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By Anthony Esolen, Crisis Magazine, Nov. 7, 2017
“There are no statistics!” cried a critic of an article I wrote for Crisis a couple of weeks ago. I had asked a prominent Jesuit to open his eyes and look at the vast human misery caused by the breakdown of sexual mores in the West. Had I laced the piece with statistics, people would have complained that I had failed to listen to actual human beings and their woes. Instead I recounted stories; and they were by no means the worst that I could have told.
Ah, statistics. Mathematics was my first love, and I know a lot about probability and statistics, enough to know that the worth of the latter depends not just upon the keenness of your observation, but on the questions you ask in the first place. My first encounter with the deliberate fuzzing of numbers in order to tell political lies was when I read James Burtchaell’s book, Rachel Weeping: The Case Against Abortion.
(Father Burtchaell himself fell to evil deeds in the realm of the sexual, but he died, I have heard, in a state of repentance. He says, in The Dying of the Light, that the first sign that a Catholic college had lost its charism was that it had given way to the new sexual regime. I heard him say Mass on Sunday morning, at Princeton, in the faculty lounge of the politics building of all places, during the year he spent there on research that resulted in Rachel Weeping.)
In that book, Father Burtchaell followed the threads of statistical fabrication and error, repeated, embellished, misapplied, and divagating, so that politicians could say, without any sense of unreality, that hundreds of thousands of women used to die every year from “back alley” abortions. (No less an authority than abortion advocate Mary Calderone, fifteen years before Roe v. Wade, said that almost all illegal abortions were performed by a doctor or a nurse, and were safe, with antibiotics ready at hand to protect against infection. The story changed when it needed to change.) From that point on, I have given little credence to statistics that fly in the face of common sense and common observation, or that are vitiated by a flaw in the question.
Let me give an example. Common sense tells us that cohabitation is less stable than marriage, because each person knows that he or she can pack up and leave without legal consequence, and without qualms for having broken a sacred vow. It is also more volatile, since by the testimony of many who engage in it, it is a trial run. Youth, instability, volatility, and sexual passion make for quite a canister of nitro-glycerine. We know that a girl is far more likely to be beaten by her live-in boyfriend than is a wife by her husband. But if for ideological reasons you want to obscure this fact, and if you don’t care overmuch for the safety of the girls you are putting at risk, or rather if you do wish the girls well but you hate marriage even more, you will fold the two things together, and invent the category “domestic violence.”
Or suppose you want to obscure the fact that in the United States, almost all people who contract the HIV virus are either homosexual men, or people who have sexual relations with, or who share infected needles with infected people—in other words, that homosexual men are the gate of the disease and by far those most likely to suffer it. You can deflect attention from one form of probability to another, or you can ask a misleading question. So you can say that “more than half of new HIV cases are among heterosexuals,” a statement that is almost meaningless, given that heterosexuals outnumber homosexuals by 40 to 1. What we want is to isolate the sexual factor. Given that A is a heterosexual man who does not use intravenous drugs, what is the probability that he will contract the HIV virus, relative to that of B, the homosexual man who also does not use intravenous drugs?
Or you will ask not about the probability function but about its first or second derivative. You ask, “Is the rate of increase of HIV infection among homosexual men lower or higher than the rate of increase among heterosexuals generally?” That too is almost meaningless. When a certain population has been saturated with infection and exposure to infection, its rate of increase will level off, and at that point just about anything else can be made to look more virulent, more threatening. It is like saying that a car just beginning to pull out of a driveway has a greater acceleration than a car speeding at ninety down the highway. It does, but so what?
Journalists used to know a little of history and the English language. They hardly know those, now, so I should not expect them to grasp the concept of conditional probability. I hear, for instance, that “a majority of child abusers are heterosexual.” Again, meaningless; more people die by car accidents than by lightning, but that does not mean that driving a car is more dangerous than is standing in a golf course during an electric storm, holding your nine-iron high above your head. It merely means that a lot more people drive a car than are outdoors welcoming the lightning. But the statistic also does what the “domestic abuse” statistics do. It folds together unlike things. Let me explain. A normal man does not commit incest. He does not abuse his own children. What he wants to know is, “Given Mr. A who is heterosexual, and who does not live in my house, what is the probability that he will abuse my daughter, relative to that of Mr. B who is homosexual, abusing my son?” That is just a complicated way of specifying the condition, and removing from your statistic what for your purpose is irrelevant noise. But if you put it that way, you get something like what the priest-scandal should have taught us by experience.
Let me then ask some relevant questions.
What percentage of people over a certain age (20, 25, 30, 40) are or have been once-married, without divorce? We can call this the basic Index of Marriage. The converse we can call the Index of Unmarriage.
What percentage of people over a certain age have never given or received a serious proposal of marriage? We can call this the Index of Loneliness.
What percentage of marriages and quasi-marriages end in divorce? Suppose you have a society in which a lot of people don’t bother to marry in the first place, but they shack up, they make babies, and more often than not they split. The divorce rate in that society may level off or take a slight dip, but that will mask the very real confusion beneath. I define a “quasi-marriage” as any sexual liaison that lasts more than one year. We can call this the Index of Sexual Dissolution.
What is the average number of children a woman will bear within wedlock? This is a combination of two statistics, each of them important, but for different reasons. The first is the birth rate: a country with modern medicine will age and lose population over time if the rate is less than 2.1, unless the shortfall is made up by immigration. The second is the percentage of children born within wedlock; in the United States, slightly less than 60 percent. It seems to me that a low out-of-wedlock birth rate, such as obtains in Italy, is of itself nothing to cheer about, if no one is having any children at all; and a near-replacement birth rate, such as obtains in the United States, is also nothing to cheer about, if two out of five children are born into moral and social chaos. We can call this statistic the Index of Family Richness.
What is the average number of years, out of his first twenty, that a child will live without both his mother and father in the home, setting aside children adopted at an early age, and children who have lost a parent to death? We can call this the Index of Moral Orphanage.
What is the median number of pornographic images that a boy will have seen before his fifteenth birthday? I specify “median” rather than “average,” because the median will give the more conservative number; an average would be much higher, as the minimum is bounded by zero, and there is no maximum. We can call this the Male Index of Moral and Intellectual Rot.
What is the percentage of people between 20 and 30 who have never fallen into regular fornication, but who are either married now, or who have been in a normal relationship of at least six months’ length, whether by dating or by courtship? That would have been almost everybody, in my parents’ time, and very few people now. We can call this the Index of Pre-Marital Health.
What is the percentage of people between 15 and 30 who have had sexual relations with someone who was a stranger—that is, someone whose name they did not know, or with whom they had not, before that day, exchanged more than fifteen minutes of conversation? We will call this the Index of Lonely Whoredom.
What percentage of people, arriving at the age of thirty (then 35, then 40), are married, without ever having known a divorce or the breakup of a quasi-marriage? We will call this the Index of Clear Skies.
What is the number of children per 1000 women of child-bearing age, both those born and those murdered before birth, conceived outside of wedlock? How does that number compare with those conceived within wedlock? We can call this the Ratio of Wrong and Right.
Most of these questions have not been asked. Is there anybody alive in the United States who believes that the answers will not range from disappointing to staggering?
Editor’s note: pictured above is a detail of Auguste Rodin’s “The Kiss.”