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Washington Post Crashed-and-Burned Watch (Kathleen Parker Edition)

Outsourced to Brendan Nyhan:

Brendan Nyhan: Kathleen Parker: Correlation=causation: A conservative organization called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has released a new report which shows (yet again) that most Americans don't have extensive factual knowledge of politics. (Whether this matters very much is a question that has been widely debated among political scientists.)

Based on this finding, the Washington Post's Kathleen Parker embarassed herself and her newspaper by suggesting that "passive activities... diminish civic literacy" while "[a]ctively pursuing information... and participating in high-level conversations... makes one smarter":

What's behind the dumbing down of America? The ISI found that passive activities, such as watching television (including TV news) and talking on the phone, diminish civic literacy.

Actively pursuing information through print media and participating in high-level conversations -- even, potentially, blogging -- makes one smarter.

But as anyone who has taken statistics 101 knows, correlation does not equal causation. The fact that people who score lower on the ISI quiz tend to watch TV and talk on the phone does not mean that those activities reduce their civic literacy. A more plausible explanation is that people who have low civic literacy scores also tend to watch more TV and talk on the phone more. (At a minimum, Parker and ISI can't distinguish between these two possibilities with cross-sectional survey data.)

How did this passage make it into the newspaper? Does anyone at the Post know anything about statistics?

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

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