One of the first college classes that I took was philosophy. I remember how the instructor spent nearly all of the semester on logic problems, so much so that I may have slept late a couple of mornings and been none the worse for wear. But what I appreciate now about the experience is that sometimes it helps me to understand whether a conclusion is reasonable or not.
Two recent provocative pieces set my causation alarm off: an infographic implying that kids who have Facebook accounts study ten times less than non-users AND a study suggesting that kids with smartphones are 50% more likely to be sexually active than those without.
Beware an infographic without sources
Wikipedia describes a “red flag” like this:
Red flag is a semi-official term to denote various attention and awareness indicators and signals, both explicit and implicit. It can be used in various contexts usually as a warning or when things seem too good to be true as well as unexpectedly good results.
For example, when a study concludes that by virtue of having a social media account students study 90% less than students not using social media – that should be a red flag. When the infographic doesn’t cite its sources, that should be a second red flag.
Although an assertion like this is provocative, even if there is factual basis for their findings the following has to be true to prove their claim:
There are two subgroups of students.
All socioeconomic and external factors are similar for these two groups (in aggregate).
One group studies 1000% more than the other group.
The only plausible explanation for the disparity is the use of Facebook.
Nevermind that this demographic isn’t overwhelmingly on Facebook. And nevermind that deviations of 1000% are implausible in otherwise homogeneous groups. And nevermind that Facebook usage in this age group may imply a greater family bond (after all the average age on Facebook is greater than 40 now).
The biggest problem with this study is that there isn’t a problem. Disparate performance between these sub-groups isn’t indicated – so it’s questionable that there is a problem. If there is not problem, that probably indicates that there isn’t such a stark difference in how teens utilize their time (Facebook notwithstanding).
If you give your daughter a smartphone she will have unprotected sex
Possibly more insidious than implying that Facebook saps the constitution to study from unsuspecting youth is a study released by USC School of Social Work asserting that young people with smartphones are more apt to have sex, oftentimes unprotected.
What’s ridiculous about this study is that they admit that there is no causation. Kids who are sexually active just happen to have smartphones. But rather than understand the underlying socioeconomic issues for the early, dangerous sexual activity for these kids they published a paper that says kids who happen to have smartphones happen to be sexually active earlier than kids who don’t.
Of course, if those kids have Facebook on their phone they are a lost cause…….
Look for causation
Spoiler alert: there is a lot of crap on the internet. Some of it may come neatly packaged in an infographic and some of it may come from academia, but it’s important to look past the artifice to understand if their conclusions have merit.
You can give your kid a smartphone without becoming a thirty-year old grandparent. And you can let your kid be on Facebook and not expect her grades to plummet as a result. In either case, one doesn’t cause the other.
It takes a negligible amount of effort and logic to determine that. And I’m of the opinion that your business and reputation are worth at least a negligible amount of effort.