Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Age Related Fertility Decline and the Link Between Facts and Policies

I recently heard a talk by a colleague on the issue of age related fertility decline. Her basic claim was that, although most women know it exists, most women badly underestimate how serious the problem is and how limited a solution assisted reproductive technology provides, with the result that many women who want children end up not having them. One policy proposal she offered was that sex education classes ought to include information on fertility decline. 

It struck me, listening to the talk, that in this case as in many others, the same facts can be used to support a wide range of different political conclusions. In this case ...

It sounded as though opposition to the idea of warning women about the risks, including criticism of the data on which the warnings were based, came largely from feminists concerned that such warnings would scare women out of career paths that included delayed motherhood. That is indeed one possible consequence. Pushing the argument further in that direction, one could argue that fertility decline is not only an argument in favor of the traditional family pattern, women marrying reasonably young and putting most of their efforts into the job of wife and mother, it is even an argument in favor of traditional sexual mores. In order for women to marry young there have to be men willing to marry them, and one reason why, in a more traditional society, men were willing to marry was that it was the only reliable way of getting sex. The more common and accepted nomarital sex is, the weaker that argument.

On the other hand ...

Someone with a different political orientation could use  the same facts to argue for a different set of conclusions. If waiting to have children until late in one's thirties or after risks never having them, and if having children earlier than that makes a serious career difficult or impossible under current circumstances, that might be an argument for changing those circumstances. If you take the desirability of career options for women as a given, fertility decline becomes a reason why husbands should do more of the work of taking care of children, employers be more willing to provide on site nurseries, offer extended periods of leave or part time work to new mothers, why social institutions should change to make it easier for women to combine career and motherhood before they get too old to make the latter a reliable option.

Similar considerations apply to the proposal to include information on fertility decline in sex education. As another member of the audience pointed out, that might make sex education more popular with conservatives, since it would be teaching how to have babies as well as how not to have them, the latter being how current sex education is often viewed.

On the other hand, one might argue that fully accurate information about fertility would have a perverse effect. Current campaigns pushing contraception leave the impression that unprotected sex is likely to lead to pregnancy, which is an argument both for contraception and against sex. Accurate information, as best I can tell by a little online search, would tell students that a single act of unprotected intercourse, randomly timed, has only about one chance in forty of resulting in pregnancy—less if the couple make an attempt to avoid the woman's fertile period. To adventurous teenagers, one chance in forty might look pretty safe, especially if they tell themselves that they are only going to try it once. So accurate information, not about fertility decline but about fertility, might easily produce an increase in the teen pregnancy rate.

My own conclusion from such considerations is that the best rule is to try to tell the truth. Whatever information you provide people, you cannot predict how they will use it, so trying to bias the facts to produce the result you want is quite likely not to work, might even have the opposite of the intended result. At least if you tell people the truth, you reduce one source of incorrect decisions.

Which is part of why I try, in my own writing, to give the arguments against my position as well as the arguments for. In support of which immodest claim I offer Chapter 55 from part V of the new third edition of my first book, which presents and discusses an argument against the stability of the set of institutions that I spent part III of the book describing and defending.


Anonymous said...

As far as a libertarian take on this goes, I think that in response to the first piece of information, the first argument is much more persuasive than the second, when it comes to trying to work out what most people would voluntarily choose. I say this because of the number of quotas and regulations and so on that are currently in place to try to force the second option, which still apparently doesn't happen anywhere near as much as the people who think it's the right answer seem to think it should. I think it's a reasonable expectation that due to the differences in what men and women, on average, find attractive, more women would prefer to be stay-at-home mothers than have their husband be a stay-at-home father.

With regards to the second piece of information, I've always found it funny how dishonest sex education is. I've taken this to be because of the assumed difference between what information is given and how people will respond to that information - that the belief is that teenagers are defiant and will always ignore what you tell them to a certain extent. So the necessity of contraception is exaggerated (remember, kids, always use a dental dam!) with the expectation that the teenagers receiving this information will ignore just enough of it such that they end up following the actual guidelines that they're 'supposed' to.

