Monday, March 4, 2013

Stupid Intellectuals and the Dinner Miracle

I've said before that there is too much interest these days in "assessing" things and in "doing studies" to determine answers. There is a lot of sociological data-collection done in order to determine reasons for things or to determine causes of particular human actions. What there is not enough of is real thought -- personal, logical and sensitive explorations of human nature. We need more poets and fewer sociologists.

The Magic Pill!
Nothing illustrates this better than the statement that was made -- what? -- maybe a decade ago: that kids of families who eat dinner together are less likely to get involved with drugs.

Yeah, okay.

What I picture is a sociologist organizing his data. "Hey!" he says, calling his research team together. "I have noticed a trend! These kids who have never done seems that a huge percentage of them have something in common. They all have regular dinners together with their families. That must be why they have stayed off of drugs!"

These are the people (with the proper qualifications and degrees) who are drawing conclusions about important social issues like drug abuse and family life? These are the people we believe? The ones who are suggesting how we should raise our children?

It is a shame there wasn't just one stupid English major among them, like, say, me, to timidly raise a hand and say. "Uh...I don't have a sociology or a psychology degree, but...uh...I'm not sure it was the dinners, themselves. Dinner together is common among close, communicative families. Couldn't it be that familial closeness and openness are really the reasons these kids don't cave in to drugs? Not, just, you know, just the act of sharing a pork roast and a ten-minute conversation each day?"

Nope. It was dinner together that did it. It was announced and all the major news networks did shows on it; I'm sure Dr. Phil talked about it. I could almost see families across the world scrambling to assure the safety of their children from substance abuse: "Get in here, you little bastards. I said we are going to start eating together and I meant it. SIT. DOWN. We are going to eat as a family, starting now, and that is the end of it. You don't like it you can starve and then wind up taking drugs, you little losers."

Well, much to my surprise ("surprise," of course, must be smothered in a torrent of sarcasm) NPR announced, recently, that these studies might not have been as accurate as was thought.

"Our research shows that the benefits of family dinners are not as strong or as lasting as previous studies suggest," says [Kelly] Musick.
It may be that quality time spent together — away from the table — is just as beneficial as eating together.
Oh, may it? And we take these people seriously? I wonder how much those studies cost. 

Picard and Q

I just got finished watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, with my "Literature of Sci-fi and Fantasy Class." It was the final episode of the series. As with the opening episode, the crew are tested by "Q," who is an all-powerful alien. In the first episode, the crew had to gain access to explore the universe by proving to Q that they were not savage beasts. They won. In the final episode, he presents a deep intellectual challenge that charges Captain Picard with reversing a space anomaly that he has inadvertently created -- an anomaly that could result in the destruction of humanity; or, more accurately, the erasing of the human presence in history. Picard, of course, succeeds. He has passes the test. Q tells him:
"We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your horizons, and for the one brief moment, you did...for that one brief second, you were open to options you had never considered. That was the exploration, not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence."
That's the only way we are going to evolve, as humans. Gathering data into columns is not going to lead us to figuring out what makes for a happy, healthy life. It's not about figuring out where to insert the coin for the desired product.

The world is in danger when the "intellectuals" start turning insipid; when they start chasing magic pills.

We need to stop chasing answers and start chasing truth.


  1. To be fair, it's often not the intellectuals and their studies that are stupid, but the way in which they're reported to the public. I don't follow sociology much, but I do read about a lot of biological science research for my job, and my sister has a degree in nutrition (and hoo boy, you should hear her go off on those stories). We've both observed that the study itself often says something different that what's reported -- the researchers notice the possibility that family dinners tend to be characteristic of close-knit families with involved parents, for example -- but what's reported on the evening news is based on someone reading every third word of the abstract and deciding that "family dinners keep kids off drugs" makes a good headline.

    Then, 10-15 years later, someone does a metastudy of the family dinner studies, the family hiking expedition studies, the family softball team studies, etc., and says yep, all these studies point to the influence of close-knit families with involved parents in keeping kids off drugs, and the headline writers have to go back and change their headlines. The problem of course is that no news agency wants to admit that they wrote a bad headline, so they claim the new study shows something different.

    It's not that there aren't also badly designed and executed studies out there -- heaven knows there are -- but when even good studies are badly reported, it's hard for the general public to tell which is which. I don't accept any reporting of a scientific study anymore; I go read the study to see what it actually says (or in the case of nutrition studies, ask my sister what she thinks)

    And yes, "kids from close-knit families with involved parents are less likely to become addicts" seems like an obvious conclusion, but isn't science supposed to be about not leaping to obvious conclusions?

    1. Excellent point, 'nora. An imposrtant discinction between research and reoporting that hadn't occurred to me -- and that helps me to breathe a little easier when it comes to our researchers. So, we need to tighten up operations, which I know the news media will do because, as we know, they are only really interested in getting to the truth and woudl never be sensationalistic or haphazard in their work.Thanks for talking me off the ledge, at least a little...

    2. "Talking people off ledges" seems to be a thing I get to do at my job quite a lot; nice to know I can apply it outside the office, too. Also, as something of an egghead, I feel I must defend my kind when I can.

      The kindest thing I can say about the news media is they usually get the name of the journal where the study was published right, so you can go look it up for yourself.

    3. You know, though...the part of me that always keeps a toe on the ledge was just thinking: the researcher quoted in the NPR article did specifically reference that they had to reconsider -- that maybe it wasn't specifically dinner, but any time together. There's still a "duh" factor in the research...

    4. Yeah, it happens. Even eggheads can be dumb sometimes, or miss something that, in retrospect, seems obvious. But the journos sure don't help.

  2. What Nora said. A couple of our local TV news stations are notorious for this stuff: "Are your granola bars giving you cancer? The disturbing new NIH report..." It makes me weep to see journalists not understand the distinction between correlation and causation.

    Nora can also confirm that we see tons of this in reporting on scholarship and archaeology on medieval subjects, and on historical subjects in general. When everything I know something about is covered badly, I have to wonder what, if anything, is ever covered well.

    1. Oh argh, yes, on both counts.

    2. And just as an example: this morning, driving to work, I heard a piece on the local radio station about an exhibit of early printed maps (from 1475-1700 or thereabouts) at the Mitchell Gallery at St John's College, in which it was asserted that it's "really interesting to see how the conception of the world evolved, from this flat plane to a sphere."

      AUGH. Everyone knew the world was spherical in 1475, OK? Ptolemy knew the world was spherical. He thought it was smaller than it is, but he got the spherical part right. Dante knew the world was spherical -- it's in Paradiso. NO ONE THOUGHT THE WORLD WAS FLAT.

      *sobs incoherently*

  3. Another concern: Whenever I've been promoting a book, perfectly nice journalists nearly always get very basic facts wrong. Among other misrepresentations, I've seen myself turned into a Ph.D (which I'm not) and a professor of history (which I've never been). I imagine scientists are similarly frustrated when bad reporting makes them look silly.

    1. I'll bet, Jeff -- but see my last comment to Nora -- there is a bit of stupidity in the study itself, based on the quote from one of the researchers, himself. But it's true -- the media will readily do the rest of the damage in order to sell a story.