Science Lesson: Conflating age with inevitable temporality (i.e., some things first occur in youth merely because youth comes first)

by Carl V Phillips

A random science lesson, because I have not written a good “the conventional wisdom — how everyone looks at this and thinks is self-evidently true — is not the only plausible explanation” lesson in a while (other than tweet storms), and just want to. I was triggered on the topic by some chatter I saw about a recent paper, though neither of those is particularly important (so no links).

Consider an example from another realm: A large portion of significant original contributions in theoretical mathematics are figured out, or at least the seeds are completed, when the author is under 25-years-old, or even under 20. The conventional wisdom is — or was (I have been out of that field for a long time) — that people’s sheer physical brainpower in this area declines with age, and that this is the only time someone has the ability to outperform all who have come before them. It is like being a professional athlete. You can be a perfectly solid athlete or science geek at 60 if you have the natural skills and keep at it, but to be among the absolute best — among the 0.001% who can be a performance-level jock or breakthrough mathematician — you have to have both the natural skills and be at your lifecycle physical peak.

But there is a plausible alternative theory that was pointedly ignored in that conventional wisdom: Generations of mathematicians have already worked out everything, within the bounds of what occurs to them to work on, that can be done by just plugging away at it. Therefore, new breakthroughs only come when someone is wired enough differently to see something beyond that, either in terms of recognizing something outside the existing bounds to pursue or some striking insight into a within-bounds problem. That is, they need to not just be solid in the skills of the field, but have one little cognitive quirk that no one else had. Either they have that when they are 16 or they don’t. If they do, they make their breakthrough early because they can. It is not about age — if one was somehow prevented from making the breakthrough for a couple of decades (but managed to keep up his skills in the field and was not scooped), he would have made it later.

Perhaps the relative contributions of those two factors has been largely resolved — as I said, I have been out of that area a long time. In contrast with the tobacco realm, most everyone who is aware of that debate is a smart clear thinker, so they may have long since worked out how much each of the stories explains the association of age and breakthroughs. But the point is that the naive explanation for something being associated with age — that it must have been entirely caused by age itself — was not so obviously correct as the conventional wisdom had it.

This is a metaphor, of course, for all the claims about tobacco use initiation, habituation, “addiction”, and such that are attributed to age because they are associated with age. This is a fail for exactly the reason found in the alternative theory of math prodigies: If something were able/likely to happen sometime in someone’s life, but not in most people’s, the fact that it happened early among the former (because it could) is not informative.

So we have the conventional wisdom that because smokers (etc.) mostly start fairly early in life, if you stop them from starting early, they never will. This is undoubtedly true to some extent. Everyone gets more set in their ways about what they do and do not do after adolescence. For smoking specifically, having adult-level judgment and a more forward-looking mindset makes it much less appealing (though this is not true for low-risk and potentially net beneficial smoke-free products). But it is obviously not nearly as true as is generally claimed. Someone who would have used a product at 16, but is somehow kept from doing so for two years does not magically revert to having the average lack of interest (which means being below the line for inclination to use the product) at 18. The same is true if you substitute age pairings 18…21 or even 16…40.

My goal here is to just immunize readers against the common naive error by planting the idea, so I am not going to delve deeply into the data. But just notice that transitioning to “smoker” status has gone down sharply among 14-year-olds in the US population, but not 18-year-olds. It is down overall, of course, but it is impossible to not notice that some of the “success” at earlier ages consists of delay rather than elimination. If the conventional wisdom were true, we should not have seen the sharp rise in the average age for that transition; the conventional wisdom says that the people who are pulling that average up do not exist.

The issue is clearer still for claims about early-initiating smokers (etc.) being more habituated (usually called “addicted” of course, but my readers will understand why that is bullshit rhetoric). If there is any variation within the population in terms of who is inclined to become strongly habituated — and obviously there is, due to both biological and social factors — then of course we see this. Those who are most inclined quickly become regular consumers upon first trialing at, say, 13. Those eventual-smokers (etc.) who ramp up more slowly were not so enamored, and so waited until it was easier to do. The former group are undoubtedly less likely to quit, have higher “dependence” scores, etc. The rhetoric attributes all of this obvious confounding to causation.

This does not means that there is no biological effect of early smoking (etc.) that causes greater inclination later in life, of course. But it does mean that the main body of evidence deployed in support of that claim is worthless. My readers presumably understand that the evidence deployed in support of “gateway” claims is bullshit because it merely observes the inevitable association across individuals choosing to use very similar products. Any association that is inevitable due to confounding cannot be said to be evidence of any causation without further serious analysis, analysis that tobacco control “researchers” never do. The present case is a bit more subtle than the gateway case, but it is exactly the same problem.

