On Small Effects
From the author of a longitudinal study of the long term effects of early child care:
“In America today, it is normative for children to start childcare at some point in the first year of life and stay there until they start school. This is the case for over 50% of children,” he says. He continues: “Let’s imagine these are small effects. But let’s imagine a reception class of 30 children in which two-thirds of them have small effects that make them a little bit more aggressive and disobedient … versus another class of 30 in which only 10% of them do. Are those teachers going to be doing more time managing and less time teaching? Are those playgrounds going to be less friendly? Are those neighbourhoods going to be affected?
“No one single car pollutes central London or central LA. It’s all the cars that do it. People are so ideologically opposed to these findings that instead of being thoughtful about them, they respond as if there is only one way to think about them – small, don’t matter, ignore,” he says.
He is resigned to the way that parents, policy-makers and fellow academics recoil from his findings. “Anybody who speaks ill of childcare is the enemy – end of story. The guy who first linked Aids with homosexuality back in the early 1980s was accused of being a homophobe. The same kind of idiotic, kneejerk, ideological reaction occurred here. People think I’m against daycare. What I say is, if the weather man says it is going to rain tomorrow, is that because he is against sunshine? People feel very defensive about this area.”
I think this “small effects” idea explains a lot of the continuing arguments about the effect of various policies on human behavior (especially with contentious social issues where people adamantly insist that if public policy X were adopted, Y would be certain to/would no longer occur, despite copious examples where X was in fact adopted and Y did not occur/was not abolished), or in cases where the potential harm arising from Y is being debated.
It’s amusing, in a way, to see the very same arguments being arrayed against Science that have been used for centuries to argue against Religion. In both cases, essential truths about human nature are too often discarded because they can’t be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The odd thing is that that standard of proof (that a proposition must be unfailingly true) is rarely if ever applied by the doubters to their own propositions. Skepticism (even when skepticism based on belief in some alternative proposition) apparently requires far less evidence to establish than the proposition it seeks to discredit.
It’s easy to see exactly how this same phenomenon of misplaced skepticism plays out in the issue of marriage abolition via redefinition. After all the “small effects” phenomenon is at play here too. And it’s easy for ideologues promoting marriage abolition to distract attention from that subtle effect. Nonetheless, if large numbers of children being raised without both a mother and a father increases a the number of miscreants and sluts in our midst by only 10%, I think it’s reasonable to say that society could suffer some pretty nasty consequences.
But never mind that, certain groups want their state sponsored self esteem. And that is worth any price! Any price at all…
Oh, yeah. And daycare sort of stinks as well. Gotta throw that one in there too. Win one for stay at home parents!