Bryan Caplan  

Nature, Nurture, and Me in the NYT

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Check out Motoko Rich's new piece on nature and nurture in the NYT.  Academics often complain that journalists treat them unfairly, but once again, that's not my experience.  Highlight:

Professor Heckman pointed to research showing that moving children from bad home environments to more loving and stable ones improves their cognitive performance and emotional health. Studies of children adopted from Romanian orphanages, for example, show that the earlier they were adopted, the more likely they were to have normal adulthoods.

In an interview, Professor Caplan said he did not dispute that better parenting could change the lives of children living in abject conditions. But "from the point of view of parents who are interested in a parenting book," he said, "knowing that you should not send your kid to a horrible orphanage is not very interesting, because you weren't thinking of doing that."

The qualification in the last paragraph appears with much greater detail in my book.  It would have been easy to omit it to make me look foolish, but the NYT took the high road.   If my critics are half as careful, I'll count myself lucky.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Ted writes:

I think you are making a point that isn't nearly brought up enough in the debates about nature versus nurture. Too often people trot out outrageous environmental variables to ask you if they matter (I once had a professor ask me if then being a child sex slave for 10 years would matter for future outcomes ...). I think the point needs to be made more often that people who support a more nature-oriented interpretation are talking within a reasonably restricted environmental set. I doubt being a "tiger mom" versus being more low-key makes much difference for future economic or social outcomes. But I think it's obvious extreme environment situations (like child prostitution, horrible Romanian orphanages etc.) can affect future outcomes. Most of us are talking about environmental parameters within a reasonable range of respectable parenting styles in the developed world. Too often that is lost in the debate and those who want to argue for nurture tend to trot out absurd counterexamples.

Vipul Naik writes:

The article also misses two point that I don't think is made often enough: one, the existence of "unique environment" or "non-shared environment" which doesn't fall inside either "nature" or "nurture" as conventionally viewed. Two, the distinction between short-run effects of parenting and long-run effects of parenting (i.e., after fade out is taken into account). You deal with these pretty extensively in the book, so it's surprising that the article fails to even mention these issues.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

note to self: don't send kids to Romanian orphanages. Got it.

tx

Buzzcut writes:

Let me second what Vipul said, and expound on it.

Heckman mentions the Romanian orphanage example, but it could be that nurture (or lack of it) is not the causal variable. It could be the elusive "non-shared environment".

In fact, when you really think about that Romanian orphanage, wouldn't the non-shared environment be the more likely causal variable?

mobile writes:

Bryan, you have twins, right? In the cause of social science, did you ever consider giving one of them up for adoption. Think about how much we could learn if one child got routed through a Guatemalan adoption agency, or even if you made an open adoption arrangement with Amy Chua.

(Even if you didn't consider it at the time, you should still keep the idea around to make your job as a parent easier -- don't bribe and threaten them to do their homework and practice their piano, just tell them that whoever screws up the most this semester is going to wind up in a wicker basket on Will Wilkinson's doorstep.)

Floccina writes:

Ted makes a good point. I take it further I know poor people, middle class people and rich people. Further I know blacks and I do not see them as bad parents. I just do not see huge intellectual differences in how 95% of Americans raise their children. The other side is left saying vocabulary of parents makes a huge difference, that is hard to believe.

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