Sunday, December 12, 2010

Latest Study Wields "Occam's Butterknife"

More educated readers of this blog are probably familiar with Occam's Razor--the observation that a relatively simple explanation is more likely to be correct than a more complicated one.  Some folks have satirically come up with the term Occam's Butterknife, which is the erroneous belief that a more complicated explanation beats a simple one.  A case in point is the latest study on how lowering the drinking age in the USA might affect college binge drinking.

The study uses a mathematical model to suggest that lowering the drinking age would not reduce binge drinking.  However, there are significant problems with the study and its conclusion:
  • The study is purely theoretical, not empirical.
  • The only empirical data considered is current self-reported survey data where the drinking age is 21, which may be biased, and levels of enforcement in various colleges.
  • The definition of "heavy episodic drinking" is questionable in the absence of context.
  • The study modeled a change in the drinking age to 19, not 18.
  • The study only looked at two variables--"misperception" (social norms) and "wetness" (availability/enforcement).
  • Most campuses are actually very "wet" in practice.
  • Variables such as the dangerous effects of forcing alcohol underground are not considered.
  • Consequences of drinking were not considered.
Thus, while the study was relatively complicated in terms of the mathematics used, it does not prove that lowering the drinking age to 18 is a bad idea, or that keeping it at 21 is a good idea on balance.

We at Twenty-One Debunked also find it rather funny that the authors of the study said that lowering the drinking age to 18 would be a "radical social experiment," when in fact, the current drinking age of 21 is the real radical social experiment, both internationally and in terms of our nation's own history.  And a failed one nonetheless.