are constant.

Facts certainly can--and should--inform our decisions, but those decisions must first be reasoned through based on principle. I'm less concerned by the man who has his facts wrong (which is not to say that I'm not bothered at all) but his principles both are sound and guide him than I am by the man whose principles are...ill-conceived...or who has none.

Eric Hines

Grim said...


It's an interesting argument. It's not implausible on its face; trauma might well reduce the incidence of pregnancy (as will seem reasonable to anyone who has struggled with fertility issues). But it seems to be impossible to prove one way or the other right now; and anyway, it's irrelevant to the moral issue at hand. The question of whether it is wrong to kill the child of rape isn't really related to how likely it is that there shall be such a child. I think they wandered off into quicksand, in spite of the fact that I can see why it seemed like a plausible direction from their perspective.

Mr. Hines:

You're on dangerous ground as well, though it probably seems solid to you. That model of physics, though, is no longer as secure as it seemed to be once.

A law of gravity? Why not a law of the boiling point of water? Water boils at 100 degrees centigrade: that's true, isn't it? Heck, it's not only true, it's true by definition: the whole reason we have a centigrade scale is built around the freezing and boiling points of water.

But it proves not to be true at higher altitudes. And that means it isn't true at all: 'sea level' could change over time, relative to where we are now. We could find that the convention that water boils at 100 degrees C is simply no longer true.

We want to say that gravity isn't like that, but gravity is also -- quite literally -- relative. There seems to be something like a "law" at work, but to say that it is an unchanging principle is right out. And if were a law, where would it be written?

Just recently I cited A. J. Ayer on this question, but there's a good book by D. M. Armstrong about it as well.

E HInes said...

You're conflating principle with law. The principle, for instance, is that water "boils" at a temperature and pressure combination that allows the molecules to separate from each other far enough to become collectively gaseous rather than liquid. The same principle holds, for instance, for iron, whose body of facts includes rather higher melting and boiling points. This happens at various combinations, and one body of facts that flows from this is that (water) boiling occurs at 100 deg C "near" sea level, and at other temperatures elsewhere (temperature itself, by the way, simply being a set of facts originating from a principle concerning molecular and atomic motion from the energy content in the collective and individual molecules/atoms present), and at varying degrees of purity--water with stuff dissolved in it melts at a lower temperature than its pure ice state, as any road maintainer can attest vis-a-vis salt--so cooks in the mountains are concerned with lower boiling points, and water boils in the vacuum of space at quite cool temperatures. It's why physicists--and chemists--when speaking of such things, always specify (or assume it to be understood) that they're speaking of Standard Temperature and Pressure conditions unless specified otherwise.

The principles are more inviolate than the body of facts developed from them, and this is true of physics, mathematics (which is simply one of the logic systems physicists use), morality, etc. Indeed, what changes more rapidly than the principles themselves is our understanding of them.

Where are the laws written? In the same places as our understanding of the principles--in our text books, where our teachers used to use the laws as summaries of a principle and to teach the principle.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Let's talk more about that once you've read the book. :)

Cass said...

There are lots of plausible theories in the world, Grim. Before one asserts a theory as fact, however, the asserter has a duty to ascertain whether what he is representing as fact is actually true.

If he can't prove it - or at least present strong evidence to back his assertion - (and opinion/wishful thinking/conjecture is NOT evidence), then it should not be asserted as fact.

This really isn't brain surgery.

Grim said...

I still think you're being unfair. We normally would accept "I am told by a/an (expert in appropriate field) that X" as an acceptable mode of expression -- not an assertion of fact, and certainly not an assertion of truth, but merely as an assertion that you are given to understand that X is the case by those you think know better than you.

Heck, if someone we liked said 'X is the case' and was wrong, we would probably accept after the fact, as an explanation for why they were wrong, "I was told that X by an expert in the field that I happened to trust." But it wasn't offered here as an after-the-fact explanation for a mistaken statement; it was offered up front as a qualification of the statement. He never represented this as more than his understanding of what doctors he knew had told him. There's nothing wrong with making a fully qualified statement of that type.

In a less emotionally-charged issue, there would be no problem with an assertion of that type. "I am given to understand by particle physicists I know that it is actually physically impossible to obtain accurate enough measurements for perfect knowledge under Newtonian physical systems, so that if the Newtonian equations were perfectly accurate and we had the maximum amount of knowledge actually possible, we still would not be able to have perfect knowledge of future events."

That is something I am really given to understand; and surely I'm not an unethical fool for saying it. If I were elected to Congress and some sort of particle-physics bill came up, I would feel comfortable saying this in a debate; and if it proved to be contentious, I could go back and check my sources, bring them forward, and we could iron it out.

The point that people make most strongly in opposition to Akin is that he didn't understand just how emotionally charged rape is as an issue, and just how important it is to always be sure to express due and proper sympathy for rape victims when speaking about it. That is surely a good point, but it's a known issue with engineers that they are often very bad at this kind of emotional thinking. That shouldn't mean that we don't want engineers in Congress, though; being able to emote adequately isn't the main, or even the best, qualification for the office.