I posted a piece to the New York Times Upshot this week discussing a paper by Esther Friedman of RAND and Rob Mare of UCLA. The authors' reply is now posted at the end of my Upshot article. Go read it and then come back for my take, below.
The heart of my post was that the paper did not convincingly demonstrate a causal relationship. If the paper did not claim causality, this would be a hollow criticism. In their reply the authors say "Nowhere in our article do we assert that the relationship we find is causal." I went back and reread the paper. It uses causal language. It is especially prevalent in the abstract and discussion, where editors and readers expect the punchline. Many a reader will read only these sections.
This may seem nitpicky. But language matters. While academics might read between the lines to discern that a paper isn't really claiming causality, the lay person and policymaker almost certainly won't.
Language in the paper that describes a causal relationship, with emphases added, is below. Note you don't have to use the word "cause" to imply causality. "Guns kill" is a causal statement. So is "Guns have independent effects on mortality."
"We show that adult offspring’s educational attainments have independent effects on their parents’ mortality, even after controlling for parents’ own socioeconomic resources."
"These findings suggest that one way to influence the health of the elderly is through their offspring."
"This article investigates whether the educational attainments of individuals should be viewed as a family resource, benefiting not only the individuals themselves but also their parents."
"This research isolates a mechanism through which differences in health and mortality come about, to wit: the differential educational attainments of offspring."
"Our results suggest that in the United States, parents benefit from having more-educated offspring — a benefit that extends beyond the effects of parents’ own SES."
"Although health policy research typically emphasizes individual interventions with immediate outcomes, this work shows that another way to influence the health of the elderly is through their offspring."
"Policies targeting one generation of the family may set in motion a series of reactions that lead to improved health for others in previous generations, subsequent generations, and the broader family unit."
"This article shows that generations of families are interdependent, and the well-being of one generation does not necessarily come at the expense of the well-being of other generations. Improving offspring’s lives may benefit not only the offspring themselves over their lifetimes but their parents as well."