Large swath of media tout bad science that props up Biden policy

January 27, 2022

By Tim Worstall

It can be astonishing, even to us, how much the American media will push some progressive goal even if the evidence doesn’t stand up to examination. The latest example is this story that the child tax credit will improve the brain function of poor babies. This is based not just upon bad science, but science that itself, in its own documents, says isn’t proof. But near all of the U.S. media is chasing this story as proof that the child tax credit must continue after the first year and the just recent end of its funding.

The background is an experiment in giving money to poor families with children. Around $300 a month seems to increase brain function. As this is about the amount of the child tax credit, we can see the attraction of the result. If it is true, it’s interesting, but still no more than that. The effective claim is that if the income rise is 20% or more of household income then it can just about be seen. The child tax credit is only that much for really, really, poor families and so that doesn’t justify the 3% rise it gives to the upper-middle class for example.

But even that depends upon this effect being true. That it isn’t true can be seen here. To strip this of all of the science (and perhaps it’s worth not doing so, Andrew Gelman, for example, is extremely good at explaining these things and why they go wrong) basically, they kept playing with numbers until they found something that was different. But that’s not how you do science. They played with so many numbers, so many ways, that one of them was near certain to say something different. So, the result comes not from the intervention into household incomes but from the amount of playing with numbers that was done. This is known as “p-hacking” and is something that even journalists should know to be wary of.

Or, throw the dice often enough and you will get a run of double sixes. But that’s because you’ve kept throwing the dice, not because you’re lucky or anything.

Some folks have realized their error and are now withdrawing their support for this paper and the finding. But that’s a think tank and they have a reputation to defend for actual thought.

The New York Times ran this front page and hasn’t gotten around to a correction as yet: “Cash Aid to Poor Mothers Increases Brain Activity in Babies, Study Finds.”

“The research could have policy implications as President Biden pushes to revive his proposal to expand the child tax credit,” according to the piece’s subhead.

They just so want that child tax credit to continue. The NYT isn’t the only one. Vox: “The paper is especially relevant as Congress debates reauthorizing the expanded child tax credit. “ And Forbes: “Child poverty is on the rise in the U.S., growing from 14.4% in 2019 to 16.1% in 2020, according to the Census Bureau. The enhanced Child Tax Credit, which offered families up to $3,600 per child and halved U.S. child poverty according to some estimates, expired in December. “

Oh, and Time: “The study “couldn’t be more relevant to the current moment,’’ Dr. Joan Luby, a professor of child psychiatry at Washington University’s medical school. While renewal of the tax credit is uncertain, “this study should really inform Congress about how tremendously important’’ it is, said Luby.” MSN: “Cash Stipends Could Lead to Positive Brain Activity in Kids, Sparking New Child Tax Credit Discussions” Business Insider “Babies show more brain activity when their families get $300 a month, a new study finds — but Biden’s $300 monthly check program just ended” NBC: “The preliminary results from an ongoing clinical trial found that infants whose families received an extra $4,000 in annual income were more likely to show brain activity patterns associated with the development of thinking and learning. The findings come just weeks after the Child Tax Credit, which provided additional money to low-income parents, expired.” The 74 Million: “Citing Promising New Research on Babies’ Brain Development, Senators Renew Pitch for Expanded Child Tax Credit”

Pretty much the entirety of the mainstream media bought into it (with that last being the only one reporting the truth. Which wasn’t that the study was true, but that people were using it to argue for the child tax credit extension). Even though it’s not true they near all bought into it because they wanted it to be true.

They’re also not correcting themselves as it becomes obvious that the result isn’t true. If we were cynical about it we’d say that they won’t correct for a little bit more – allow the idea to sink in then stealth correct. The idea will by then be implanted.

None of this is to say that an extension of the child tax credit is a good idea or a bad one. We’re all of us allowed our own opinions on that. But what shouldn’t happen is that the media pick up an appallingly badly done piece of science and then use it to justify what they themselves desire to happen. That’s political propaganda that is, not journalism.

If modern journalists want to do propaganda they should go work in Congress, not at media outlets.

The scientific paper does not show that the child tax credit, or anything like it, improves babies’ brain function. But because so many in the media want the child tax credit to continue, that’s what they’re saying it does. Getting things wrong this badly demands retractions and corrections.


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