Bryan Caplan writes about Robin Hanson’s contrarian views on the effectiveness of medicine and parenting.
Caplan’s conclusion about medicine involving a mix of beneficial and harmful practices is probably correct (and probably consistent with Robin’s views), but some of his reasoning is bogus:
Start with medicine. Modern techniques have clearly saved a lot of lives. If memory serves me, survival rates for premature babies have skyrocketed from 10% to 90%.
Part of Robin’s point is that we can’t tell from the improved survival rates that medicine was responsible. It may be that improved maternal nutrition has made babies better able to withstand premature birth. There is no easy way to distinguish the causes, and there’s some reason to think doctors are more effective at biasing consumers to credit them with improving peoples’ health than farmers are.
The evidence that medicine is less effective than most believe has fewer practical implications than a superficial glance suggests. It implies that you shouldn’t choose an expensive health plan over a cheap one, but leaves open the possibility that you should still see your doctor fairly often, and the possibility that you can “buy” health care that will slightly increase your life expectancy by moving from, say, Havana to San Francisco.
The argument (started by Judith Rich Harris) that parenting styles have little effect has a stronger conclusion. Caplan claims:
The same goes for parenting. We all know kids who let their parents plan their lives for them. Maybe it’s 100% genetic, but that’s a stretch. It’s more plausible to acknowledge that these pliable kids exist, but point out that they’re only half the story. We also all know kids who heard their parents’ plans for their future, and did exactly the opposite just to spite them.
I do not know kids who come close to fitting the first pattern after puberty. Essentially all kids need to demonstrate to their peers by about puberty that they are mature enough to be somewhat independent of their parents. And if you think about the sexual selection pressures on children around that age, you should expect that to be just one symptom of the pattern that Harris points out. Their reproductive success is heavily dependent on their ability to compete with and to impress people who are sufficiently close to their age to become a mate or to compete for a mate. That implies that it is important for them to adapt their personalities in ways that respond to evidence about their peers, and to treat parental opinions as much less relevant.
Unlike the arguments about the ineffectiveness of medicine, the evidence against the importance of parenting styles appears to show that all attempts to improve parenting styles (except for those, such as choosing the best school, which influence whom the child can have as peers) have failed to show benefits.
We have a large industry devoted to convincing parents to buy its advice on parenting styles. This creates a nontrivial incentive to provide evidence that some parenting styles work better than others. That includes incentives to distinguish children that will be helped by style X from those who will be helped by the opposite style. And unlike the evidence that some medical practices work, the evidence for the value of advice on parenting styles consistently fails when subjected to close scrutiny.
It is still possible that parenting styles are sometimes helping and sometimes hurting, but theory and the breadth of the evidence suggest betting against that. Eventually, given tools as drastic as manipulating the child’s genes, parents will someday find ways to manipulate their kids minds. But since there’s little reason to think that children are currently suffering from negligent parenting styles, and there are moderately good reasons to guess that youthful rebellion is mainly the result of children pursing their (gene’s?) interests, it’s hard to see why parents should be trying to alter their children’s behavioral strategies rather than ensuring that they have the resources to do what they want. (Unless, of course, parents have good reasons for pursuing different goals than their children. I’m having trouble analyzing that possibility.)