Musing: Dissecting Pop Psychology #1: Influence is not Cause

Today will be educational, because angry C.J. is angry.  Well, not really angry.  Just exasperated, by well-meaning people putting out misleading information.  The topic of today's discussion: a pet peeve of mine (I also hate that phrase, but whatever), pop psych articles.  They grab you with snazzy titles like "SHWOAHMY WE FOUND THE GOD GENE!" and "Sour Patch Kids linked to cancer!"  But if you look carefully, you'll realize that (a) most of them are tripe and (b) the good ones are often blown way out of proportion because they don't explain their result properly.

Today we're going to look at this article from Psych Central called "More Education Tied to Longer Life."  The study's hallmark finding is:

“The most highly educated white men live about 14 years longer than the least educated black men,” reported S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

Sounds really frightening and terrible, right?  OMG.  Lack of education can kill you!  Live longer, get a PhD!  (Insert lots of bitter laughter.)

Before you start force-feeding people degrees like vitamins, look again.

The researchers conclude that education and socioeconomic status are extremely important variables that influence variations in longevity. They suggest that one of the most important ways to address these large disparities is through education.

Influence.  Remember this word.  What most articles need to state more clearly is that their findings do not have anything to do with causes.  Rather, they are looking at factors that affect things.  So will getting a higher degree cause you to live longer?  Not necessarily, and not directly.  Think of these other possibilities instead:

  • Possibility 1:  People who live in poverty have less access to education.  More minorities in the States live in poverty because our social systems suck.  Poverty is associated with things like less access to health care, poorer quality food, and more violent crime in neighborhoods.  So, maybe the African-Americans in this study are more likely to live in poverty, which both (a) makes them less able to get higher degrees and (b) makes them more likely to die earlier.  Poverty is the factor "causing" both of these things. 
  • Possibility 2:  Education has an effect of its own.  People get a college degree.  They get a better job than someone with a high school degree. They have more money.  They get better health insurance and live in less dangerous neighborhoods.  They have more access to resources.  Again, money is a big factor here!  
  • Possibility 3:  Can you think of any other ways these things might be related?  

So yes, these are important findings.  They show that access to education may be an important factor for helping people live longer through all sorts of other factors.  They do NOT necessarily show that getting more education causes you to live longer.  

So next time you read one of those awesome snazzy super groundbreaking findings in insert-favorite-magazine-here, read the stats carefully.  They may not be saying what you think they're saying.  

Also, there is no God Gene.  Sorry.  Everything is affected by multiple genes.  Get over it.  

1 comment:

  1. Psychology Academy are concerned with how students learn and develop, often focusing on subgroups such as gifted children and those subject to specific disabilities.

    psychology education