I will never forget a lesson my 7th grade science teacher taught on reading the fine print. She presented research linking artificial sweeteners and cancer in lab rats.
There’s something about the words ‘research’, ‘lab’, and ‘study’ that makes things sound so believable, isn’t there? The same goes for statistics. Nearly 87% of the lab rats contracted terminal cancer within 2 years of first ingesting the artificial sweetener aspartame on a daily basis.**
Our science teacher then went on to tell us how the lab rats were fed their body weight in artificial sweetener daily. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met anyone who drank 168,000 cans of Diet Coke per day. That’s right. I did the calculation.
My engineer of a husband likes to quote a college professor of his who also taught a valuable lesson: correlation does not imply cause and effect. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to remind a co-worker of this basic principle. It can be a tough one to remember.
One of my favorite examples was put forth by Steven D. Levitt, the economist, in Freakonomics. He found a strong correlation between the number of books in a child’s household and the child’s standardized test scores. Isn’t it so tempting to assume causation? The data, however, held no correlation between standardized test scores and actual books read.
All of this is to say – be wary of what you read. Scrutinize. If something sounds alarming, look for the fine print. Or as I like to say, “Show me the data.”
A few weeks ago I read an article referencing studies that, “show a decline in the well-being of American children over the past 50 years.” I cringe. Not for the decline in the well-being of American children, but for the absurdity of that statement.
Pray tell me who facilitated this 50 year long experiment. I’d love to hear how “well-being” was quantified and measured. Let’s pretend for a minute that there was actually a “study”, that this was anything more than someone’s opinion. Now tell me how anyone could possibly go about determining why.
Let’s all help each other out and refrain from backing up our parenting decisions with ridiculous assertions.
**I totally made this statistic up while writing this post.