the drinking age and dogma

July 6, 2009



I’ve always been one of those people who claims that our nation’s high drinking age has caused increased binge drinking. “Look at Europe,” I’d say, “they have lower drinking ages and less crazy binge drinking.” Correlation equals causation. The argument goes that entirely blocking someone’s access to a drug makes them all the more likely to abuse it when they do eventually get access to it.

Well, I’m sad to admit, this study shows that I am wrong. The researchers analyzed data between 1979 and 2006 from over 500,000 subjects in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. As it turns out, except in college kids (and that’s a big except), the incidence of binge drinking declined significantly as the drinking age increased from 18 to 21. Binge drinking in college students, where access to alcohol is still quite easy through students of legal age, remained roughly the same.

I used to always tell me students that I would only believe a non-intuitive claim if it was published in an peer-reviewed academic journal. Well, it’s been done, so I have to change my opinion about the drinking age and its influences on binge drinking.

That’s not to say that someone reading the methods section of this paper in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (where it’s being published this month) might say, “That’s not right because of x, y, and z.” If that does happen, as happens in all good science, a civil, measured discussion will ensue in the academic journals. That discussion is healthy and important for us to eventually understand the complexity of the issue. But this article now shifts the burden of proof to the other side.

Too often, and I think scientists are prone to this behavior as well, we read convincing, reliable evidence contrary to our own opinions and immediate write it off for one reason or another. Do not confuse this inclination with skepticism, which challenges claims and evidence, probing them for weaknesses. Ultimately, though, the skeptic can be won over if the argument and evidence is convincing enough. The dogmatic cannot. Dogma is dangerous in that it leads to conformity, which another recent study found to be bad for a civilization.

Dogma is the antithesis of scientific inquiry, and we must be wary that it does not seep into our thinking. Ask yourself, what would it take for you to change your mind on your most fundamental principles. If the answer is nothing, you’re in trouble.

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