Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Only in America...

...could a mainstream newspaper mix up the views of scholars from Princeton, the University of Chicago, and a number of other real institutions -- institutions with a devotion to scientific standards -- with those of supposed "scholars" from the likes of the American Enterprise Institute. The Washington Post managed that in this article on research showing how Americans, once the tallest people in the world, have now fallen to being ranked ninth. The article quoted experts from various fields, and from the following places:

John Komlos, University of Munich
Robert Fogel, University of Chicago
Richard Steckel, Ohio State University
Barry Bogin, Loughborough University, UK
Tom Miller, American Enterprise Institute
Angus Deaton, Princeton University

Why on Earth would someone from the AEI appear on such a list? Well, it's fairly easy to see if you look at the content of the article. What are some of the possible causes of our collective loss of stature? Komlos himself suggests a lack of quality health care for children during the crucial stages of early development:

"We conjecture that perhaps the western and northern European welfare states, with their universal socioeconomic safety nets, are able to provide a higher biological standard of living to their children and youth than the more free-market-oriented U.S. economy," Komlos wrote in one of his latest papers, published in June in the journal Social Science Quarterly.


Perhaps, one might also conjecture, our not-so-healthy eating habits have something to do with it:

Komlos and others noted that the contemporary American diet, while plentiful, has become less nutritious in some ways, especially in recent years, which has helped fuel the obesity epidemic, particularly among children. So while Americans are no longer the tallest, they are among the widest.

"The culture of food here is different than other countries," said Richard H. Steckel of Ohio State University. "Children tend to watch more television and snack and eat fast food. When they do this, the fuel they are consuming is not the optimal blend."

The United States also lags far behind other countries in a host of important markers for childhood well-being. Rates of infant mortality, low-birth-weight babies and childhood poverty remain well higher than those in many European countries, and rates of childhood vaccination are much lower.


From the point of view of basic biology, all these factors would be expected to have a clear influence. Indeed, the one biologist quoted says as much:

"What we're finding out is it's the basic quality of the environment in which people grow up that's crucial, and it takes several generations to overcome poorer environments in the past," said Barry Bogin, a biological anthropologist at Loughborough University in Britain.


Ah, but now, with some many authorities suggesting we have a real problem with nutrition, and with health care, which might well suggest we do something about it, the writer must have felt some pressure to find someone, somewhere, to say that we shouldn't do anything because that would be jumping to conclusions. Where could you find such a "scholar"? Well, right over at the handy American Enterprise Institute:

But others are skeptical, noting that aside from the Dutch, the differences between Americans and other countries are small. There are also wide variations within every country, and it's difficult to compare a large heterogeneous country such as the United States with small homogeneous countries such as the Netherlands, they say. The effect of immigration can last generations.

"Some of these other countries probably have better family structure in terms of children growing up in two-parent households, for example," said Tom Miller, who studies health-care policy issues at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's a crude and simplistic approach to just say, 'Let's pour some more money into the health-care system.' "


The illogic of this discussion and quotation is rather breathtaking. First, just because the differences in size are small doesn't mean they're not significant. Second, the fact that there are variations within countries doesn't mean we cannot compare their averages, and draw meaningful conclusions. Third, no one in the article so far had suggested that we "pour some money" into health care; only that a lack of quality health care quite possibly has something to do with the trend.

I can't really understand how any reporter at a major newspaper could include such comment from a source with obvious political and ideological motivations, but then I must not have any idea how major newspapers work.

Then again, maybe there's a pattern at the Washington Post. As The Agonist pointed out yesterday, in their wrap-up of the Iowa Straw Poll, the Post managed a curious listing of the Republican finishers, indicating who was 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th -- somehow just skipping over number 5 without mention. Who was that? Oh, it happened to be the controversial and, for Republicans, rather inconvenient Ron Paul.

It's hard not to agree with Ian Welsh:

It appears that even pretending to do journalism, or making gestures at being unbiased is too much for the Post these days.

5 comments:

T.J. Conley said...

There are at least two other problems with Mr. Miller's theory. First, his speculation that other countries have more two-parent families than the U.S. Second, his failure to explain why the existence of a two-parent family would have anything to do with height.

This is what happens when science is driven by politics.

david said...

"Fair and Balanced" rides again.

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