Similarly, these observations do not mean that somehow preventing an incidence of initiation at 16 is always just be a delay rather than permanent prevention. There is some probability of each. There is ample reason to believe that the probability of mere delay is fairly high. Yet the claims based on the observed association almost always bake-in the unstated and unexamined assumption that the probability of it being mere delay is approximately zero.

I did not become a regular drinker until my 30s, or a regular user of nicotine products and sometimes [redacted because we live in a fucked-up anti-liberty police state when it comes to stuff like this] until later still. But I trialed all of these before I was 20 and did a bit during my 20s. Those who want to say “it is all about ‘youth’ initiation!!!” will spin this into supporting their claims. Look closely at their claims and you will see that most of them would attribute my later behavior to those largely forgotten moments from adolescence. I can tell you there was no causal continuity between the trailing and later period of ongoing use, except via the confounding pathways. Granted I am a bit unusual — I have taken up quite a few things at time in my odd life that very few people ever do if they do not start at a much younger age: professional popular writing, various sports, farming, having babies. But the oddity there just illustrates the point that acting upon willingness or interest gets mistaken for causation, because willingness and interest are usually not kept latent for so long.

Consider one more metaphor that illustrates a different angle on this: adults who choose to visit Disney World (i.e., because they like to, not just because they are roped into taking their kids). There is undoubtedly a huge association between this and having visited as a child. Undoubtedly it is causal to some extent, but it would be obviously stupid to assume the association is all causal. Among those negative for both traits are those with a religious or semi-religious objection to visiting, those who disdained the idea as children (often due to their particular subculture think of it as belonging to Others), and those for whom making the trip is unaffordable. Those traits tend to be fairly persistent through the lifecycle, and this alone creates an association. Among those positive for both traits are those who just love stuff like that, and so pushed their parents to taken them and later choose to go again when they could. This increases the association with no causation in sight yet. Finally, among those positive for both are those who go back because they remember how much they enjoyed it as kids, the causal group. The “logic” of the tobacco control literature and rhetoric would be to claim that the association is caused entirely by the latter group.

I would assume that the marketing people at DisneyCorp — who are presumably much better at their jobs than most tobacco researchers and pundits are — have this all worked out and make extensive use of that knowledge. It would undoubtedly be possible to form honest estimates that separate the contributions of causation-by-age and mere temporality in the tobacco space also. But few in that space even recognize this is an issue, and most of them want to pretend it is not, and few of them have the skills to do the (actually pretty simple) analysis to try to sort it out.

It is one more persistent set of lies (partially intentional, partially due to Dunning-Kruger) to be aware of when analyzing tobacco control claims.

8 responses to “Science Lesson: Conflating age with inevitable temporality (i.e., some things first occur in youth merely because youth comes first)

  1. So very right!

    We are often led to ignore exceptions, but they are critical data points. A propensity for something may, or may not, actually manifest – the fact that it does so earlier in life is often because the cost/benefit/risk of doing so while young is clouded by the inexperience of youth itself. Its easier to take greater risks when one’s risk perception includes the notion of youthful invincibility. But science must explain a phenomena not only in it’s popular occurrences, but for all occurrences for a theory to advance to law.

    The associative mind leaps quickly to the conclusion that altering the opportunity cost at youth is either preventive or supportive of a phenomena. The cognitive mind can realize that this is fallacious thinking because the propensity is unchanged, and when the opportunity costs are acceptable the phenomena will occur.

    The harm in acting on the associative perception is that it is easily propagandized to reinforce the association with negative consequences to increase the perceived opportunity costs. At some point the propaganda, and prevaricating agent, are realized as having lied. This leads to a breach of trust or at least a cognitive dissonant situation where the agent can no longer be considered reliable. [The difference in trust given the FDA that vaccines are safe vs Romaine lettuce is contaminated is an example of cognitive dissonance.] What happens if the trust is eroded to the point where the agent is no longer perceived as reliable?

    “Add a little to a little and soon you end up with a big pile.” This is the real public health crisis. Current thinking about non-communicable diseases (NCDs or “lifestyle diseases”) relies on creating and enforcing associations and increasing the opportunity costs of behaviors though propaganda. Backed by a large amount of weak science in its support (devaluing legitimate science) these campaigns manipulate risk and trust to create moral hysteria. What has been evident since the Hearst/Anslinger days is that once the lies used to produce the propaganda are revealed, trust is lost and anarchy ensues. As science carried along by the agents as a tool, it too becomes untrustworthy.

