Friday, December 14, 2012

Hooked: Chapter 3 "The Developing Brain and Sex"

And here we go for another chapter of Hooked. Fortunately, chapter 3 will not require the three part shake down the previous chapter did.

Having established (to their satisfaction, not mine) their claims about the effects of neurotransmitters in relationships and the potential harms involved, the authors move on to expound upon the dangers of puppy love.

Thankfully, over 90% of the information they provide on the subject is quite interesting and true. Better yet, they cite many reputable sources in support: Nature Neuroscience, Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health, Journal of Neurophysiology, among others. They provide a brief sketch of mirror neurons, the development process of the prefrontal cortex, our needs as members of a social species, fMRI studies, PET scans, and other aspects of teen psychology that are all relatively non-controversial and by my estimation kosher with reality.While the authors have demonstrated in the past that they aren't above misrepresenting reputable sources I have no reason to doubt the validity of these claims.

Were it not for the other 10%, I could simply conclude here. But alas, they kept going.

This chapter highlights Hooked's method of assigning it copious amount of footnotes very well, so I feel obliged to expand on the subject. Chapter 3 is 20 pages long in very large print, and it contains 54 footnotes. As I mentioned above, a good number of them come from reputable sources like Nature. But these reputable sources are often used to support statements that are either so non-controversial as to be common knowledge or background knowledge that does not directly support the argument.

It also clearly demonstrates that unlike creationist authors, for example, they appear perfectly aware of and literate in the best scientific journals available. So when they step off the peer reviewed reservation into bizzaro world literature in an effort to support their claims, the contrast stands out like a watch in the desert.

For example, here is a passage where Nature Neuroscience was cited:
"The part of the brain that controls the ability to make fully mature judgment decisions is not physically mature until an individual reaches his mid-twenties. In other words, the part of a brain that is responsible for complex assessments about future consequences and responsibility is still growing throughout the teen years and into the mid-twenties." -Hooked pg 51
Why yes, the brain does continue to develop as you grow up. Absolutely true, though fairly common knowledge now. Contrast the above passage with the following claim, which cites the same journal:
"While young people can make some good judgment calls for themselves, it is impossible for them to make fully mature judgment decisions until their mid-twenties, when their brains are finally mature.[Neuroscience footnote here]
One of the best and most understandable evidences of this observation is that car rental companies will not rent their cars to a person under the age of twenty-five unless special arrangements have been made or a higher rate is charged. The reason given by these companies is that the risk of damage and destruction of their property is excessive when driven by younger drivers, regardless of education or employment." 
-Hooked pg 51-2. Emphasis added
While it is true that the brain is not physically mature until late twenties, it is another matter altogether to claim it is impossible to make fully mature judgment decisions before then.  More difficult? Sure. Less likely? Certainly, but impossible? Hooked has developed the bad habit of taking well accepted data and drawing exaggerated or oversimplified conclusions.

Also note how suddenly the quality of evidence shifts from Nature to rent-a-car companies. Really? That was the best evidence you could think of? The fact that younger drivers are less practiced drivers doesn't have anything to do with higher insurance rates? Okay...

Another form of odd footnoting is the demographic data that doesn't appear to be related to the argument or support it. Take this passage:
"The point here is that if young people are not guided by parents, mentors, and other caring adults, but make their own decisions based on these less than optimal types of bonding, they often make poor decisions." - Hooked pg. 54
The citation given for this is high school dropout rate census data tabulated by race and age. How does that have any bearing on the claim that chemical bonding due to sex leads to poor decision making? Again, we have a truly reputable source (the US Census Bureau) being cited where it appears to have no bearing on the passage.

But finally, as we've seen in previous chapters, when the authors need direct support for their more questionable claims they abandon peer review altogether and turn to popular writings or studies from their own research group or groups with like ideologies. Some old friends return in this chapter, including The Female Brain, the Heritage Foundation, and the Institute for American Values, along with some newcomers like Touchstone magazine.

The Touchstone article is entitled "Designed for Sex: What We Lose When We Forget What Sex Is For" and it hurtles the naturalistic fallacy as though it were a crick. Here's just a clipping. Notice anything familiar?
Sex is like applying adhesive tape; promiscuity is like ripping the tape off again. If you rip it off, rip it off, rip it off, eventually the tape can’t stick anymore. ... 
Now, in a roundabout sort of way, I’ve just introduced you to the concept of natural law. Although the natural-law tradition is unfamiliar to most people today, it has been the main axis of Western ethical thought for 23 centuries, and in fact it is experiencing a renaissance. 
The hinge concept is design. I said that we’re not designed for hooking up, that we’re designed for our bodies and hearts to work together. We human beings really do have a design, and I mean that literally—not just a biological design, but an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual design. The human design is the meaning of the ancient expression “human nature.” Some ways of living comport with our design. Others don’t. - Touchstone Article
Hooked uses this article as a citation for the claim that having sex outside of marriage is "out of sync with human nature." Not only is this the naturalistic fallacy, it is question begging because they've defined "true" human nature to be only sex inside of marriage (which is hardly the natural state of human sexuality anyways). The assertion of natural law being the work of purposeful intelligent design (and therefore morally relevant I guess?) is popping up with increasing frequency.

