September 27, 2009

Hitting New Lows

In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate Cult committed suicide in the hopes that their souls would venture up into the cosmos to hitch a ride on a UFO which was supposedly “hiding” behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Besides becoming known as kooks, these 39 people became famous for their wardrobe selection: running attire which included a pair of Nike sneakers.

Now, if I told you that I used this instance as “scientific evidence” that wearing Nike sneakers leads to suicide, you’d quickly disagree wouldn’t you? If you read a news article stating that 100 percent of the Heaven’s Gate Cult who wore Nikes on that night did not survive, you’d quickly say that my research was flawed, wouldn’t you?

Well, a similar thing just happened with a news story about spanking and IQ which leads me to think that some of our “scientific” studies which are being made newsworthy aren’t so worthy of being in the news.

Before I continue, I need to state a few things. First, this essay isn’t meant to debate spanking; your view of spanking is yours. If you’re against it, so be it; if you’re in favor of it, so be it. Second, when I was young, I was spanked if I did something wrong. What my current IQ is isn’t important, but I’d like to think that it’s reasonably high. With that said, I’m also of the belief that a person’s audience will determine if that person is or isn’t “intelligent.” For instance, if you think that I’m smart, that’s great. If you think that I’m dumber than a steaming pile of cow manure, to you that’s my intelligence level. Either way, I’m comfortable.

Now, onto the “study.”

The story comes from New Scientist and is entitled “Smacking Hits Kids’ IQ.” The authors of a new “study” suggest that if you spank your child, his/her IQ will go down. The study’s leader, Murray Straus is hoping that pædiatricians and child psychologists begin telling parents one thing: “Never spank under any circumstances.”

But how did this “data” come about? That’s the part that has me questioning the results of this “research.” According to New Scientist:

“The IQs of 2- to 4-year-olds who received regular spankings from their parents dropped by more than 5 points over four years, compared with kids who were not spanked.”

The story also states that “the new research makes a stronger case for a cause-effect relationship between spanking and intelligence than other studies,” according to Elizabeth Gershoff, a child development researcher at the University of Texas, Austin.

The study was said to have accounted for variables, such as ethnicity, education levels, and whether or not the children in the study were read to by their parents.

Here’s where a few red flags went up for me with this story.

A study like this is being passed off as a causal-comparitive study when it should be considered a correlational study. A correlational study simply says that one thing is present with something else, but the two aren’t necessarily related. A causal-comparative study, however, is much more direct and almost accusatory; it suggests that one thing causes another.

While I was in grad school I had to a take a research methods class. In it I learned that it’s crucial to never confuse the two studies. Moreover, it’s also crucial that you try to avoid making a correlational study into a causal-comparative study simply because you like the results. That’s not only scientifically inaccurate, but it’s ethically wrong.

Remember the Heaven’s Gate Cult example earlier? Their wearing of Nikes was correlational to their suicides. Nike sneakers had nothing to do with their deaths. Yes, 100 percent of the people wearing the Nikes were dead, but the Nikes didn’t cause that.

In this spanking study, too many variables have not been taken into consideration for us to simply sit back and say that spanking lowers IQ.

Here are just a few things that I’m questioning with it:
• The authors seem to brush aside the fact that some of the kids who were spanked still had high IQ. One part of the story says that “[i]n younger children, the thing that made the biggest difference to IQ scores was whether or not mothers provided cognitive stimulation. This was more important than anything else, including corporal punishment.”

Well, if it’s more important, why is this story being pushed as a causal-comparative study in the first place? If the whole thing is correlational, we shouldn’t be reading headlines like “Smacking Hits Kids’ IQ.” Instead, we find this paragraph conveniently buried at the bottom of the story.

• Have the “researchers” considered the starting IQ of each subject and what was their percentage of IQ decrease? Did one child start low and make a drop in several points while another started high and dropped one or two points?

One might be called a big decrease while the other is small.

• The researchers were willing to pass this study off as causal-comparative to support their obvious dislike for spanking, but I didn’t see anything listed anywhere that showed whether or not kids with low IQ to start “needed” to be spanked in the first place. By this I mean were the low-IQ children behaving worse than the kids with the high IQ right from the start?

• One of the comments on the story points out something else that puts some major holes in the results of this study: its methodology.

Children were first studied in the 1980s and then studied later. The thing is, it wasn’t until 1991 that the WISC-III test was developed for accurate IQ measurement. How are we to know the accuracy of the IQ points in the 1980s if they were given using a WISC-R test? The WISC-R had a habit of showing higher scores. If the researchers were comparing these scores to WISC-III on the same child, they’d no doubt be lower.

The comment also poses a question that is crucial to the accuracy of this study: Was the follow-up test given on a WISC-III test, WISC-R test, or even a Stanford-Binet test? We don’t know. We should be told, though, because this could alter the IQ numbers if we’re comparing them.

• The comment also points out the instability of IQ in young children, which is why kids aren’t tested for gifted classes until later in their school career.

The comment notes that children of younger years are still undergoing intellectual development that will help them think more abstractly in later years. Thus, how can we seriously think that a 2-year-old can accurately be compared to that of a 6-year-old based on whether or not they were spanked? Over the course of those four years that single child may have had life experiences aside from the spanking that weren’t even considered.

• Finally, how are we defining “spanking”? Is it one hit on the bottom? Is it two hits on the bottom? Is it 10 hits on the bottom? Is it two hits on the bottom and one on the face?

In a research study we’re supposed to have concrete definitions to analyze the data. I didn’t see a definition for “spanking” listed even once.
As I had said earlier, this essay isn’t to debate the pros or cons of spanking. I just wish that scientific “research” had more data and fewer holes.

Callaway, Ewen. “Smacking Hits Kids’ IQ.” New Scientist. 25 Sep. 2009.


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