    Worse, the public costs include not only the social and economic costs of increasing illegal activity with all the attendant perturbations of an unregulated and profiteering black-market, but increasing enforcement and regulatory costs as the agencies attempt to control the breach as trust erodes. Eventually the breach becomes large enough that there is no way to staunch the flow and policy must be reversed. In the interim, the lives affected by the carnage offers a grotesque commentary on society’s willingness to act on its feelings rather than wisdom.

    • Carl V Phillips

      Yes cost-benefit calculations change with aging, but the key here is not just that certain propensities are more likely to be acted upon by young people — which is part of the CW story, with the implication that if not done then they will never be done. It is that things are first done when someone is young not because of that, but because that person is inclined to do them and being young comes first in time. I note that there is inevitably some of each of these, but the usual story incorrectly suggests only the first, and not the second, drives the observations.

  2. When I saw CW I had to backtrack to see you meant Conventional Wisdom. This reminds me of something I read many years ago (source forgotten). Where you say “CW” I would say “Cowdung” – COnventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group!

    • Carl V Phillips

      Yeah, I had this conversation on Twitter too. Anyone who read punditry in the 1980s will see “CW” as conventional wisdom. But alas, time passes. I am just going to go back and copy-replace it in the text.

  3. Very interesting piece. Some comments on youth and creativity leading to breakthroughs in physics and mathematics. First and foremost, there is a kernel of truth in this but there is also a lot of myth and even cliches with “moralizing” messages.

    An interesting case is that of Evariste Galoise, a brilliant French mathematician whose contribution to group theory is outstanding. Galois did most of his work as a young adult and thus has become a sort of legend of “young genius who died young”, turned into a cliche. The conventional story recounts that humankind lost a talented science genius when he was killed at age 19 or 20 (I don’t remember the detail) when provoked by a scoundrel into a duel where Galois was protecting the honor of a low life prostitute (the “moralizing” message is clear and strong: evil people caused the death of a “clean” and brilliant young genius). Yet, historiographic research shows that Galois was far from a “nice kid”, that he was the provocateur in the duel and the lady was not a low life prostitute (this is nicely sumarised in a book by Rothman and Ellis). This example shows how easily it is to generate legends about young geniuses that deliver a Hollywood melodrama style “good vs bad” message.

    Another case is Einstein’s Special Relativity. The theory was proposed in an article written by 26 years old Einstein in 1905 working as a patent office clerk in Bern. This is portrayed in conventional wisdom as an example of genius only happening when scientists are young, and is often contrasted with Einstein’s alleged blunders was as an older scientist (his dismissal of uncertainty quantum mechanics “god does not play dices”).

    Yet, the real picture is much more nuanced. By 1905 other (much older) scientists like the physicist Lorentz and the mathematician Poincare already had the basic knowledge to propose Special Relativity (experimental evidence already existed: the Michaelson-Morley .experiment). Einstein’s 1905 paper is conceptually powerful but extremely simple, involving mostly High School level algebra. Any major established late XIX century physicist knowledgeable in Electrodynamics had the theoretical basis to propose the replacement of Galilean transformations that preserve Newton’s laws by a Lorentz transformations that preserve electrodynamics (Maxwell’s equations). So, why they didn’t do it? Most likely because of intellectual inertia: these established scientists were too comfortable in their intellectual niche in which Newtonian mechanics was the established theory and Maxwell’s electromagnetism was relatively new. It is possible to argue that Einstein achieved this small, but revolutionary and paradigm changing, step not so much because he was young but because he was an outsider without a reputation to worry about. Anyway, the detailed picture is much more nuanced than simply stating the youth hypothesis (which has become a near cliche).

    In tobacco/nicotine issues we could (probably) argue that there is a kernel of truth in the conventional wisdom about youth being a factor in smoking initiation, but as you argue (in parallel to the cases of the young scientists), the real picture is much more nuanced, with social costume and conventions playing an important role, and (most importantly) with a lot of legend and myths with moralising contents around the whole issue.

  4. Thank you for this, Carl.
    You mention in passing that the term “addiction” is problematic. Could you point me to any blog posts of yours which discuss the problem. I feel I’ve read your ideas on this, but wish to brush up on them. I seem to remember agreeing with you on the matter, but wanted to confirm this to myself.

    • Carl V Phillips

      I have written a fair bit about it in pieces and in passing — use the tag or search the archives for the word. But I don’t think I have written a piece focused on that in a very long time. Short answer: “Addiction” gets used as if it were a meaningful scientific term. It is not. Literally no one can explain what they mean by it if you ask them. There is one candidate official definition — that used by NIDA and others like them — which hinges on it causing substantial disfunction in normal life activities. Obviously smoking etc. do not do that.

      Maybe I am due to write a focused piece on the topic.

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