Beer Goggles

In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uncorked such a howler--headlined "Gonorrhea Rates Decline With Higher Beer Tax"--that even The Washington Post was moved to question the conclusions. In doing so, the Post laid bare the motivations and prejudices of the CDC's supposedly unbiased researchers.

The CDC claimed recent history showed that cases of the clap declined when beer prices went up. So, reasoned the government's wonks, "a 20-cent state tax increase per six-pack of beer could reduce U.S. gonorrhea rates by almost 9 per cent." The Post had the good sense to ask David Murray of the Statistical Assessment Service, a non-profit think tank in D.C., about the study.

STATS does yeoman's work pointing out the junk reasoning at the root of so much junk science. This one was a high, hanging curve for Murray, who said the CDC's thinking was on the level of "the sun goes down because we turn on the street lights."

The really interesting thing is that the CDC, in effect, agrees with that criticism. It buries its assent, however, in an editorial note that says the findings "do not prove a causal relation between higher taxes and declining STD [sexually transmitted disease] rates." Meanwhile, the study gives the CDC a way to generate coverage for a policy change it would like to see implemented.

"The study findings are consistent with the idea that higher taxes can reduce STD rates," Harrell Chesson, a health economist and linguistic contortionist with the CDC, told the Post. "We said higher taxes could reduce the rate. We didn't say they would."

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