A Word, Please: False relationships lead to faux pas

When "Freakonomics" came out in 2005, I figured it was a watershed moment in public discourse.

At last, I thought, someone with a big, loud platform was casting light on an all-too-common practice in which scientists and science journalists peddle correlation as causation.

The game goes like this: Count how many sesame seeds fat people eat, compare them to how many sesame seeds skinny people eat, spin the disparity into a press release with the headline "Sesame seeds may cause obesity," then rest assured that the news media will throw gasoline on the fire with a headline like, "Sesame Seeds Linked to Obesity," or "Sesame Seeds Make You Fat?"

The only rule is that you must never, ever raise the question of how many of those sesame seeds were on Big Macs.

Play this game well and you win the grand prize: attention, attention and more attention — just what many researchers are after.

The best-selling "Freakonomics," which takes a fascinating look at conventional wisdom through the prism of economic analysis, also demonstrates the crucial difference between correlation and causation. So I thought the jig was up. No longer would news consumers swallow implications that one thing causes another when in fact the first thing may just go hand in hand with the other.

Man, was I a chump.

Unscientific conclusions passed off as science continue unabated, as evidenced by a recent flurry of news headlines about texting and grammar.

"OMG! Texting ruins kids' grammar," declared an Aug. 4 Los Angeles Times headline, one of many such proclamations in the national media that week.

The news was centered on a study by the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University. Researchers asked a group of young people about their texting habits. Then they gave the kids grammar quizzes.

Surprise, surprise: The participants who said they sent and received a lot of "OMG"- and "LOL"-laden texts did worse on the grammar quiz than kids who sent fewer texts.

Thus, the Penn State press release claimed, "Tween texting may lead to poor grammar skills."

This was music to the ears of certain uptight adults who, for years now, have known deep down in their hearts that all that "LOLing" must be rotting kids' brains or, at the very least, eroding their language skills.

They already believed it. So "news" like this was just the confirmation they were looking for.

But does the study really show that texting hurts — or even might hurt — youth language skills? Hardly.

If you want a real expert analysis of where the study falls short, check out linguistics professor Mark Liberman's post on LanguageLog.com, where he revealed some serious flaws in the researchers' methodology.

My take on the matter is much simpler.

What do you suppose would happen if researchers used the same methodology to test the effects of cheerleading on grammar? How about playing football? How about smoking?

Any chance that would provide ample fodder to declare that any or all of these things might lead to poor language skills? (I can see the headlines now: "S-U-C-C-E-E-S, that's the way cool kids spell success.")

The more likely implication of the Penn State research is painfully obvious. Popular kids and kids who pride themselves on being popular may make socializing a bigger priority than, say, sentence diagramming. Voilà! There are your lower grammar test scores.

Yes, young people are putting their own stamp on the language, much to the chagrin of some older people. But what's worse? Teenagers slowly eroding the official spelling of words like "though," or parents who chuck critical thinking skills out the window every time they hear something they want to believe?

Tho you may disagree, I think the latter is no LOL matter.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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