Why is it that people who hold to being liberal, open-minded and educated can so quickly throw all that away when the subject of sex and babies comes up? How is it that they so quickly confuse correlation with causality?
I’ll offer two examples and ask readers to enlighten me. The first involves a chapter from a recent book by economist Steven Landsburg. The second originates from a lecture I heard this last week at a recruiting conference.
Morality Causes Unsafe Sex?
Landsburg uses the following passage from his book The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics which has won rave reviews from mainstream media to ‘prove’ that casual sex helps reduce sexually transmitted disease:
Consider Martin, a charming and generally prudent young man with a limited sexual history, who has been gently flirting with his coworker Joan. As last week’s office party approached, both Joan and Martin silently and separately entertained the prospect that they just might be going home together. Unfortunately, Fate, through its agents at the Centers for Disease Control, intervened. The morning of the party, Martin happened to notice one of those CDC-sponsored subway ads touting the virtues of abstinence. Chastened, he decided to stay home. In Martin’s absence, Joan hooked up with the equally charming but considerably less prudent Maxwell – and Joan got AIDS.
Hmm, I missed a step here. Wouldn’t Martin’s safe behavior encourage his friend Jean to do likewise? My neighbor’s decision to bike to work didn’t make me buy an SUV. My vegetarian friend doesn’t cause me to go to Manny’s Steak House every week. My participation at a peace rally this weekend didin’t cause my hunting buddy to go out and kill someone. Our religious friends who have taken a vow of poverty and are working with the poor in North Minneapolis didn’t cause me to go buy a yacht on Lake Minnetonka. What’s next Mr. Landsberg? Honesty causing lying? Reading your book causing illiteracy?
If you think I might be making a straw-man out of Landsberg’s argument, then consider a subsequent passage:
Martin’s chastity is a form of pollution — chastity pollutes the sexual environment by reducing the fraction of relatively safe partners in the dating pool. Factory owners pollute too much because they have to breathe only a fraction of their own pollution; Martin stays home alone too much because he bears only a fraction of the consequences.
Now obviously none of this makes sense. Landsberg, a renowned economist, just can’t think straight when it comes to sex. How can you explain it? One can only imagine that he knew people who began practicing unsafe sex (i.e. with multiple partners) after giving up on the existence of Mr. or Miss Right. In other words, he confuses correlation (the lack of Mr/Miss Right coinciding with casual encounters) with causality.
Quite strange for an author who intelligently dissects commonly held economic fallacies.
Relevance to Staffing
At a recruiting conference this last week here in Minnesota a presenter droozled on with the usual trope you hear from speakers at such conferences about how population growth has slowed down (as if this is somehow a secret to everyone) and how therefore you need to treat GenY (the current crop of young adults) as a different species.
Another day, I’ll write about how the birth dirth has become old news and that in fact fertility indexes have spiked in countries like Germany and China in recent years, but for the moment let’s look at the presenter’s explanation for the slowdown in population growth. Roughly quoting him: “Women stopped having babies because they got educated.”
He had slides that purportedly proved this. Indeed, during much of the last 50 or so years as women achieved higher and higher levels of education the rate of birth declined. The two did largely correlate for the period of time in question. Does that mean that the one caused the other?
My Harvard educated college friend has trouble with that…she has five children. My Mayo-educated, pediatrician wife has seven. The half-dozen or so visibly pregnant women at the conference certainly couldn’t have enjoyed his analysis.
But anecdotal evdience about well-educated women having babies doesn’t disprove his thesis that ignorance causes pregnancy. However, other explanations for the birth-dearth offer a lot more kitchen logic. For example, one reason people had fewer kids during the last 50 years is because it didn’t pay. Government policy and a host of socio-economic factors simply made it uneconomical. Also, the elitist media led a largely false campaign of economic and environment doom that duped a lot of people into thinking having more kids was wrong. All this played a big part in creating the current mess of an insufficient workforce.
Yes, recruitment practices today should reflect that the candidate pool has shrunk substantially. You do need to go out of your way to build candidate communities and connect with people way before they decide to work for you. But human nature hasn’t changed. You shouldn’t and don’t need to treat GenY as a uniquely spoiled generation as this presenter tried to persuade us.
So What Gives?
There you have it. Highly intelligent, articulate professionals who when the subject is sex and staffing fall into fallacies like Harrington putts fall into a cup . Why?