Apart from frequently repeating their claims about oxytocin and sex being like cocaine, there is not much in the way of pseudoscience in this chapter. However, they do offer up more examples of how narrow their view of human sexuality is.
"It may sound blunt, but if we try to eliminate this connectedness from sex, we remove the uniquely human aspect of it, and the sexual act becomes nothing more than raw animal behavior. However, when this connectedness is allowed to mature in the context of a lifelong committed relationship, sex is a wonderful, sustaining expression of love." - Hooked, pg 62
So apparently if you're not married, sex cannot be based in love. It's just animal sex then.
 "Another negative consequence is that as young people experience these sexual relationships it affects their brains, molding them not only to damage their attachment ability but to become desensitized to the risk of short-term sexual relationships, eventually believing that this behavior is harmless and acceptable..." - Hooked, pg 56
Maybe they come to that conclusion because it is harmless and acceptable? Sure sex involves risk but those risks don't go away when you get married.
"The healthy progression of relationship strengthens the brain cell connections associated with 'attachment' of one person to another, helping to ensure the permanence of the relationship that finds its healthiest expression with sexual consummation in marriage." - Hooked, pg 56
In this case, they are using "healthiest" not as a medical term but as a moral supposition. They don't cite psychology journals for this claim, but a pop culture book called Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. I won't comment on it's quality because I haven't read it, but it's striking that when they start making health claims they leave the journals of health and science behind.
"Statistics show that if young people begin having sex when they are sixteen years old, more than 44% of them will have had five or more sexual partners by the time they are in their twenties. If they are older than twenty when they initiate sex, only 15 percent will have had more than five sexual partners, while just over 50 percent will have committed sexually to only one partner." - Hooked, pg 65
Sounds like fun! But no, Hooked frames having multiple partners as a destructive pattern of behavior that must be avoided. It's not a unique expression of one's sexuality, it's a bad decision that they will live to regret. And if they are continually told that it's a bad decision and called sluts and shamed for being open with their sexuality, that will become a self fulfilling prophecy.
"Sex practiced inappropriately can both control and damage the relationship. As on writer puts it, a nonmarital 'relationship is only as old as it is nonsexual. The relationship stops growing once it becomes sexual, because the erotic aspect will become the primary focus of [the couple's] time together.'" ... On the other hand, in a relationship of true love and long-term commitment, sex takes its appropriate place-not at the center of the relationship, but as one of the natural outcomes of the healthy connectedness of two people. Sex will then be a catalyst to the full, healthy, long-term committed relationship it strengthens." - Hooked, pg 69
They always contrast long-term monogamy or any other form of sexual relationship outside of marriage as a distinct category from Love (which they call "the real thing"). Marriage is not some magical entity that suddenly transmogrifies sex from an exclusively destructive force into love, just as age 25 doesn't magically and instantly make someone a mature human being able to make their own decisions.

By framing sex this way and asserting time and time again that sex outside of marriage is bad, harmful, and not even satisfying the authors seem to be making their point by percussion not persuasion. The element of self fulfilling prophecy here cannot be overstated. Teach children from birth until "two or three years after college" (as they recommend) that sex is something to be guilty about and they will grow up to believe it.

But I'm sorry, it's simply not true. Sex is not something to be ashamed of, to shy away from, to hide under a bushel. It is an important and central aspect of our humanity. For all the praise the authors give to what is natural, they seem to hold our natural tendencies in sexuality to be abhorrent.

And therein lies the danger of this book. They select the natural elements of our biology that agree with their preconceptions about sexuality, cite reputable scholarship to demonstrate that it is in fact natural, and then proceed to argue that it was designed that way to guide use towards the behavior of which they approve. But when our natural inclinations stray from the straight (I use the term advisedly) and narrow path as defined by their beliefs, then it's an unfortunate side effect and "not in sync" with the designer's purpose driven life.

This gives them an appearance of scholarly objectivity when in reality they have preselected the behaviors they wish to demonize. Fortunately, they are so transparent in their efforts that it is relatively easy for us to sort out the facts from the ideology.

Previous: Chapter 2: Meet the Brain (Part 3: Vasopressin)
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