Category Archives: Intellectual Myths

Teen Pregnancy and the Effects of ‘Welfare’ Benefits

From, Sexuality: A Biopsychosocial Approach by Chess Denman, p. 54:

Politicians and the press have created an image of a tidal wave of teen parenthood, caused by young women’s unregulated sexual behaviour and poor women sponging off the state, even though this is unwarranted. In America, for example, teen motherhood cannot be said to have grown as a consequence of welfare because the value of welfare has reduced (Schwartz and Rutter 1998). Interviews with teens who are pregnant do not indicate the kind of planning and forethought necessary for their pregnancy to be a thought-out monetary strategy. Indeed, being able to see a future for oneself is actually associated with abstaining from sex or using contraception (Pipher 1994, in Schwartz and Rutter 1998). In fact, teen pregnancy themselves have not increased at all. Instead they have declined along with the general decline in pregnancy rates but, because they have not declined as much as pregnancy rates in other age ranges, they form a rising proportion of the figures.

However, this may not be all the story, as shown by the following quote taken from the this article on Teenage pregnancy on the UK’s Department for Education and Skills website:

In the 1970s, Britain had similar teenage pregnancy rates to the rest of Europe. But while other countries got theirs down in the 1980s and 1990s, Britain’s rate stayed high. The latest available figures show that Britain’s teenage birth rate is five times that in Holland, three times higher than in France and double the rate in Germany. Other English-speaking countries such as Canada and New Zealand have teenage birth rates higher than ours. In the United States the rate is more than double that in the UK.

In 1999 the Government published a Teenage Pregnancy Report from its Social Exclusion Unit. It acknowledged there was no single cause, but pointed out three major factors: first, that many young people think they will end up on benefit anyway so they see no reason not to get pregnant. Second, that teenagers don’t know enough about contraception and about what becoming a parent will involve. Third, that young people are bombarded with sexual images in the media but feel they can’t talk about sex to their parents and teachers. [emphasis added]

Success Reveals Virtue

If men have not enough it is from want of provident care, and foresight, and industry and frugality. No man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault – unless it be his sin Henry Ward Beecher

The belief that success reveals virtue (and the converse) is a prominent intellectual myth, strongly associated with Protestant thinking and, consequentially, with nascent capitalism. It continues to exert a strong hold today, particularly in America [1]. It has always seemed to me a particularly pernicious view for two reasons. Firstly, like many myths, it contains a strong strand of truth: that our merits and abilities help determine our success in life. This makes it all the more dangerous for while false it seems plausible and is easy to defend. Second, and more important, it heaps obloquy upon failure and self-satisfaction upon success – not only is the poor man poor he is also bad, while the rich man can pat himself on the back and disregard any of the sharp practice or luck on which his fortune is based [2].

[1] cf: previous posting on the American Dream [2] The most prominent, and perhaps most disingenuous in this regard, was Rockerfeller senior who as a devout baptist clearly believed that his, and Standard Oil’s, success was sign of divine favour. A favour that obviated any need to examine the dubious means by which this success had been built.

Psychoanalysis

This is definitely up there for the greatest myth of all time award. Strong overtones of intellectual quackery and really begs the question of why did so many fall for this? Readings:

  1. Richard Webster: Why Freud was Wrong
  2. Geoffrey Masson: Assault on Truth, Against Therapy
  3. Richard McNally: Remembering Trauma

The Past Was Better

The belief that the present is a particular nadir in human affairs be it culturally, politically or ethically is a frequent one throughout history. However its very recurrence indicates its falsity, something I couldn’t imagine better put than this quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646; 6th ed., 1672) Chapter xi (cited Middlemarch p. 442) illustrates:

It is the humour of many heads to extol the days of their forefathers, and declaim against the wickeness of times present. Which notwithstanding they cannot handsomely do, without the borrowed help and satire of times past; condeming the vices of their own times by the expressions of vices in times which they they commend, which cannot but argue the community of vice in both. Horace, therefore, Juvenal, and Persius, were no prophets, although their lines did seem to indignate and point at our times.

The Taxonomy of the Chinese Encyclopedia

<

p> At the start of Foucault’s book The Order of Things the classification system of a Chinese encyclopedia is presented. It commences a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.

But in fact, as Foucault acknowledges, there is no such encyclopedia, rather it the brilliant fiction of Borges in a short story entitled The Analytical Language of John Wilkins. Nevertheless the idea has entered our culture, and is often presented as fact rather than fantasy – being adduced as evidence that no classification system, and no viewpoint on the world, is special and any more correct than any other.

Excerpt from The Analytical Language of John Wilkins

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

The Bibliographic Institute of Brussels exerts chaos too: it has divided the universe into 1000 subdivisions, from which number 262 is the pope; number 282, the Roman Catholic Church; 263, the Day of the Lord; 268 Sunday schools; 298, mormonism; and number 294, brahmanism, buddhism, shintoism and taoism. It doesn’t reject heterogene subdivisions as, for example, 179: Cruelty towards animals. Animals protection. Duel and suicide seen through moral values. Various vices and disadvantages. Advantages and various qualities.

References

  1. Borges short story The Analytical Language of John Wilkins
  2. Interesting article that describes use of Chinese encyclopedia by cultural relativists (often without realizing it is fiction).

The American Dream

What is the myth? The myth quite simply is that the there was an American Dream that could be realised or was more likely to be realized than in other countries (especially the ‘old’ home countries of Northern Europe). Formally this could be rendered as:

The USA allowed for (significantly) greater social mobility than in other countries (particularly those in Western Europe from which many of the early immigrants came). This mobility might be only in any a specific area, for example referring only to the extreme case of progress from rags to riches, or it might be the more common situation of poor immigrant to self-respecting independent yeoman farmer.