11 Nov 2010

Frank Zappa versus Bryan Caplan

All Posts 11 Comments

Whatever the post title suggested to you, I promise the actual post will fail to live up to your hopes…

Recently Bryan wrote a post with the implausible title, “Why T.V. is Great for the Family,” which I reproduce in full:

Yesterday my baby acquired a valuable life skill: He learned how to watch television. I’m thrilled for at least three reasons:

1. Television is fun. I don’t want my son to miss out on one of life’s great pleasures.

2. Television is a cheap electronic baby-sitter that allows parents of young kids to get a much-needed break.

3. When my son is older, the threat to deprive him of television will become one of our most convenient and effective tools of discipline. The naughty corner’s usually enough, but when bad behavior persists, it’s time for a night without t.v.

Won’t t.v. stunt my baby’s cognitive development? Hardly. Twin and adoption studies find zero long-run effect on IQ of all family environment combined. Television’s isn’t just a drop in the bucket; it’s a drop in a bucket that doesn’t hold water.

Now I was going to let this go, I really was. But then I read Stephan Kinsella praising Bryan, and it pushed me over the edge. Particularly when Stephan wrote: “One reason I like it is I’m sick of “Oh, I don’t have a television” snobs. Also of hand-wringing one-size-fits-all humorless drones.”

Well call me a “Oh, I don’t have a television” snob. I also drink tea and pee sitting down (at least in the middle of the night). Wassup, Stephan?

First of all, note that you could use Bryan’s arguments to explain, “Why Cigarettes are Great for the Family.”

Second of all, the objection to TV watching isn’t that it reduces your IQ, but that it fills your mind with garbage. Someone can be very intelligent but also quite ignorant and full of fallacies.

Third, I really really really don’t agree with Caplan’s conclusions from the twin/adoption studies. I confess I haven’t delved into the literature first-hand. But I know when I read the first Freakonomics book, the presentation horrified me. Assuming Levitt and Dubner summarized the research correctly, I believe they were arguing (to paraphrase): ‘If a parent orders his kid to turn off the TV and read a book, that won’t make the kid do any better on standardized tests. What the kid actually responds to, though, is being raised in a household where the parents value reading.’

So yes, I don’t deny that regressions on my kid would fail to pick up a statistically significant impact from the lack of a television. What I predict will be his above-average scores on standardized tests could be explained by my PhD, the amount of books we have around the house, the IQs of my wife and me, etc. I grant that there isn’t a big enough sample size to distinguish the Caplan household from the Murphy household. (I.e. Caplan has a PhD in economics too, presumably has a lot of books, blah blah blah. But the relative performance of our kids isn’t a smoking gun as to the effects of TV watching.)

But do Bryan and Stephan really want to say that it’s better for a kid to watch TV, say, two hours a day, rather than playing sports or reading a book?

I think I have noticed just how ridiculous TV has gotten lately, because I only see it infrequently (when I go to a hotel, visit relatives or friends, etc.). Just about every prime-time show has to have a very attractive female lead, preferably showing cleavage. I was watching a show on a channel like A&E (it may not have literally been A&E) called, “The 10 Most Ridiculous Ways to Die” or something like that. And the #3 or so ranked way was a lesbian woman choked to death on her partner’s edible underwear. Naturally, they did a re-enactment of the scene that would have been rated R 20 years ago.

I realize now I sound like the religious prude. Well no libertarian can possibly say that about Mr. Zappa:

11 Responses to “Frank Zappa versus Bryan Caplan”

  1. Stephan Kinsella says:

    Bob, Rereading Caplan’s list, yeah, I really don’t agree with most of it. I think I only agree with “TV is fun.” And maybe I agree that it probably, alone, doesn’t stunt IQ.

    Of coures I don’t agree that using it as a babysitter or as a threat is wise–there are better child-rearing and discipline techniques (Montessori approach; Love and Logic; Positive Discipline)–though I think hand-wringing over this is overblown and overwrought. And Caplan probably could have found other things to praise about TV than his stunted list–as a communal/family activity (Jesus, do we have to play scrabble ALL THE TIME to satisfy the preachers?), cultural literacy,even learning.

    But as I said in my post, I just like that he was going against the TV snobs. I specifically did not mean people who merely don’t have a TV, but the people who find an excuse to drop that in conversation as soon as they can to show how NPR-superior they are. And that’s why I said I like the modern non-TVers tend not to be snobs but just cheap and/or tech-savvy youngsters. They’ve started to rob the TV snobs of the force of proudly proclaiming “I don’t have a TV”. Heh. I bet, when you run across the TV snob nowadays, if he crows about this to his audience, it infuriates him if someone says, “Oh, you switched to Netflix streaming and Hulu?” and he has to sputter something unbelievable like, “…. no…! I don’t watch that either! Not even on my laptop! Which is recyclable, by the way! So there!”

    I mean give me a break. When my kid was 1 or 2 i was more concerned about computers, video games, TV. Now, I figure, he reads at 7th grade level (he’s in second), does great in school, is a great kid, gets his homework done, is learning piano and tennis and chess and is on the swim team–so if he wants to veg out every now and then and play a video game or watch a YouTube video–or ask me to help him update one of his two blogs–or watch Stargate Universe with me and mommy or the latest NGC HD documentary about how the earth was formed or Kung Fu Panda or Walking with Dinosaurs — meh. I don’t freak out. I also let him have a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup after dinner.

