Thursday, 6 September 2007

Teenage drinking - two interpretations of one finding

There's an interesting contrast in this BBC report on a recent Institute for Child Health study. The study found that people who drank a lot of alcohol as teenagers are more likely to experience a host of personal problems, such as criminal convictions and mental illness, when they are 30.

Now, this is almost certainly a result of what we researchers call the "third variable problem", i.e., it isn't that drinking as a teenager causes your problems later in life; rather, the teenage drinking and the later problems are both the result of other, underlying causes - in this case social deprivation, poor education, lack of opportunities and so on.

The quotes from the report's author suggest he is a careful researcher who understands this.

[Dr Viner said that] policies needed to focus on a range of areas, not just restricting the availability of alcohol to teenagers
Contrast this with the ridiculous yet predictable knee-jerk reaction from the government:
A Department of Health spokesman said the government was determined to reduced [sic] the harm caused by young people drinking.

"We are preventing the sale of alcohol to children by cracking down on irresponsible retailers and working with the industry to reduce underage sales of alcohol, while continuing to educate youngsters about the harm of alcohol abuse.

"Alcohol education now has a higher profile in schools across the country and is a major part of the national curriculum"

Gah! They've merrily taken the findings as proof that drinking per se causes criminality, mental illness, etc. Is it too much to ask that the people who speak for our government have a basic understanding of scientific research and how it should be interpreted before they pontificate on it? The Department of Health may want to send one or two of their people to our Masters of Research in Psychology degree, where they can learn not to make such mistakes again.

Edit: When did our government departments revert to being departments of things? I thought they'd all rebranded themselves as departments for things, subtly suggesting that whilst they're generally in favour of health, transport, education and so on, we shouldn't expect them to go as far as taking responsibility for such matters.

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