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Science and ethics shouldn’t be muddled (or, advice for Jesse Bering).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Jesse Bering’s advice column is provoking some strong reactions. Most of these suggest that his use of evolutionary psychology in his answers lacks a certain scientific rigor, or that he’s being irresponsible in providing what looks like scientific cover for adult men who want to have sex with pubescent girls.

My main issue is that the very nature of Jesse Bering’s column seems bound to muddle scientific questions and ethical questions.

In response to this letter:

Dear Jesse,
I am a non-practicing heterosexual hebephile—and I think most men are—and find living in this society particularly difficult given puritanical, feminist, and parental forces against the normal male sex drive. If sex is generally good for both the body and the brain, then how is a teen having sex with an adult (versus another teen) bad for their mind? I feel like the psychological arguments surrounding the present age of consent laws need to be challenged. My focus is on consensual activity being considered always harmful in the first place. Since the legal notions of consent are based on findings from the soft sciences, shouldn’t we be a little more careful about ruining an adult life in these cases?
—Deep-thinking Hebephile

Jesse Bering offers:

  • The claim that “there are few among us who aren’t the direct descendents of those who’d be incarcerated as sex offenders today”.
  • A pointer to research on men’s measurable penile response to sexualized depiction of very young teenagers.
  • A comment that “there’s some reason to believe that a hebephilic orientation would have been biologically adaptive in the ancestral past”.
  • A mention of the worldwide variations in age-of-consent laws as indicative of deep cultural disagreements.
  • A pointer to research that “challenge[s] the popular notion that sex with underage minors is uniformly negative for all adolescents in such relationships” (although it turns out the subjects of this research were adolescent boys; given cultural forces acting on boys and girls, this might make a difference)
  • An anecdote about a 14-year-old boy who got to have sex with a prostitute before being killed by the Nazis in a concentration camp, and about how this made his father happy.
  • A comment that “Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin relocated to French Polynesia to satisfy his hebephilic lust with free-spirited Tahitian girls” in the 19th Century, but that now in the 21st century there’s less sympathy for this behavior.

And this is advice?*

Let’s pick up on just one strand of the scientific information referenced in Jesse Bering’s answer. If there exists scientific research that suggests that your trait is shared by others in the population, or that your trait may have been an adaptive one for your ancestors earlier in our evolutionary journey, what exactly does that mean?

Does it mean that your trait is a good one for you to have now? It does not.

Indeed, we seem to have no shortage of traits that may well have helped us dodge the extinction bullet but now are more likely to get us into trouble given our current environment. (Fondness for sweets is the one that gets me, and I still have cookies to bake.) Just because a trait, or a related behavior, comes with an evolutionary origin story doesn’t make it A-OK.

Otherwise, you could replace ethics and moral philosophy with genetics and evolutionary psychology.

Chris Clarke provides a beautiful illustration of how badly off the rails we might go if we confuse scientific explanation with moral justification — or with actual advice, for that matter.

This actually raises the question of what exactly Jesse Bering intends to accomplish with his “advice column”. Here’s what he says when describing the project:

Perhaps in lieu of offering you advice on how to handle your possibly perverted father-in-law who you suspect is an elderly frotteur, or how to be tactful while delicately informing your co-worker that she smells like a giant sewer rat, I can give you something even better—a peek at what the scientific data have to say about your particular issue. In other words, perhaps I can tell you why you’re going through what you are rather than what to do about it. I may not believe in free will, but I’m a firm believer that knowledge changes perspective, and perspective changes absolutely everything. Once you have that, you don’t need anyone else’s advice.

And good advice is really only good to the extent it aligns with actual research findings, anyway. Nearly two centuries worth of data in the behavioral sciences is available to inform our understanding of our everyday (and not so everyday) problems, yet rarely do we take advantage of this font of empirical wisdom…

That’s not to say that I can’t give you a piece of my subjective mind alongside the objective data. I’m happy to judge you mercilessly before throwing you and your awkward debacle to the wolves in the comments section. Oh, I’m only kidding—kind of. Actually, anyone who has read my stuff in the past knows that I’m a fan of the underdog and unconventional theories and ideas. Intellectual sobriety has never been a part of this blog and never will be, if I can help it, so let’s have a bit of fun.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Officially, Jesse Bering says he’s not offering advice, just information. It may end up being perspective-changing information, which will lead to the advice-asker no longer needing to ask anyone for advice. But it’s not actually advice!

