The TV Trope

Cracked has an article today on how TV affects people’s minds. It is a perfect illustration of the the problems I have with much of the social “sciences”.

To be brief: they look at six effects that TV supposedly has on our brains. Some of them seems reasonable — such as people forming emotional connections to TV characters or dreaming in black and white. But several are, at best, problematic and, at worst, bullshit.

For example, they claim that watching TV at an early age (2-5 years) makes kids more likely to be obese, have social problems and fall behind at school. France has used this kind of research to ban shows targeted at children under three, since the Europeans are eager to embrace every piece of panicky social science bullshit (see bans on spanking).

But at no point do they demonstrate anything beyond a correlation. Do children struggle in school or have weight problems because they watch TV? Or do the factors that cause the former also cause the latter? You can’t just show a link and then claim a causative link. That’s not how science works.

I also doubt the statistics behind this. The big longitudinal study looked at 1300 canadian children. It claims to be able to correct for all manner of social factors, such as wealth and education and then be able to measure these effects to a precision of better than 6%. Think about that. They’re claiming they can measure the effect of TV on math scores, correcting for social factors, to a precision about 25 kids, if we assume a three sigma level of significance. Really?

Similar things could be said about the claim that television lowers our attention span or makes you violent. The latter, which I’ve blogged on before, is the source of much public policy. But I have yet to see anyone really conclusively demonstrate a causative link. Do children engage in violence because they watch violent TV? Or do the thing that make children violent also make them enjoy pretend entertainment violence? Considering that violent entertainment has gone up even as real-life violence in our society has plunged, I’m inclined to believe the latter. A century ago, we didn’t have nearly as much violent entertainment, but it was not unusual for men my age to be in frequent fist fights. Now, my DVD collection has more violence than World War II but I haven’t thrown a fist in anger since elementary school.

These TV studies illustrate the general problem I have with the social sciences. They assume that human beings are empty vessels waiting to be filled by things that “society” imposes upon us. We have no intrinsic traits, no vices or virtues of our own. We are simply the result of all the societal programming we have endured. We engage in violence not because of our genes or our character or our upbringing but because of television. We have a short attention spa not because humans, in general, have short attention spans, but because of TV.

OK, I’m exaggerating. Most social scientists would say these things are not deterministic but do have an effect on us, changing the shape of our mental wave function. (Actually they wouldn’t say it like that since they flunked out of Physics 101; but I would). But the fact remains that there is an intrinsic assumption underlying their claims — that we are made violent or stupid or lazy by certain social stimuli, not that we seek out certain social stimuli because we are violent or stupid or lazy.

And that just ain’t science. You have to prove things, not assume then.

(I’m also ignoring the media’s role in this. Scientists who are more cautious in their claims tend not to get hysterical media coverage. And the media often exaggerate or misrepresent the claims a scientists makes — PhD comics has a wonderful strip on this.)