Catholics brainstorming

George Weigel (who I assume is “Xavier Rynne II”) has kept his head better than most these days.  The Letters from the Vatican are interesting for gathering the suggestions of comparatively sober-minded laity.  Let’s look at letter #5.

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For our struggle is not against principalities and powers, but against positive feedback loops.

Why do I say that the Catholic Church is doomed?  Because she is caught in a positive feedback loop whereby the bishops are demanded to do things which will only trigger more rage against them and demand for reforms with the same effect in a cycle that can only end with the destruction of the Church as we know it.

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The null hypothesis: why does it matter if clergy are not distinctly prone to sexual abuse?

Consider the following two claims, which I call “the null hypothesis”:

  • The rate of sexual abuse of minors by priests during a given decade is within one standard deviation of the mean of an assorted rates for clergy of other religions and secular professionals with access to children during the same decade.
  •  The handling of accusations of such behavior by bishops is not exceptional compared to that of these other group, again always controlling for the block of time.

Some studies have claimed that available data is consistent with the null hypothesis.  This is perhaps a weaker claim than it might appear, since no other group has been investigated with anything like the thoroughness to which the Catholic priesthood has been subjected.  Also, one must try to correct for the enormous selection biases of the Church keeping personnel records for far longer than any other organization, and that various legal and ecclesiastic bodies have been hunting exclusively for priest offenders, often into the far past, with no comparable solicitude to find victims of other professionals.  I readily admit that the null hypothesis has not been proved, but it is consistent with the data, and it is telling that few of the Church’s critics explicitly contest it.  What I would like to address here is the idea that the truth of the null hypothesis is unimportant, or rather that it is important only to those like me who are frivolously concerned with the relative moral status of my group, but that it is not particularly important for understanding or suppressing clergy sexual abuse.  I claim in fact that it is all important, that every prominent side in the current debate implicitly assumes the falsity of the null hypothesis, and therefore that all their proposals will be futile.


What is the cause of priests sexually abusing minors, or of bishops incorrectly responding to it?  Ask various factions of Catholics, and they will point to clericalism, celibacy, permissive post-conciliar moral theology, or a disproportionately high number of homosexuals.  Implicit in all of these explanations is the assumption that the phenomena are distinctive to priests and bishops, and therefore the cause must also be something distinctive to them.  If this were true, then the simultaneous truth of the null hypothesis would be an unexpected coincidence.  Rather, in the absence of other information, it is more natural to assume that when the effect is the same, the cause is likewise the same.  If priests abuse at the same rate as other professionals, and if bishops deal with it the same way as other professionals’ employers, then it is natural to assume that they do so for the same reasons.  In this case, the explanation cannot be clericalism, celibacy, theology, or homosexuality.  All the explanations on offer are wrong, and hence all the suggested fixes will not work.  That is slightly interesting, is it not?  If we eliminate celibacy, priests will presumably abuse at the same rate as Protestant ministers, and we have not established that this would be an improvement.  If we eliminate clericalism, priests will presumably abuse at the same rate as teachers, councilors, and juvenile detention officers, and we have not established that this would be an improvement.  If we eliminate gay priests, priests will presumably abuse at the same rate as heterosexual men, and we have not established that this would be an improvement.

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Against the reform of the Church

Catholics are used to the fact that a history of their religion written by a sympathetic insider will be almost entirely concerned with the corruption of the clergy and movements to address the moral deficiencies of the clergy.  What’s odd about this?  Is not the Church “ever in need of reform”?  Well, compare with a history book on any other religion–pagan, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, or Orthodox–and you will find that it almost certainly will not be about the corruption of the clergy of that religion or about efforts to reform away such corruption.  Other religions focus on conquering or defending themselves against rival cults if they control their own territory, and the competition for status if they don’t, the advance of sacred art and theology, the deepening of spiritual traditions, popular enthusiasms, and putative miracles.  These things occur in Catholic lands too, of course, although they must always take a back seat to the work of reform.  This is particularly striking in the history of a country that switches from Catholic to Protestant.  Suddenly religious history is no longer about corruption.  The corruption, ignorance, greed, lechery of the clergy suddenly disappears!

“The Church is always in need of reform” is not so uncontroversial after all.  It does not simply mean “the Church could use some improvement in some way or another.”  It means “Greater policing of the clergy’s morals is what we should devote our limited time and attention to.”  Catechesis, apologetics, theology, liturgy, helping young Catholics meet and marry, mobilizing the laity for politics or social betterment–these are afterthoughts at best.

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the conservative critique of the academy

The poor university.  Conservatives are always accusing it of teaching students to hate their people and their ancestral culture.  Which is completely a figment of our imagination, of course.  Thus, Prof. Phillips-Fein at The Chronicle of Higher Education sees no point in actually addressing the conservative critique, but merely suggests that others might be less receptive to conservative polemics if universities could be a bit less nakedly financially predatory toward students.

One should always be wary of advice from enemies, but I think the academy should try engaging with the conservative critique.  One must, of course, start by understanding more accurately what the accusation actually is.  To begin with the obvious, the claim is not that open investigation naturally leads those who engage in it to despise Christianity, the white race, patriarchy, etc.  Whether or not this is actually true, conservatives never accuse academia of successfully embodying an ideal of open-minded inquiry.  Although they will sometimes claim that universities indoctrinate students in Marxism, feminism, etc, this is not the heart of the critique either.

