A bad story hides a good point

Stuff.co.nz headline (4 December 2017)
Not news — for several different reasons

Sometimes, being nearly right is actually worse than being completely wrong. A story headlined Higher Alcohol Levels In Craft Beer Catching Drivers Out was published yesterday, and proved to be an instructively terrible example of this. It’s broadly in the ‘single out beer to be the bad guy in a story about booze in general’ genre, but goes an extra step and zeroes in on “craft beer” for some speculative shaming. Frustratingly, they built their pile of wrongness incredibly close to an important point, which they just wound up burying in crap.

First, it’s not clear at all from the article that there even exists a phenomenon that calls out for an explanation. There’s been a “spike in the number of drink-drivers caught in Nelson over the past couple of months”, we’re told, and that’s it. But Nelson, if you’re not familiar with it, is famously sunny and warm and therefore probably sees a seasonal spike in everything this time of year, good and bad. Without anything further to suggest a real trend,1 the rest is superfluous; save your head-scratching about possible causes until you find an actual effect.

Secondly, literally nothing connects the supposed “spike” to craft beer, of whatever strength, other than the observation that sales are up.2 No results to report from a “what were your last few drinks?” survey, not even a flimsy anecdote about noticing beer-related t-shirts on drivers who failed or anything. As it is, the article doesn’t come within a hundred miles of justifying its headline and amounts to a straight-up exercise in taking a logical fallacy out for a walk and making various irrelevant observations along the way.

Thirdly, and most importantly, this piece is so obviously flawed that it’ll do nothing but embolden craft beer fans that are already often embarrassingly defensive and delusional about the individual and societal effects of their favourite kind of booze. All too frequently I see people in this community dismissive of the idea that “we” might be (or have) a problem in a way that is backed up by precisely as little evidence as this piece was, and often smacks of a really nasty classist atttidue. Maybe craft beer does disproportionately correlate with certain kinds of harm in a way that warrants an intervention. We should try to find out. Pieces like this just strain the credibility of people who could help us do that.

This could’ve easily been something sane and useful. The alcohol content of beer is much more variable than most wine or spirits — a difference which is magnified by the continued rise of “craft beer”. And a seemingly-small increase in ABV has a counter-intuitively strong effect; a 6% beer can be twice as intoxicating as a 5% beer drunk at the same speed, not just the 20% more you might assume.3 There is a real danger here, and getting behind the wheel of a tonne of metal and hurling it down the road at a dozen metres per second with any significant amount of booze in your system is the absolute paradigm of stupid and reckless and selfish behaviour. Clearer thinking is required about this, but here we just get a bunch of illogical nonsense and unsubstantiated guff. Here’s what an Alcohol Harm Prevention Officer should say:

Drink-driving numbers are down, and that’s great, but any number other than zero is too big. Beer’s a lot more varied than it used to be, and that’s good news too; there are tasty mild options as well as much stronger stuff. Know what you’re having, how it effects you, and be responsible. The best strategy: just don’t fuckin’ risk it. Thanks.

  1. I went looking and found general data pointing in the opposite direction: the broad trend in booze-related crashes is steady or down over the last few years and while data on arrests is harder for me to parse (try your luck on policedata.nz, I struggled to single out the right offenses), it also looks like a solid downward slide. If something peculiar to Nelson is going the other way, they could at least tell us.
  2. The numbers cited — a 38% increase in 2015, 17% in 2016 — smell suspiciously like those in the hideously-flawed ANZ Craft Beer Insights report, and if you’re a fan of that, your relationship to evidence is immediately suspect.
  3. For reasons nicely explained by Joe Stange a few years ago and which I also covered in my Session Beer Session at the Great Kiwi Beer Festival earlier the same year — repeat performances of which are available on request. The short version is that you can metabolise away a standard drink, i.e., 330ml at 4%, per hour, so the 6% option has twice as much ‘surplus’ booze (which is what accumulates and gets you drunk) as the 5% one does.

Have at it: