Department of awful statistics

By Megan McArdle

It seems pretty clear to me that the drinking age is unconstitutional and immoral. If you can vote and get shanghaied to foreign wars, you are old enough to have a beer.

It also seems pretty clear to me that the drinking age will not be changed, because the main constituency against it is the small segment of the population currently between the ages of 18 and 21. And most of them are too busy building beer funnels to get a really solid political movement going. Also, it's tough to get momentum when your leadership abruptly stops caring every three years.

However, every so often I catch sight of something that brings home how silly the whole thing is. Such as this, from Radley Balko:


Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2004 found that adolescents whose parents permitted them to attend unchaperoned parties where drinking occurred had twice the average binge-drinking rate. But the study also had another, more arresting conclusion: Children whose parents introduced drinking to the children at home were one-third as likely to binge.And you could make a pretty good argument that drinking in the woods and getting bombed at unattended parties are the product of the minimum drinking age.

Of course, when the anti-alcohol activists cite the "earlier the age one starts drinking, the greater the chance of addiction" figure, they lump it all in together, which paints an incomplete picture, and makes for bad policy.



It's even worse than that; those figures usually leave in members of strict religious groups, a large segment of whom will never take more than a few drinks, if that. Obviously, it's hard to develop a drinking problem if you never taste the stuff, so those people drag down the averages. But they don't tell you anything about how the age at which one starts drinking affects your later alchohol consumption, except for the trivial observation that if you join a religious group that forbids drinking, you will probably not develop a drinking problem.

I'm a genetic determinist on these things; early drinking outside the home is most likely a sign that you're the kind of kid who has little parental supervision and a penchant for getting into trouble. Parents who don't supervise their children have probably bequeathed a substantial genetic legacy of irresponsible behavior to their children. And troubled, irresponsible people are more likely to develop drinking problems.

I'd like to see a study that compared upper-middle class kids from the suburbs to those in New York City, where, anecdotally, drinking seems to start earlier because the kids don't need to be driven everywhere. Are kids from New York City's private schools more likely to be alcoholics later in life than, say, kids from Englewood? I can't say I noticed any statistically significant differences in college.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/09/department-of-awful-statistics/1854/