The true heart of the conservative critique is that university life is a giant exercise in begging the question.  There is a facade of open inquiry, but the truth of liberalism and the illegitimacy of illiberal practices is always assumed from the outset.  Thus, gender studies never begin with neutral biological facts or measures of social utility and then prove that normative sex roles are bad.  The latter is assumed from the beginning, so the only question to study is what is wrong with traditional cultures that they fail to recognize it, what devious artifices they employ to keep people from recognizing the obvious truth of sex interchangeability.  Racial grievance studies do not begin from a neutral standpoint of group good behavior and then show that the white race engages in X bad behavior Y percent more frequently than the pan-racial median.  Nor is the claim that piety toward ancestors is sinful when practiced by whites argued.  Both the empirical claim of unique white perfidy and the deontological cosmopolitan claim (and its particularist application) are presumed rather than proved.

Even this wouldn’t be so bad if the assumptions were conscious and acknowledged.  There is valuable intellectual work of the form “If one assumes X, then Y follows”.  But liberal academy does not admit that its beliefs are taken on assumption or faith.  Failure to spontaneously hold them is simply presumed to be a moral defect.  Worse yet, anyone who does bring them into question can expect retaliation from both superiors and peers.

That is what I take to the be heart of the conservative critique of academia.  No doubt, like all critiques by hostile outsiders, it is an uncharitable account and can probably be shown to be exaggerated or unfair in various ways.  But it is certainly worth academics’ time to address it, since unrecognized assumptions, unconscious bias, uncontrolled approximations, circular argumentation, etc are regarded as among the greatest dangers in intellectual work, so surely intellectuals would always want to be on the lookout for these things anyway.

Now, if academic studies, Grievance and other, are in a truly healthy, self-critical state, it should be no problem to decisively refute the conservative critique.  I’m not asking them to give a “platform” to “hate”, just to show us the sort of safeguards against epistemic closure and confirmation bias (certainly including the respectful investigation of alternative view) that they must surely already be taking.  Such a demonstration couldn’t be a problem for them, could it?

Book review: What is intelligence?

What is Intelligence?  Beyond the Flynn Effect
by James Flynn (2007)

Two paradoxes:

  • Studies of separated twins prove that genes are much more important than environment for IQ.  The fact that the population’s IQ is increasing at a rate of 0.3 points per year proves that environment must be more important than genes.  Which is it?
  • If the “Flynn effect” is taken seriously, our grandparents are retarded and our grandchildren are geniuses (both compared to us).  Why don’t we notice this?

What does The Man Himself have to say?  First, that environment can amplify small genetic differences.  Those with higher aptitude tend to be put in (and to enjoy and hence seek out) more stimulating and challenging environments.  Thus, environmental effects may be very potent while genes still predict IQ within a single generation / social context.  Second, we prioritize abstract over concrete thought much more now than in the past, and IQ and other psychometric tests tend to take abstract thought as normative.  Third, IQ gains are not even across all subtests; nor do the gains match the g-loading of each subtest as determined at one moment in time.  Our grandparents had roughly as good vocabulary as us, and hence comparable ability to appreciate literature.  On the other hand, they may not be as good at solving meaningless abstract puzzles, such as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices.

On the other hand, they might be.  Although I don’t recall seeing it suggested in the book, if socially-evolving environmental forces are as potent as Professor Flynn believes, perhaps our grandparents’ IQs have been drifting upward with the population as a whole.  Flynn also does not consider that there might be some downside to over-reliance on abstract thought, which would also complicate the supposed superiority of our time.

Professor Flynn is fond of sports analogies.  One can become a better runner by training, although we each have different natural aptitude, and most of us don’t have the potential to be Olympic athletes.  So he believes it is with intelligence as well.  I have suggested before that low intelligence people like me must learn to be careful how we allocate our cognitive effort, but perhaps avoiding too many challenges is one of the things that is keeping us dumb.


asymmetry of political converts

Leftist scholar of the Right Corey Robin has been writing about us deplorables again, and I’d hate for him to think that none of us are reading.  He points out at the New Yorker that converts from the Left play a notable role in the history of Right (a largely baneful role, our paleoconservative friends would insist, but that’s an argument we needn’t take up), but there is nothing analogous in the history of the Left.  Notable Leftists are nearly always lifelong Leftists.

Robin tells the interesting story of Derek Black, who once embraced the horrible “white supremacist” idea that each group should defend its own interests and identity.  He was exposed in college, met with outrage and ostracism plus a few who decided to be nice to him with a view to his conversion.  The intensive good-cop-bad-cop routine eventually succeeded in breaking Derek’s spirit, and he was successfully reconstructed as a conventional Leftist twit.  As Robin points out, what has not happened is for converts like Derek to supply a creative force for the Left.

Stated this way, it’s pretty clear where the asymmetry lies.  Converts to the Right are breaking with the surrounding consensus.  They are consciously going off into “the wilderness”, to “the losing side”.  Converts to the Left are surrendering their dissent, conforming to the group consensus.  Clearly these are two very different social dynamics, and one suspects involve two rather different types of people.  One doubts that the latter, who gives up his dissent, is as likely to be the sort to push through an intellectual shake-up.  Even if he once was, the humiliation of having once admitted that the group was right and he was wrong has likely cured him of it.

I doubt Derek Black will ever again have an original thought, and I suspect he would be relieved to know that he won’t.