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On Effects

Timothy Burke has posted one of the most sensible assessments I’ve seen of the problems with “effects” research, spurred on by the vastly over-reported study recently released suggesting a correlation between time spent in day care and “disruptiveness” in school. Burke extrapolates outward to think about the persistent problem of “media effects” research, which has for decades attempted to create causal links between a series of social problems and the consumption of media texts (i.e., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cause schoolchildren to kick one another, Marilyn Manson causes teenage suicide, violent videogames cause school shootings, and so forth). For whatever reason, I keep expecting us all to have moved beyond such simple causalities, and am always taken by surprise when any study suggesting that mode of cultural consumption x causes social problem y seems to achieve such wide purchase in the public imagination.

But then, by and large, we all want something to blame for such social problems other than ourselves, something external to our family structures and our under-supported schools, something that we can demonize without having to ask more difficult questions about our culture and its values and inequities. Burke concludes with a pledge that we could all bear to take:

Do not endorse research about social behavior or social psychology without first looking very carefully at the methodology and the effect size. If you would disregard the study on those grounds when it contradicts your own social views, disregard it when it endorses your views.

I’d add to this, though, that we might all bear growing a bit more skeptical about causality in general, resisting the suggestion that a correlation between phenomena can tell us anything more than that there’s a correlation between phenomena, particularly when the putative “effects” of the phenomena under study are, as Burke points out, “teeny-tiny.”


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