David Friedman said...

My standard example of how bad sex education was reported to me by my elder son. He went to a suburban Philadelphia public school. As he described it, the sex ed course treated AIDS as just another STD, with no explanation of differences in how it was transmitted.

My conjecture was that this was a response to political pressures from opposite sides. People on the right wanted to scare kids away from sex, which an incurable STD helped to do. People on the left wanted to keep AIDS from being identified as a gay disease, which hiding the fact that it was much more readily transmitted by anal than by vaginal sex helped do.

Power Child said...

The first question that comes to mind is, is it realistically possible to tell the truth to kids in a classroom setting and not get fired? For example, telling the truth, as you described it, about AIDS would probably at least get you a strong censure.

The other question that comes to mind is whether it is in fact wise to say that because you cannot predict how people (especially young people) will use information, you should not try to bias it to produce a desired result.

For one thing, it may be true that you cannot predict to a tee how people will use information, but much of the time you can predict how they will use it to a reasonably large extent, especially if you have some experience giving information to people and watching them respond (as teachers do).

For another thing, society works precisely because people are from a young age given a biased view of many facts of life. Without this biasing, the average person becomes more hedonistic and less conscientious. The biasing of facts helps counteract this massive aggregated prisoner's dilemma.

After all, biasing the facts to produce desired results indeed worked well for many generations, with the indirect result that the problem of age related fertility decline was a non-issue during that time.

Power Child said...

BTW, Peter Singer is a good example of someone whose philosophy seems to be to not bias any facts.

Fortunately, not even Peter Singer walks the Peter Singer talk.

Ricardo Cruz said...

Power Child, not sure what your point is. Peter Singer admits that he himself is indecent and an hypocrite according to his moral philosophy (he "only" gives away 20% of his income). Whether you agree or disagree with Peter Singer, he has an argumentation style very much in line of that of David Friedman, in that both present pros and cons of their thinking.

(By the way, you should keep in mind when reading Peter Singer that he sometimes is engaged in philosophy for philosophy sake. Many people have accused him of condoned bestiality for example, because he presented scholar arguments in favor of it, but he has said he is against it.)

Power Child said...


I thought my points were fairly clear:

1. I doubt the practicality of telling kids the truth in a classroom setting without getting fired.

2. It is often a good idea to bias facts to produce desired results.

If the person who comes up with a moral philosophy can't stick to it he shouldn't expect anyone else to, and a moral philosophy that nobody can be expected to stick to isn't worth the looney-bin stationery it's scribbled on.

My point about Singer, though, is that his moral philosophy is a good example of one based on this removal of bias and, if widely adopted, would yield apocalyptic or at least dystopian results.

TheVidra said...

Kids lo longer rely on their parents/educators for the truth. They have access to most human knowledge through the internet. How well they filter all that information remains to be seen but they still have access to more in depth information and I don't think they shy away from searching for a subject that matters to them.

Power Child said...


Do most kids these days use their computers for much besides gaming and social media?

Kids today may have access to "most human knowledge" but that is a very different thing from saying they are now more easily able to find the truth.

David Friedman said...

One cannot tell kids all truths, given the limits of time, and there are probably some truths that one cannot tell in a classroom setting without risk of being fired, although what they are surely varies from place to place.

On the other hand, it isn't clear that the pattern of fertility decline with age, which is what my colleague wants taught, is one such truth. It might even make sex education acceptable to a wider range of voters. I expect there are considerably more social conservatives than extreme feminists.

Unknown said...

I recently came across an article ( refering to a study ( of which I only read the abstract) you might find interesting. This made me lose hope about the influence of education on behavior.

JWO said...

And environmentalists might prefer it not be taught because they are hoping for fewer people in the world.

David Friedman said...

From the New Yorker piece:

"If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong."

Sounds like ordinary Bayesian updating.

They might have added, consistent with the observations, that if someone tells you something you are pretty sure isn't true, you lower your confidence that he is a reliable source of information. Again rational behavior.

A question they may not have thought about is what ways of persuading people work better when what you are persuading them of is true.