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Big Guns Behind Family Day

Teens who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis are at almost half the risk of substance abuse as teens who eat dinner with their families only twice a week or less.

The good news is that September 25, 2006, is Family Day (this links to last year’s proclamation; this year’s hasn’t been made yet), and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) is trumpeting that many of its members are supporting the efforts of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University and its focus on Family Day — A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children (check out the TV commercial showing on this site). As they put it:

This event emphasizes the importance of family dinners in decreasing the likelihood of cigarette, alcohol and drug use in children and improving academic performance by youth.

And to be even more explicit, according to CASA’s chairman and president, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., who served as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Carter:

“The more often teens eat dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use illicit drugs.”

The idea that every family should eat dinner together and that doing so will help reduce all kinds of problems is so intuitively appealing and such a comforting thought that this program has attracted widespread support. TV Land and Nick at Nite have a “Get together on family day. Make the Pledge” program in which families pledge to eat dinner together that night. The sponsors are a Who’s Who of prestigious names, including:

The Safeway Foundation, the Coca-Cola Company, Kroger, FMI, General Mills, McDonald’s, Del Monte Foods, Et Tu Salad (Linsey), Hy-Vee, Pepsi and Acosta.

The partner/participants include everyone from the Defense Commissary Agency (DECA) to Major League Baseball (told you this was an All-American idea) and, showing that everyone agrees that this idea is a great one, both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Alas, the two studies, one from September 2003 and the other September 2005, that CASA points to as evidence for this endeavor are not really studies on the effectiveness of getting families to increase meal times together at all; they are more statistical compendiums pointing out that there is a statistical correlation between families that do eat dinner together and several good things — better grades, less drug use, etc.

But there is not even an attempt to identify what reasons there could be for these correlations — other than causality. Obviously the families that eat dinner together all the time differ from the families that do not in many ways other than this one characteristic. We really have no idea if we forced these families to eat dinner every night whether that would help or hurt.

Or maybe it is income, education or IQ or maybe the very fact that the family eats together indicates it is a family where the parents try their best to help the kids grow up right — and it is that fact that kids are more likely to succeed in an environment where the parents want them to succeed.

We really don’t know.

If you study logic, this fallacy is called cum hoc ergo propter hoc, which is Latin for “with this, therefore because of this”. It is the fallacy of logic in which when one observes two things going on simultaneously, they are falsely claimed to have a cause-and-effect relationship.

The classic example taught in every college logic class goes like this:

Every time ice cream sales spike up, crime rates also zoom up simultaneously. Therefore, increased sales of ice cream cause crime.

This seems unlikely, so to answer the question of what causes the crime, we might look for some other factor that might influence both ice cream sales and crime. Perhaps, for example, hot summer nights bring out both ice cream buyers and criminals.

Look, there is no reason to think anyone will get hurt from such a push and it might help. And if we go into it with eyes wide open, then it is a shot you take. But the industry, and the world, will get hurt if we allow our desires to lull us into accepting such shoddy thinking as an effective basis for action.

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