  2. Bardhyl N. Salihu says:

    “First of all, note that you could use Bryan’s arguments to explain, “Why Cigarettes are Great for the Family.”” kill’d it.

  3. Stephan Kinsella says:

    Race to Nowhere: about the achievement culture and how it’s ruining out kids

  4. Stephan Kinsella says:

    Bardhyl, re cigarettes, see my Let Kids Smoke. heh.

  5. Ash says:

    I am not normally a defender of Caplan, and generally disagree with his parenting ideology, but I feel I must disagree with you here, Bob, for you are badmouthing the glory that is TV.

    Point by point:

    ‘pee sitting down’–I can’t understand how this could ever be preferable to standing up. Think of all the energy wasted sitting down and getting back up again.

    ‘you could use Bryan’s arguments to explain, “Why Cigarettes are Great for the Family.”’–You could also use them to explain “Why books/toys/school/sports/clubs/any and all recreational activities are Great for the Family”

    ‘Second of all, the objection to TV watching isn’t that it reduces your IQ, but that it fills your mind with garbage. Someone can be very intelligent but also quite ignorant and full of fallacies.’–The IQ argument sure used to exist. And the argument that TV ‘fills the mind with garbage’ could be used against books, magazines, peer-reviewed journal articles, the internet, what have you. All media can be and has been used to spread all kinds of silly notions.

    ‘say that it’s better for a kid to watch TV, say, two hours a day, rather than playing sports or reading a book?’–Depends on the circumstances. TV is recreation. Many young kids find reading a chore. And playing outside isn’t always a viable option; say if you live in an urban/dangerous neighbourhood. Also depends on what it is on TV that they could be watching. Jeopardy, a nature show, or a science program? To me, those seem like excellent learning opportunities.

    I don’t know what TV for children was like in your day, Bob, but I was exposed to a lot of education TV–and although I live in Canada, most of the best shows were almost exclusively from PBS. Almost everything I know about the animal kingdom comes from after school programs. I learnt a lot about (standard, ‘mainstream’) US history from TV, too. And surely you’re familiar with Bill Nye the Science Guy? In hindsight I wouldn’t call any of those programs anything less than excellent and enlightening. Furthermore, seeing something interesting on TV can inspire further inquisition. And what more could any parent want than their child coming to them for answers on a matter of science (other than this guy)?

    In closing, TV can be an excellent source of entertainment and knowledge. For children, there exist many educational shows for all age levels that can be of great value with supervision. For adults, I still like Jeopardy, as well as most shows on National Geographic and Discovery. (There is a new program on Discovery called Bad Universe which I find really neat. )

    For entertainment, if you’re not watching Community (either Thursdays on NBC or online) you are seriously missing out on a great show. Modern Family is funny, too.

  6. Brian Shelley says:

    Not letting your children watch mainstream television is awesome! First, my two sons, 4 and 5, don’t know cereal brands because they only watch commercial free television. I can go down the cereal aisle and they are completely satisfied with “Crispix” and “Life”. In Toys R Us they are completely immune to movie/TV related products. I don’t have to tell them ‘no’ because they don’t ask for any of it. They are not aware that happy meals exist, so a trip to McDonalds costs me 59 cents a kid (plus a partial fry). They don’t ask for clothes with characters on them. Parents who plop their kids in front of the TV are suckers.

  7. Daniel Hewitt says:

    Bob, as long as you don’t recycle Coke cans and wear a leather jacket, you can be part of our club.

  8. Silas Barta says:

    Some of you may recall times in the past when I was aghast that Bob would dare to criticize a field in which he has no expertise, as I did on the topic of global warming. Yet I have no intention of making such a criticism here. Why? Glad you asked.

    In the AGW arguments he made, Bob denied the very existed of the scarcity that drove the debate (specifically, that emission of CO2 comes at a cost to others’ consumption), effectively *assuming* the truth of his propositions. If he were to do something similar here, it would be like saying, “TV never conveys any information that would be useful to anyone whatsoever”.– a proposition completely outlandish and far beyond what he would need in order to establish a criticism of the science he disputes.

    Hope that clears it up.

    And FWIW, one writer on “the other side” from Bob on this (S. Pinker) agrees that parents’ ability to pick their children’s home environment is an argument *for* the thesis that parents area strong influence on their kids.

    Also, I don’t watch TV, but only bring it up if the conversation goes to that topic.

  9. Peter St. Onge says:

    Wait, you pee… how? That actually was pretty much too much information. For me, anyway.

    I’m in the TV-is-wonderful camp. I think it promotes cognitive development, at least from ages zero-to-5 or so. After that, I’m in your camp.

    Imagine if kids played video games and watched TV since Aristotle, and somebody came up with a new activities involving running around with sticks and balls, climbing trees and scribbling on paper. No doubt we’d be concerned about stunting kid’s minds with such mindless activities, when they could be watching an episode of Barney or the Wiggles.

  10. Sam says:

    Well if you like sports viewing then TV is essential. There’s a lot of nature, history, and science channels available. Plus, sometimes it;s more cost effective to bundle tv, cable, and phone.

    The internet is becoming the new TV anyway. I just watched some Zappa on it.

  11. Matt D. says:

    For better or worse, it’s TV that many people live for.

    Supposedly the average person over 2 watches 4 1/2 hours of TV a day:

    Some call it chewing gum for the mind … but I guess it depends on what you are watching. But how often do you take notes when you are watching TV?