As someone who teaches strategies in moral decision-making, I will note here that taking other people’s interests into account is absolutely central to being ethical. One way we can get a handle on other people’s interests is by asking others for advice. And, we don’t usually conceive of getting information about others and their interests as a one-shot deal.

On the point that good advice ought to align with “actual research findings,” I imagine Jesse Bering is taking actual research findings as our best current approximation of the facts. It’s important to recognize, though, that there are some published research findings that turn out to have been fabricated or falsified, and others that were the result of honest work but that have serious methodological shortcomings. Some scientific questions are hard. Even our best actual research findings may provide limited insight into how to answer them.

All of which is to say, it seems like what might really help someone looking for scientific information relevant to his personal problem would be a run-down of what the best available research tells us — and of what uncertainties still remain — rather than just finding some quirky handful of studies.

Indeed, Jesse Bering notes that he’s a fan of unconventional theories and ideas. On the one hand, it’s good to put this bias on the table. However, it strikes me that his recognition of this bias puts an extra obligation on him when he offers his services to advice seekers: an obligation to cast a heightened critical eye on the methodology used to conduct the research that supports such theories and ideas.

And maybe this comes back to the question of what the people writing to Jesse Bering for advice are actually looking for. If they want the comfort of knowing what the scientists know about X (for whatever X it is the writer is asking about), they ought to be given an accurate sense of how robust or tenuous that scientific knowledge actually is.

As well, they ought to be reminded that what we know about where X came from is a completely separate issue from whether I ought to let my behavior be directed by X. Scientific facts can inform our ethical decisions, but they don’t make the ethical questions go away.

*Stephanie Zvan offers the best actual response to the the letter-writer’s request for advice, even if it wasn’t the answer the letter-writer wanted to hear.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jessicaholvert 1:33 pm 12/24/2011

    I’ve been following this story with interest too. But one thing you failed to put in “bold for emphasis” is this part from Bering’s response to the letter writer: “too many minors are hideously abused, raped, and exploited sexually—a fact to be met with merciless fury and disdain.”

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  2. 2. TeamBonoboA_Go_Go 3:01 pm 12/24/2011

    Perhaps tangential, but still relevant: I don’t think there is a proper dismissal of science from ethics and tend to agree with Sam Harris in the Moral Landscape.

    Science informs humans, ethicists and nonethicists alike.

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  3. 3. PalMD 11:31 pm 12/24/2011

    He is implying that there are situations where pedophilia is not harmful.

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  4. 4. jessicaholvert 9:40 am 12/25/2011

    @PalMD. No. he. is. not. He is pointing to published scientific data *confirming* that *some* teenagers are not mentally traumatized by sexual relationships with adults. This is NOT pedophilia. Does this girl look like a victim?

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  5. 5. PalMD 4:51 pm 12/26/2011

    IOW, you also feel that pedophilia can be good. Did I get that right?

    There is some published scientific evidence that distant prayer healing works. Wanna believe in that one too?

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  6. 6. TeamBonoboA_Go_Go 7:21 pm 12/26/2011

    Wow. Anger, party of one.

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  7. 7. TeamBonoboA_Go_Go 1:29 pm 12/27/2011

    Well thinkning more about this subject I’ve summed up my feelings like this:

    Attacking Jesse on this subject to demand rigor without providing rigor in return is not only hypocrisy, but also uselss. Unless you’ve ‘settled the science’? Even then, I don’t see any counterclaim- sticking one’s neck out with a solid counter opinion. No, and that’s hyocrisy and a degree of cowardice.

    The nice thing for many- like this author- about separating science from ethics is that it frees one to provide less support. The concept of knowledge- in its many forms and degrees of certaint- for many however lies in the realm of the scientific- if even the soft scientific.

    So, one *should* as a scientist expect to see rigor in a an argument regarding consent: the nature of it in this context, psychic damage, precision and consistency in the age of consent, safe harbor, socialization & norms, education and government intervention in restricting reproductive rights, etc.

    Separately these are all pretty involved & complex topics, so better get goin’ if you’re truly interested in giving a response that appeals to the scientific mind rather than just yet another appeal to emotion.

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  8. 8. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 4:36 pm 12/27/2011

    TeamBonoboA_Go_Go @7:

    My issue (as I said in my post) is that what the scientific facts are and what we (whether as individuals or collectively as communities) decide to do in response to those facts are different things. Science can tell us something about how things are, but cannot on its own tell us what to value.

