Tuesday, August 03, 2004

causality bites

NYT article on the evils of television. Among the Bad Things attributed to television:
"Other problems associated with excessive television viewing are poor sleep quality and a greater likelihood of taking up smoking. A study two years ago by the Center for Child Health Outcomes in San Diego found that children aged 10 to 15 who watched five or more hours of television a day were six times as likely to start smoking as those who watched less than two hours a day."
The last sentence here is intended to drive home the point of what a vast and pervasive evil television view is for children, when what it really drives home is how vastly and pervasively suspect are studies of the effect of television viewing. If excessive television viewing by youth itself causes smoking, and if such television viewing is on the rise, then it would seem puzzling that teen smoking has been on the decline during this same time. It's not impossible, but it would imply that the decline in teen smoking would be much, much steeper if not for the wicked tobacco-luring influence of television. Given that it seems non-obvious (at least to me) of why television viewing per se should have a massive influence on smoking, it seems more plausible to me to chalk this up to spuriousness--due to some likely-amorphous set of other reasons, the same kids who are more likely to watch a whole lot of television are more likely to start smoking, but the probability of these kids starting to smoke would be not much affected if all television everywhere suddenly vanished tomorrow.*

One might protest that the article doesn't claim that excessive television viewing causes people to smoke, just that the two are "associated." But I consider this a crime of cryptocausality, because the sentence is only relevant in its context if read with the angle that television viewing is somehow causing the smoking. I should add "associated" to the most-despised-word list on my sidebar--especially since I recently put "theory" on there--but there are about nine zillion other ways of expressing cryptocausality and I don't have the wrathful energy needed to despise them all.

* Technically speaking, their probability of starting to smoke would in fact decrease if television suddenly disappeared, but this is only because civilization as we know it would completely collapse, setting neighbor clawing against neighbor in a spontaneous apocalyptic battle of unprecedently brutality, fought simply because people had no idea what else to do with their time, and lasting until all buildings were in ruins, all streets were soaked red with blood, and there were no smokes to be found in any convenience store, anywhere.

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