When politicians, academics and the public alike all lose site of the proper role of government in society, they become willing to accept public policy based on “research” and data.
But this Forbes article highlights just how easily skewed social science research can become; in this case the article takes to task some shoddy research on alcohol consumption produced by a Duke University professor. In this case, the professor gets caught up in applying questionable assumptions to the aggregate of the population instead of recognizing vast differences in individuals.
The source for this figure is “Paying the Tab,” by Phillip J. Cook, which was published in 2007. If we look at the section where he arrives at this calculation, and go to the footnote, we find that he used data from 2001-2002 from NESARC, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which had a representative sample of 43,093 adults over the age of 18. But following this footnote, we find that Cook corrected these data for under-reporting by multiplying the number of drinks each respondent claimed they had drunk by 1.97 in order to comport with the previous year’s sales data for alcohol in the US.
But Cook, who is trying to show that distribution is uneven, ends up trying to solve an apparent recall problem by creating an aggregate multiplier to plug the sales data gap. And the problem is that this requires us to believe that every drinker misremembered by a factor of almost two. This might not much of a stretch for moderate drinkers; but did everyone who drank, say, four or eight drinks per week systematically forget that they actually had eight or sixteen? That seems like a stretch.
The professor’s “research” is the foundation for his advocacy of higher taxation of alcohol.
The focus on aggregates instead of individuals is also a fatal flaw in Keynesian economic theory. F.A. Hayek noted how Keynes’ focus on aggregates concealed the fundamental mechanisms of changes in the economy.
Of course, compounding the problem is the media running with the findings of such “research” without questioning or closely analyzing the data.
Rather than basing government policy on questionable academic research, we should always evaluate policy based on whether or not it comports to the principles of individual liberty.