Putin, Adoption, and the Power of Anecdotes

by Benjamin Studebaker

In recent days, there has been some uproar in the United States over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to end American adoption of Russian children. The reaction in the United States has been emotional and vitriolic, with much anger and condemnation of the law, claiming that it is a politically  reaction to an American law that placed sanctions on a number of Russian officials. What has not been examined in any great detail is why the Russians chose to react with this particular law. Today I aim to figure out why that is.

The Russian government could have responded with any kind of punitive anti-American law to achieve its purpose. It did not need to choose to end adoptions of Russian children by Americans. Any number of punitive, nasty, spiteful policies would have done the job. So why this one?

It turns out that there was actually a freeze on adoptions of Russian children by Americans instituted by Russia back in 2010 as a result of this incident in which an adopted Russian child was sent back to Russia on a transatlantic flight by himself because his American adopter decided that she no longer wanted him. This came alongside a litany of high profile cases of abuse of Russian children by their American adopters. The Russians were furious, ran with this case, and instituted the freeze. Since then, an agreement was hashed out between the US and Russia over a period of two years in which the United States was made to agree to a series of safeguards for adopted children in exchange for an end on the freeze. That treaty was ratified in July 2012, and took effect only a few weeks ago.  So when the Russian government wanted to find a way to throw sand in the eyes of the United States, the most convenient issue at hand was the one of adoption. Russia could just chuck the agreement and the years of diplomatic work that had gone into it right out the window and make the freeze into a permanent ban. So that is precisely what happened.

What I find so fascinating about this incident is that it all comes back to the Russian child who was shipped back to Russia. That incident was the last straw, the one that created the freeze, and it led to this issue being readily on hand when the Russian government wanted a stick with which to smack the US in the face. It speaks to the power of anecdotes–individual incidents or narratives that extract emotional reactions. In my reading of the adoption issue, I can find no single comprehensive statistical study of what the outcomes of American adoptions of Russian children are. No one has taken this data, no one knows if these incidents are one-offs or if they are common. I certainly agree with the notion that adoptive parents should be thoroughly checked, that abusive parenting for Russian citizens cannot be tolerated by the Russian government, but to respond emotionally to a single case rather than to any well documented statistical tendency is not logical.

Arguing from an anecdote is generally a fallacy. Consider the argument the Russian government was making:

  1. Here we have a small number of cases in which Russian children adopted by Americans were abused.
  2. Therefore, most Russian children adopted by Americans are at risk of abuse.
  3. Therefore, Americans should never be permitted to adopt Russian children.

Arguing from a single anecdote and then generalising out is inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is inherently unscientific. We cannot derive general principles from specific cases. Think of the same kind of argument in a different context:

  1. A small number (though much larger than the number of abused Russian children) of people die in car accidents.
  2. Therefore, most people are at risk of dying in car accidents.
  3. Therefore, people should never be permitted to drive cars.

If it were true that most people really were likely to die if they drove cars, then it really would follow that we shouldn’t drive. But of course this isn’t true–while a minority of people who drive do get injured or die, most of us do not, and the benefits of driving are, to most of us, worth the risk. In any adoption situation, there is a chance that things do not go well, that the parent and child do not get along well, that abuse occurs, and so on down the line. Despite this, it remains statistically the case that a child who is adopted is more likely to enjoy a good life outcome than a child raised in an orphanage. That does not change just because the odds played out the wrong way in a small number of cases. It is inevitable that the odds will play out the wrong way from time to time, that does not mean that we change everything about how we live.

To hit home the illogical nature of this kind of argument, let me provide one more example:

  1. The sky is cloudy today.
  2. Therefore, the sky is generally cloudy.

The second point dose not follow from the first. Just because it is cloudy on one given day does not mean it will usually be cloudy. Just because some people die in car accidents does not mean that most of us will. Just because adoption goes wrong for an unlucky few does not mean that the whole thing is a net bad.

This is not a uniquely Russian problem. I read of some people who changed their minds on gun violence in response to the Newton school shooting. Now, personally, I’m in support of gun control. But I’m not in support of gun control because of this anecdote, this specific incident, I’m in support of it because statistically, countries with strong control laws are substantially safer than countries without them. To argue, as some did, that this specific mass shooting, or other similarly rare occurrences, is an argument for gun control, is illogical. A well-argued general theory that is logically sound cannot be refuted by a single anecdote, especially if said theory is supported by empirical data verifying its claims. People who genuinely believed in the theory that gun control was a bad idea should not have been convinced by the school shooting. They should, perhaps, have been convinced by my statistics, but not by the anecdote alone.

It is interesting how often you find arguments from anecdotes, claims based on very specific cases with no supporting wider theory or empirical evidence, in arguments today. If you start to look for them, you see them everywhere.  Why did we revolutionise the way airport security was conducted? Because of 9/11, a single anecdote that flew in the face of decades of statistics showing that terrorists do not frequently commandeer airplanes and fly them into buildings. Why would gun control laws make no difference to the incidence of gun violence? Because there was this one guy in China who killed 20-something people with a knife. People are predisposed to misunderstand how probability and risk work. If there is any risk, any probability, of something bad happening, then, given enough time, it will eventually happen. Its happening does not change the probabilities going forward, it does not change the amount of risk. Your children are just as safe at school as they were last month, you are just as safe on a plane as you were on September 10th, and knives are just as much less dangerous than guns as they were the other day. People like to throw up counter-examples, but if those counter-examples are contradicted by statistics, by studies of large numbers of incidents, of probabilities, then they have no value, and they should not be convincing to you, to me, or to Vladimir Putin.