Some adolescents experiment early with alcohol and drugs, a behavior that puts them at later risk for substance abuse and other health problems. A recent study looked at this risky behavior. Journalistic coverage by a Yahoo! news reporter started with this encouraging headline:
Caring Teachers May Help Keep Kids From Trying Alcohol, Drugs
The full story appears here. The basic details of the study were summarized by Yahoo! news as follows:
The researchers found that students in middle school who felt more emotional support from teachers had a lower risk of early alcohol and illicit drug use. The students defined teacher support as feeling close to a teacher or being able to discuss problems with a teacher.
a. What are the two main variables in this study, as described above? Can you tell how they were operationalized? Do you think these two variables were measured or manipulated?
"this is the first data-driven study which shows that teacher support is associated with lower levels of early alcohol use."
...compared to how the Yahoo! journalist describes it in the headline:
"teachers may help keep kids from trying alcohol, drugs."
b. What kind of claim is each person making?
c. Is the journalist's claim justified by the study?
a. One variable in this study is "early alcohol and drug use." It's hard to tell how this was operationalized---probably through self-report. Since early alcohol and drug use is almost impossible to manipulate ethically, this is almost certainly a measured variable. The other variable is "emotional support from teachers." This variable appears to be operationalized through a self-report of 'feeling close to a teacher or being able to discuss problems with them'. This is a measured variable, too. They simply asked kids about their relationships with teachers.
b. The researcher is making an association claim (she clearly says "is associated with"). But the journalist's verb choice, "keep from," is a causal verb--making it a causal claim.
c. The journalist's causal claim is not justified by the study. Only an experiment (with one manipulated and one measured variable) can potentially support causation. This study, in contrast, is a corelational study because all of the variables were measured.