Social Hypochondria

Something called the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse put out a study last week noting with alarm that a quarter of all the alcohol sold in America is consumed by teen-agers. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the study was “wrong” because it “had not applied the standard statistical techniques in deriving that number.” This makes it sound like the error was arcane and maybe a matter of interpretation, but the Times writer, Tamar Lewin, goes on to explain it quite clearly: Forty percent of the survey sample was teen-agers, but teen-agers are less than 20 percent of the general population. Correcting for this flat-out mistake produces a figure more like 11 percent of alcohol consumption that is by teen-agers.

But this raises other questions—or it ought to, but didn’t among news organizations that publicized the original number. Shouldn’t you want to know what percentage of the population is teen-agers before you decide how alarming it is that they consume 25 percent of the alcohol? Yet the Associated Press, CNN, and others passed along the 25 percent figure—and the alarm about it—without even raising this crucial issue.

It is not obviously alarming that teen-agers consume 11 percent of the booze if they are 20 percent of the population. But then it would not be obviously alarming that they consumed 25 percent of the booze if they were 40 percent of the population. In other words, the alarm would be dubious even if the original statistic were correct. Now, maybe you believe that teen-age drinking is a problem anyway, and maybe you’re right. But a news release announcing, “Study Concludes Teenagers Drink Less Than Half as Much as General Population” is not going to rally many new troops to the cause.

In a revised statement on its Web site, the center (which is associated with Columbia University) concedes ungraciously that 11 percent “sets the lower range of estimates.” But it goes on to insist that due to a variety of other factors, the teen-age share of alcohol consumption may be as high as 30 percent. So where were these other factors when they published the 25 percent figure? It could have been jacked up to 50 percent or 60 percent! Would Joe Califano, the undoubtedly well-meaning Distinguished Former who runs the center, have thought at that point, “Wait a minute, even I don’t believe this!”?

This little episode illustrates more than just our national innumeracy—ignorance about math—or the specific credulity of the media about overheated statistics. It is an example of social hypochondria. As a society, we always seem to be obsessing about some problem like teen-age drinking or child abuse or immigration or cloning, convinced that it will destroy the country or the world unless it is eliminated. The hypochondria analogy isn’t perfect: These diseases tend to be real, not wholly imagined. But a) their perils are exaggerated—at least until they are put aside to make room for other perils; and b) the hope of ever curing them is also exaggerated.

America is not, as it sometimes seems, a society lurching from one acute social crisis to the next. It is a basically healthy society with lots of chronic problems that exist simultaneously, can and should be ameliorated, but will never go away. Nevertheless, a variety of social forces make it hard to see things that way.

One factor is politics. Both major political parties have evolved from collections of people who share a general philosophical framework for looking at the world into coalitions of convenience among people who each feel strongly about one or two particular issues. Direct-mail fund raising, on which both parties rely (and will rely even more if campaign-finance reform succeeds in reducing the role of large donors), works by finding “hot button” issues and exaggerating both their importance and what can be done about them. Special interest groups have actually replaced the parties as the main loyalty of most politically active people. These groups are monomaniacal by definition, and they depend even more on hot-button direct mail.

The media have an obvious vested interest in sowing serial social panic, and that certainly seems to be more true than ever before, though I’m not sure why. What is new is the fad of corporations adopting social issues, then spending millions on them and zillions on bragging about the millions. Also fairly new is the development of social issues—or rather, one good social issue—as a necessary adornment for celebrities from movie stars to first ladies. In fact, issues themselves have become celebrities: each one blindingly famous for 15 minutes, seen dating Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather, and then brutally dumped and forgotten.

And then there are the lawyers. Suing is our national sport. (Professionals of other sports are among its most enthusiastic practitioners.) If there were an Olympic gold medal for litigation, no other country would have a prayer. Under modern rules like those for class actions, lawsuits are almost an industrial process. Finding or fabricating a social grievance and using it to get the culture of publicity working on your behalf are routine steps. According to a recent study by the respected National Center for Credulity and Alarm, Americans are twice as likely to swallow a phony statistic about a social issue, and almost 2.7 times more likely to find it alarming, as citizens of either the European Union or the former Soviet bloc.

Can you believe that?