According to a UK study discussed in a Guardian article, “the children of young, poorly educated mothers are more likely to face health and educational problems before they start school“. The article states that:

Children whose parents have no qualifications are a year behind in their vocabulary by the time they start school. At five, boys are on average two months behind their female classmates, a gap which will widen at every step of their education.

We are informed that “children with highly educated parents, and from families with two working parents, display higher cognitive ability and appear to have fewer behaviour problems“. I don’t doubt any of these observations. It’s all quite obvious.

Intelligence and educational achievement, ability to undertake healthy lifestyle regimes and the ability to pay for health services have a strong positive correlation. Low intelligence individuals have very limited capacities, so they cannot benefit from education, gain high paying jobs and then pay for expensive dentists and piano lessons for their children.

What made me stop reading the Guardian article in complete astonishment is the conclusion the study makes, and which the article dutifully reports without questioning. It says “delaying parenthood to get the best qualifications and a career first gives children a better start in life.Heather Joshi, the Institute of Education director of the report, said: “Waiting until 30 to have children seems to be associated with a lot of benefits for the family.”

Apparently improving the lives of the underclass is as simple as stopping them from breeding for a decade. That will fix everything. Somehow I don’t think so. A correlation is not a consequence. Delaying parenthood is not a cause of improved childhood health and education. Delayed parenthood and improved child health and education are both consequence of superior adult intelligence, education and employment.

In America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree in the Chronicle of Higher Education we find a more coherent explanation of the difference between correlation and cause and effect:

Colleges trumpet the statistic that, over their lifetimes, college graduates earn more than nongraduates, but that’s terribly misleading. You could lock the collegebound in a closet for four years, and they’d still go on to earn more than the pool of non-collegebound – they’re brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.

Encouraging the underclass to breed less will improve society overall (such as by leading to reductions in crime and welfare costs), but it will not alter their inherent capacity or potential. Social researchers (and the politicians who rely on them for policy advice) need to stop seeing cause and effect in every correlation they find, start analysing what they observe and report their findings in a coherent manner.

Equally, newspapers fail their thinking readers with such poor reporting. In a recent debate with a local Age newspaper journalist, I argued that readers want more than bland facts and dubious conclusions repeated without critical analysis. It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that they are incapable of delivering what many readers expect.

a beginner’s guide to cause and effect

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