Cherry Picked Lists Aren’t Good

Connor Kilpatrick has an article in Jacobin called “It’s Okay to Have Children.’

It’s not a illegitimate topic per se. Whether to have children, when to have them, how many to have, whether we should have policies promoting or discouraging having children, etc. are all perennial and sometimes interesting topics.

Ex ante, I’m pretty skeptical that Kilpatrick is a good choice for such a piece. Katha Pollitt doesn’t like it which is a bad sign:

Some Twitterers complained about Pollitt’s tweet (“Where exactly is the substantive criticism of this piece here? Just saying that it’s sexist doesn’t cut it. This is the best thing I’ve read all year.” This “substantive criticism” line is echoed by the editor of the piece.)

Sometimes, even for stuff from suspect sources, I like to verify criticism I see, so I went to read the piece. I got stuck very early:

In the Guardian alone, the past two years have seen headlines such as “Would you give up having children to save the planet? Meet the couples who have”; “Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children”; “‘It’s the breaking of a taboo’: the parents who regret having children,” “Want to save your marriage? Don’t have kids.” In the New York Times, “No Children Because of Climate Change? Some People Are Considering It.” At Business Insider, “7 reasons people shouldn’t have children, according to science.” And this new logic is quickly making its way through liberal culture writ large: “Feminist funnywoman Caitlin Moran says the planet doesn’t need your babies.

It’s hard not to get the message. Yet it seems to be falling on deaf ears.

It’s clear that this pile o’ links is meant to make the reader think there’s a pretty overwhelming trend. The article is a bit sneaky though “the Guardian alone, the past two years” and ” quickly making” and “liberal question writ large” all are intended to make us think it’s a big, widly held, nigh consensus view on the left, at least in the intelligencia. Indeed, there is a message, it’s not hard to get.

But why the past two years? Why the GuardianNew York Times, and Business Insider? (Are these all liberal in any real sense?) Why 4 from the Guardian, but only 1 each from the other two? At least one of the Guardian articles (“‘It’s the breaking of a taboo’: the parents who regret having children,”) isn’t anti-natalist per se it’s about people who regret having children and how it’s socially difficult to feel or express that regret. It’s also about how sexism shapes the experience of motherhood:

When Emma was four months old, she was offered a freelance job that involved a lot of foreign travel. The reaction from friends was discouraging. “Is any job really more important than being a mother? Don’t you have a husband?” people asked. “A mother suffers when she is away from her children, and it’s a crucial time for a child, developmentally. You ought to be there.” (“How, then, do fathers cope with missing these crucial stages?” Fischer grumbles. “Besides, I’m broke.”) “Well, it’s your own fault,” her husband told her. “It was your decision.”

Note that the clear overwhelming social pressure is for parenthood, esp. for women to be the right kind of mothers:

Fischer’s book was prompted by a study carried out by Israeli sociologist Orna Donath, described by the newspaper Haaretz as “the face of the non-parenting movement”. Regretting Motherhood: A Sociopolitical Analysis comprised interviews with 23 anonymous Israeli women sharing their regrets about having children, and the extreme social pressure they felt, whether or not they were cut out for motherhood. “I’m not alone!” Fischer remembers thinking.

Andrew G Marshall is a British relationship therapist and author of many books. He says he has never had a client tell him outright that they regretted having children. “It is the biggest taboo. The sheer terror is what parents tell me about. The internet has created this child-worship, where anything beyond obsessive motherhood is bad motherhood. But it’s perfectly acceptable to be an individual, to ask ‘What’s my life’s meaning?’ and not feel it can only be your children.”

It’s hard to imagine an article entitled “It’s Okay to Have Children” which is remotely responsive to this article which describes people who regret being parents and felt a lot of pressure to be parents. Indeed, Kilpatrick refers to “the message” as “this misanthropic anti-natalism.” That’s just wrong and rather awful mis-statement.

So, right there. Here you go. A substantive criticism. He cites a piece which is not remotely, in any tenuous way, expressing misanthropic anti-natalism as such and never engages with the content of that article. It’s just a prop. I’m skeptical that either Kilpatrick or the editor read it.

But let’s go a bit further. Is the Guardian a hotbed of anti-natalism (misanthropic or otherwise)? Let’s do a quick study. Let’s consider the same time frame (2 years). I’ll use Google with a simple search “site:https://www.theguardian.com/ “don’t have children” (this biases toward Kilpatrick’s thesis). I’ll just look at the first two pages, excluding links more than two years old. I’ll mostly look at the title and excerpt fragments on Google. We’ll code them as pro-, anti-, neutral, and childfree-positive. The last is to distinguish articles which recommend not having children vs. those which are just about people who happen not to want children. That the latter are lumped in with a misanthropic anti-natalism is part of the standard injustice toward them. In any case, here’s the first page of results:

  1. ‘The desire to have a child never goes away’: how the involuntarily (pro)
  2. Would you give up having children to save the planet? Meet the (anti)
  3. What’s it to you if some people don’t have kids? | Barbara Ellen (childfree-positive)
  4. If you have no children, who will care for you when you’re old? | Sonia (pro)
  5. My partner didn’t want children. I did. Then I got pregnant… (pro)
  6. Read this before you have a baby (especially if you’re a woman) (anti to neutral)
  7. Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children (anti)
  8. Help! I’m almost 30 and my friends are procreating like humanity (neutral)

2 of the first 10 (sorted by relevance) were out of the date range.

So the total is 3 pro, 1.5 are neutral, 2.5 are anti, and 1 is childfree-positive.

The .5 (#6) anti is really a collection of stats that show that mothers are symmetrically burdened. That’s not really anti.

Even the antis aren’t what Kilpatrick needs. Consider 2, it’s primarily reporting on anti-natalism, not championing it. And a lot of the anti-natalists aren’t misanthropic at all:

The last thing [Münter] wants to do is make parents feel guilty, or to shut them out of the conversation. Procreation, after all, is natural. And if you have two children, you are only replacing their parents, rather than adding extras. But if you’re not yet a parent and can’t suppress your parental instincts, says Münter, “my ask is that you consider adopting one of the 153m orphan children that are already on the planet and need a home. Or, if you are dead set on having your own, my hope would be that you just have one and then if you want more, adopt.” Ultimately, she says, “your kids and your kid’s kids will be the ones who benefit from humans deciding to slow down our rate of growth. It will slow down climate change, ocean acidification, cutting down the wild places.”

Despite being a supporter of VHEMT [Voluntary Human Extinction Movement], Angela wouldn’t call herself an antinatalist, because she associates it with negative feelings towards humankind. “I don’t, on a human level, resent people who have kids. That wouldn’t be constructive at all. Both my sisters have children.”

Indeed, a fair bit of the article is about being child-free positive.

And 7, in spite of the headline, is about a study about the carbon impact of various activities. Having a kid is high impact, as one might expect. But:

“We recognise these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has,” said Nicholas [one of the researchers on the team]. “It is our job as scientists to honestly report the data. Like a doctor who sees the patient is in poor health and might not like the message ‘smoking is bad for you’, we are forced to confront the fact that current emission levels are really bad for the planet and human society.”

“In life, there are many values on which people make decisions and carbon is only one of them,” she added. “I don’t have children, but it is a choice I am considering and discussing with my fiance. Because we care so much about climate change that will certainly be one factor we consider in the decision, but it won’t be the only one.”

These are the best case for Kilpatrick’s thesis and they are terrible for it. Utterly horrible. I’m pretty skeptical that there’s a broad based misanthropic anti-natalism on the liberal left, but Kilpatrick certainly hasn’t established even a prima facie case.

I think we have good reason not to read this article.