Almost as if on cue, from stage left, another erroneous piece of science reporting struts upon the stage. USA Today’s headline: Poverty Dramatically Affects Children’s Brains. The nut:
A new study finds that certain brain functions of some low-income 9- and 10-year-olds pale in comparison with those of wealthy children and that the difference is almost equivalent to the damage from a stroke.
“It is a similar pattern to what’s seen in patients with strokes that have led to lesions in their prefrontal cortex,” which controls higher-order thinking and problem solving, says lead researcher Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley.
Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on science reporters. The feedback from experts via blogs is…what was Bill Gates’ phrase?….faster than the speed of thought. Tyler Cowen passed the USA Today story and the research paper it was based on to Michelle Dawson, a researcher at the University of Montreal who specializes in childhood brain development. No need for press releases! Dawson writes:
I read the poor vs rich kids brains study (Kishiyama et al.). It’s a very small study (13 in each group) and the groups aren’t matched on ethnicity. In the major task (the one which got media attention), where the authors looked at ERPs [TC: here is a link on ERP], the performance of the two groups was the same. The performance of the two groups on a Stroop task, a classic test of what the poor kids are said to be incapable of, was also the same. The major performance difference between groups was on vocabulary (the WISC-III vocabulary test), but only a few tests were used. There was no attempt to match the groups on IQ.
Just to repeat two key points: a) the observed difference in electrical current patterns may depend on IQ differences, not poverty, and b) on the actual major task the poor kids did just as well. There are tasks where the poor children do less well but this is hardly news.
Popular science reporting on neuro issues is very often not to be trusted.
Science reporters of the world. Let’s sing it again: correlation does not imply causation!