Study Touting iPad Textbooks Raises More Questions Than It Answers (UPDATED 1/27)

The latest Apple innovation everyone is talking about is interactive textbooks for the iPad, which Apple and others are promising will revolutionize education. So far, the buzz seems to be working: in the first three days after the project was unveiled last week, 350,000 textbooks were downloaded, along with 90,000 copies of the program authors can use to create the textbooks. And on Friday, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the nation’s largest textbook publishers and a key participant in the new initiative, released a pilot study touting the benefits of its HMH Fuse: Algebra 1 iPad textbook. The press release points to a twenty percentage point increase in math proficiency among students who used the app and claims these students were, “more motivated, attentive, and engaged than traditionally educated peers.” The findings have been picked up by Wired, MarketWatch, and a host of other technology and news sites.

Unfortunately, this seems to be another case of poorly-done research being used to promote a product or policy to journalists and consumers who may not have the statistical background to question the evidence they’re being presented with.

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Quick Hits: Wednesday, August 31st

The LA Times describes how public-private partnerships have helped keep California state parks operating in a time of tight budgets.

Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution argues that price controls have led to shortages of cancer drugs.

Brad Plumer at the Washington Post discusses how a pre-paid, “rainy-day” government fund for disaster relief could benefit us as natural disasters become increasingly expensive.

The Heritage Foundation’s Hans Von Spakovsky examines the controversy over new voter-identification laws in several states.

Quick Hits: Thursday, August 25th

The Council on Foreign Relations has an interview with Noble Prize winning economist and Hoover Institution fellow A. Michael Spence about the debt crisis and the impact of the recent U.S. credit downgrade.

George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute outlines what the British could learn from American policing.

The Economic Policy Institute discusses the problems with the J-1 visa system, which opens foreign students and other guestworkers up to abuse at the hands of employers.

The Heritage Foundation catalogs the benefits of marriage to health and well-being.

The American Enterprise Institute argues that privately operated buses are more efficient and cheaper than publicly funded high speed rail.

Would A Soda Tax Make Us Healthier?

Image Source: Flickr user poolie under a CC license.

Food columnist Mark Bittman had a big, graphics-filled article in this weekend’s NY Times arguing that taxing soda can prevent obesity. He claims that a 20% increase in the price of sugary drinks (soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks) would reduce consumption by 20% and prevent 1.5 million people from becoming obese in the next decade. Money raised through the tax could be used to subsidize the price of healthy food, making it cheaper, and support programs that promote good eating and exercise.

One problem with his argument? When a product becomes more expensive, most people don’t just eliminate it completely from their lives; instead, they substitute something similar but less costly. In other words, if sugary drinks are taxed, consumers aren’t just going to give them up and walk around chugging water all day. Most likely, they will switch to diet drinks (the taxes proposed by Bittman and others apply only to sugary, caloric drinks).

But if we can encourage people to switch from high-calorie to diet drinks that’s a good thing, right? Unfortunately, no. Recent studies have shown that diet soda is linked to obesity and associated health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s not yet clear whether diet soda itself causes weight gain or whether consuming diet soda is just a sign of an overall poor diet. Either way, taxes that incentivize people to switch from sugary drinks to diet ones, without changing the rest of their diet, won’t do much to curb obesity. Furthermore, research on a proposed soda tax in Illinois showed that many obese people have already substituted diet drinks for sugary ones, so a soda tax wouldn’t affect them much.

I think Bittman has the right idea: we should consider more carefully how prices, availability, and other incentives shape the way people eat, and what role government does or can play in structuring these incentives. Taxing soda might not be a bad step, but I don’t think it will be the cure-all Bittman suggests.

On the upside, the article was accompanied by a cool-looking interactive timeline that shows landmarks in the development of our current high-fat, high-sugar, highly-processed American diet.

Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables
The New York Times // Mark Bittman // July 23, 2011