Friday, August 18, 2006


This editorial raises, again, the question of whether pornography is a "dangerous influence" that "causes crime". Let's look at the argument in a little more detail.
Those who profit from the production and sale of pornographic and violent material in magazines and books, on videos and television, argue that there is no evidence to prove that what they create can foster violence, child molestation, and sex crimes in those exposed to it. The ugly case of Craig Roger Gregerson, and what happened to 5-year-old Destiny Norton, is at least one convincing piece of evidence that it can and does.
So, first point: given one case of a self-proclaimed "porn addict" who commits a violent crime, we can conclude that pornography causes violent crime. Over-generalization is a formal fallacy, and unfortunately seems common, particularly when the case(s) generalized over are somehow shocking or emotionally significant. Generalization is an instance of inductive reasoning and is held to be (inductively) valid when the particulars generalized over are representative of the whole. One shocking case is hardly representative, for two reasons: first, it's only one case; and, second, the fact that it's shocking makes it unusual (i.e., non-representative).
It should not require a doctorate in psychology to understand that what we see and hear can influence our behavior.
But how it does so requires careful research, not trite homilies.
But if evidence is needed, there is serious research that proves this to be the case. For instance, the Rand Corp. in Pittsburgh has just published in the current issue of Pediatrics the results of a survey indicating that teens who listen to music full of raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs.
I debunked this study here. The study lacked any measure of "degrading" that was worth taking seriously.
This is a familiar echo of the plaint by some Hollywood movie and TV producers who argue that when they splatter their movies and TV productions with violence, profanity, and lurid sexuality, they are merely reflecting society as it is. To be asked to clean up their acts is an infringement upon their artistic freedom.
Oddly, this argument is never actually engaged with in the article. There certainly could be reasons to infringe on artistic freedom, particularly if there's demonstrable harm in allowing freedom to reign unchecked.
But as Corydon Hammond, codirector of the Sex and Marital Therapy Clinic at the University of Utah, says: "I don't think I've ever yet seen an adult sex offender who was not involved with pornography."
More over-generalization, combined, in this case, with cherry-picking the data. Unless Hammond has made a systematic study of all cases at her clinic, and has compared these cases to those who didn't self-select by coming to the Clinic, then there's good reason to suspect the sample is non-representative.
Judith Reisman, author of "The Psychopharmacology of Pictorial Pornography," sees a direct causal link between pornography and sex crimes. "In many cases I don't think we have any problem saying pornography caused [the sex offense]. We have tons of data," she writes.
That would be this Judith Reisman, who has tried to link homosexuality and pedophilia, who has attempted to critique Kinsey, and who has apparently perpetrated some blatantly-flawed scholarship. What a wonderful authority to appeal to. Moreover, although Reisman does hold a PhD, it is apparently in Communications, not Psychology.
Congress has attempted legislation seeking to control pornography but found it vetoed by courts claiming the legislation hobbled free speech. The courts, on copyright grounds, have outlawed the sale of videos in which distributors have edited out profanity or questionable scenes.
That is a violation of copyright, though. Except for quotes for review or critical purposes, an original work cannot legally be exhibited in altered form without the author's consent. Honestly, I'm not sure what point is being made here.
A new legislative attempt may require cable TV channels, where most questionable material appears, to carry a label warning of the offensiveness, but without deleting it, thus circumventing the free speech issue.
This is the only sensible comment made in the editorial. The more information viewers have at their disposal, the better able they are to make informed judgements about what they want to consume.
The Kaiser Foundation has undertaken extensive research on the amount of sex-oriented and violent programming on TV, and its impact on young viewers.
The point here is also obscure. It's not even clear which Kaiser Foundation is in question -- Googling the name gives two or three different organizations with similar names.
The watchdog Parents Television Council has campaigned vigorously against sex, violence, and profanity on television and in other media. It has lobbied against the cable industry's mandatory inclusion of questionable channels in omnibus packages offered to subscribers, arguing that subscribers should have the right to pick and choose individual channels.
The PTC was founded by L. Brent Bozell III and is well-known to wrestling fans for its bizarre attacks on WWE and its founder, the (thankfully) inimitable Vince McMahon. Bozell himself is best described here by SourceWatch, as a right-wing zealot with close connections to Bill Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Pat Bucahanan. In other words, we can explain the PTC's judgements equally well on the basis of puritanism as on the basis of fact. Lacking a corroborating source with less (or at least differing) ideological committments, their judgements cannot be taken as authoritative.

So, on the whole, we have an appalling bad argument, consisting of over-generalization, random comments with no clear argumentative merit, and appeals to highly-questionable "experts". There are good arguments against pornography; it's unfortunate that the Christian Science Monitor didn't bother to consult them.

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