    No matter where you come down on a particular scientific matter (or in your response to whether traits we have evolved are good for us or bad for us in our current environment, or on whether we should endeavor to change that environment, or what have you), conflating science and ethics is not a good thing to do.

    Further, given that the project of scientific knowledge-building is ongoing, and that our scientific knowledge at any given moment is necessarily incomplete, I’m calling for more care in acknowledging the gappy state of our knowledge, and, while we’re at it, in taking account of how ethics should guide how we deal with the uncertainties. Who gets hurt most if we’re wrong about what we think we know and we let that “knowledge” guide our policies? Who gets hurt most if we don’t let our best current research on a particular question guide our policies? What are the relative magnitudes of the harms we may be trading off here? Are some of them likely to fall more heavily on a group that already bears a lot of harms?

    These questions are surely connected to the state of our scientific knowledge, but they are ethical questions. Which means that trotting out a selection of scientific studies as enlightening without recognizing that these ethical questions ought to be addressed by anyone who intends to apply the research to decision-making is problematic, to say the least.

    Also, if you are in search of relevant research on hebephilia and its impacts on young teenagers, Stephanie Zvan has put together a survey of it, with links.

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  9. 9. TeamBonoboA_Go_Go 11:32 am 12/28/2011

    @Janet- Saying science ‘shouldn’t’ be conflated w/ anything is an opinion that begs a lot of questions, for starters: why? explain your better method of how we best answer ethical questions than some science-oriented method of determination?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love democratic, concensus-seeking and participatory ethical decision-making, but mostly because it is based on good social science and game theory in terms of human well-being. Science may best describe physical and social reality, but in these terms, it turns out, science best prescribes as well.

    Finally, are you really satisfied with 1) Treating prepubescents & pubescents the same in this context as Stephanie does? and 2) The links provided regarding pubescents? 3) Toward what end? The status quo w/ ethical imprecision and inconsistent state’s laws when it comes to what is generally thought of as a serious matter: govt intervention in privacy and reproductive rights?

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  10. 10. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 1:38 pm 12/28/2011

    TeamBonoboA_Go_Go @9:

    These science-oriented methods of which you speak themselves require sound ethical decision-making, something that is well-recognized by major scientific funders and scientific professional associations. And, if you really don’t understand why there’s a difference between the facts science can reveal to us and whether we should regard them as good things or bad things (e.g., things to be addressed by various sorts of interventions), then you probably need to find someone (maybe a science professor or a philosophy professor at a nearby community college) with the patience to help you work through that.

    As to the literature that Stephanie has linked, if you think other studies are more rigorous and relevant, that’s your call. In the absence of absolutely incontrovertible scientific evidence, though, it seems reasonable to me that laws (which are often made locally, via “participatory ethical decision making” that reflects the concerns of the people involved in these processes) err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting the well-being of more vulnerable members of our society, including people under 18. Apparently, it also seems so to the people making many of these laws.

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  11. 11. TeamBonoboA_Go_Go 2:41 pm 12/28/2011

    So, your appeal to authority combined with avoidance of the hard stuff is revealing that we should view your piece down up there w/ some fox news reporter who lacks subject matter expertise. Why should I trust the professor? why can’t I do the work myself?

    As a matter of fact, I’ve done the work and know that it’s fine that groups establish norms/laws re: rights, but violate and infinge in order to protect the rights of others. The studies don’t make the case well enough on this count- and the onus is on the remover of the ability to consent- as it is a fundamental right. And then you mention the age of 18, but we know the brain isnt done developing toward sound decision-making until 25, so by your logic, harm by healthy sex is possible within all societies unless we extend it out.

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  12. 12. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 2:44 pm 12/28/2011

    TeamBonoboA_Go_Go @11:

    You’re not really engaging with the issues raised in my post. I think you’ll need to find someplace else to have the conversation you seem to be interested in having.

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  13. 13. the Gaul 3:51 pm 12/31/2011

    Argument above is a typical “ethics” discussion, wherein one side touts its ‘ethics’ over that of another. But whether you like it or not, ethics are only the combined thoughts, feelings and actions of individuals – many, if not most, of whom diverge from the collective [society] in one area or another.

    A giant mistake is made attempting to equate scientific results with ethical behavior. If you want ethics, go to church. [though you would be hard pressed to find any religion that practices the ethics it expounds]

    As with virtually all psychology, pointless.

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