Commentary: Recent research suggests...

By IAIN MURRAY, Special to UPI  |  May 16, 2002 at 6:05 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) -- Anyone who has seen a child attempt to "body slam" another child in the fashion of World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin will worry that violent images on TV can lead to violence among the young.

The charge has been made recently, however, that it's not just violent TV, but any TV that leads young people to aggressive behavior. A team of researchers based at Columbia University published research in the journal Science that claimed 22-year-olds who had watched more than three hours a day of TV when they were 14 were considerably more likely to be violent than those who'd watched less than an hour.

This is a controversial finding that has been leapt on by the doom and gloom merchants.

The American Enterprise magazine, for instance, commented that "with this latest research, the burden of proof now rests on those who choose off-handedly to dismiss TV's anti-social effects."

Not so fast, please. The research suffers from two major methodological problems.

To begin with, it did not record what sorts of programs were being watched. Were the TV junkies watching violent programs and the others watching "Blue's Clues"? If so, then the assertion that TV watching itself causes violence has not been proven.

Moreover, the researchers chose those who do not watch TV as the baseline to judge others against. But what if not watching TV is itself abnormal, and likely to lead to less violence for other reasons? The study found very little difference in the levels of aggression demonstrated by those who watch one to three hours of TV every day and those who watch more. It seems to be the people who watch very little TV who are unusual.

It may be, for instance, that watching little TV is a by-product of greater involvement in civil society, in a church or youth group for instance. These people are already less likely to be violent than their peers. The researchers have to answer the following question: Is the real solution to violence not turning off the TV set, but finding something worthwhile to do that means you rarely turn it on in the first place?

However, some other researchers have argued that TVs are harmful to children even when turned off. A group of pediatricians and statisticians at the Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh claim to have identified an alarming increase in children being crushed to death by TV sets falling on top of them. Larger televisions and console models, they say, combine with longer viewing habits to increase the risk children face from this hazard.

The researchers came to their conclusion because, of the 43 children admitted to the hospital for TV-related injuries in the past 10 years, half of the injuries occurred in the last three years. This is too small a sample to draw any conclusions, but we do know that during the 1990s, falling TV sets killed 28 children nationwide. During that same time period, only five people were killed by shark attacks, the major public health scare of last summer. As the Statistical Assessment Service put it, loosely speaking, watching Jaws on TV is more dangerous than swimming in the Pacific.

Hispanic immigrants have it tough in the United States. Their often limited command of the English language, low socio-economic status and widespread resentment of immigrants in general can lead to difficulties in their early years in the country.

On May 12, ABC News gave them another thing to worry about. The story chose to highlight data from the Department of Labor that shows that workplace deaths among Hispanics have increased by 53 percent since 1992, while deaths for all other groups dropped 10 percent. The report alleged that undocumented immigrants, drawn into high-risk jobs in industries such as construction and meat-packing, do not have the language skills to be able to comprehend safety instructions properly.

The figures are alarming at first sight. However, they do not take into account the fact that the Hispanic population increased substantially during the 1990s. In 1990, there were 22 million Hispanics in the United States. By 2000, that figure had increased to 35 million, an increase of almost 60 percent over the decade. The increase in worker deaths, therefore, is about what you would expect if it kept pace with population.

Moreover, the rate of workplace deaths by ethnicity is roughly even. There were 4,240 workplace deaths of whites in 2000, which translates to a death rate of about 2.1 per 100,000 people. The rate for Hispanics is about 2.5 per 100,000. This is a relatively small difference and is probably explained by the very fact that proportionately more Hispanics are employed in lower-paid jobs than whites. Moreover, the rate has not changed much over time. In 1995, when there were 26 million Hispanics in the country, the rate was 2.3 deaths per 100,000.

Overall, Hispanics do not have much more to worry about than whites when it comes to workplace accidents. The statistics are clearly not evidence, as ABC News purported them to be, that Hispanic workers are treated as disposable.

According to a National Post story April 26, a Manitoba woman alleged she was poisoned by leaks from a bottle of phenol, which is a highly toxic chemical. The court heard evidence that the chemical had not harmed her, and that her reaction was purely psychological (she exhibited symptoms even when exposed to distilled water rather than the chemical). The judge acknowledged that the woman was probably mistaken in her belief that the chemical had done her any harm. Nevertheless, the woman was awarded $104,000 in damages. America has laws against junk science in the courtroom. Canada, it appears, has laws against sound science.

Iain Murray is Director of Research at STATS - the Statistical Assessment Service - a Washington DC-based nonprofit nonpartisan public policy organization (see

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