Spanking Kids Causes Cancer. Also, Asthma and Cardiac Disease.

Be careful, that could cause cancer!
Yes, and cardiac disease and asthma, too. Or so say Michael Hyland, Ahmed Alkhalaf, and Ben Whalley in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. The press is already hot on this story.

Here’s how this statistical discovery was made. Our trio ventured to Saudi Arabia and gathered 150 patients (half men) suffering from asthma, then the same number of heart disease and cancer patients. Then they found 250 folks (half men) who did not so suffer. These healthy were culled from “nursing and administrative staff departments” at the same hospitals were the sick people were. All were between 40 and 60.

They asked participants “Were you beaten as a child?” (they also looked at insults). Curiously (Table 2), 24 of the 450 sickies (5%) said they were beat “At least once a day.” Maybe that’s true, but golly that seems high. Anyway, 78% of the asthmatics were beat at least once; 93% of the cancerous were; and 75% of the cardiac patients were. Lo, only 55% of the healthy nurses and administrators were beaten.

Theses numbers were fed into a fancy statistical model and it was decided that lack of spanking makes one healthy; or to put it another way, spanking causes cancer, asthma, and heart disease. Case closed?

Perhaps there were other factors at play? Turns out (Table 1) that the healthy folks were on average younger than the sickies: 47 versus 50 (cancer), 53 (heart), and 50 (asthmatics). And then the healthy nurses and administrators had more eduction on average, too: 4.5 (higher is more) versus 3.4 (cancer), 2.6 (heart), and 3.4 (asthmatics).

Same thing turned out to be true for the education of the participants’ mothers: healthy people had more educated moms. And then the same thing turned out true yet again for the education of the participants’ fathers, etc. Any other differences? We do learn that healthy people are nurses and administrators. We never learn what the sick people do.

The authors at least recognized the discrepancy in measured variables and used the controversial technique of “propensity analysis” to “adjust” the samples between the healthy and sickies, so that age and education would be “balanced” between the groups. This balancing still gave the same results: spanking causes cancer, etc.

The difficulty with propensity analysis is that it can only “balance” that which it sees. Here it only takes notice of age and education. Not job, and not other sociodemographic characteristics, and not other circumstances that would lead to differences in health between nurses and administrators and hospital patients.

There is some question of measurement error: these are all self reports and there is some likelihood interviewees were telling interviewers what they wanted to hear, which might account for the high rate of people who claimed to have been beaten every day. Perhaps less educated people would over-estimate the number of beatings compared to more educated people?

Or maybe the number of beatings are accurate, but that nurses are just people who suffer fewer beatings. Isn’t that more likely than spanking causing some mechanism to at once cause more cancer, and then, via a different pathway, more asthma, and then by a third pathway, also cause more heart disease?

And then there are some strange results. People who claimed to have been beaten at least once a day their whole childhood long actually had a lower risk of cancer than those not beaten. Beating protects against cancer? Or, do much for a coherent dose-response effect.

Good news is that the authors claim, “Although our research was carried out in Saudi Arabia, it will almost certainly generalise to other cultures.” Why? Answer: why not?

The best news is that “further research is needed” especially with regards to “reversability.” Perhaps two hugs for every one swat? Three “atta boys” for every “you brat!”?


  1. Speed

    Briggs wrote, “And then the healthy nurses and administrators had more eduction on average, too: 4.5 (in what units, we never discover) … ”

    From the paper, “Education was indicated via a 7 point scale (1 = none, 2 = elementary, 3 = intermediate, 4 = high school, 5 = Bachelor degree, 6 = Master degree, 7 = Higher graduate degree).”

    It’s interesting that the word “tobacco” doesn’t appear in the paper. Tobacco use is a generally accepted cause of cancer, cardiac disease and can trigger asthma attacks. In the US, tobacco use is inversely related to education level and one could hypothesize that more educated people beat their children less.

  2. Briggs


    Thanks; obviously missed that. I’ll correct the text.

  3. Speed

    I want to expand on the tobacco issue with a link to data relating tobacco use to education and incidentally gender, ethnicity and poverty. It is important information in a time when health care costs are in the news front and center.

    •More men (nearly 24%) than women (about 18%) smoke.
    •Nearly 30% of multiracial adults and 23% of American Indian/Alaska Native adults smoke.
    •Smoking rates are higher among people with a lower education level. For example, nearly 1 in 2 of all US adults who have a GED smoke; only around 6% of people with a graduate degree smoke.
    •About 31% of people who live below the poverty level smoke.

    And as a simple and obvious critique of the paper … why didn’t they ask some simple health history questions like, um, “Have you ever used tobacco?” Maybe they did and failed to report the results.

  4. Mike Ozanne

    Agree on Tobacco, Not to mention, nutrition housing density and air and water quality and given the ambient conditions access to air conditioning. Surprised there wasn’t a link to TB and Scabies……

    What is it with social scientists and their unnerring aim for the nearest pile of horse puckey.

  5. Bruce Foutch

    Let’s not forget the 100% correlation between exposure to Dihydrogen Monoxide and human illness/mortality. The numbers don’t lie. I sure don’t see anything about the subjects DHMO exposure in this paper.

    More evidence of the serious dangers of DHMO can be found here:

    “Unfortunately, the dangers of DHMO have increased as world population has increased, a fact that the raw numbers and careful research both bear out. Now more than ever, it is important to be aware of just what the dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide are and how we can all reduce the risks faced by ourselves and our families.”

  6. DAV

    The ultimate cause of death is birth. Also, death is closely correlated to drinking milk as a child. If you’ve ever drank milk, you are doomed.

  7. pauld

    Maybe someone should study whether being spanked as a child is correlated with higher rates of tobacco use? Sounds like a good PhD dissertation to me.

  8. Ray

    Did they accuratly measure the number, intensity and duration of the beatings or did they just depend on peoples recall and assign numerical values to peoples tales of woe? Even more important than actual measurements, did they obtain the required P=.05 value?

  9. Speed

    Ray asked, “Did they accuratly [sic] measure the number, intensity and duration of the beatings or did they just depend on peoples recall and assign numerical values to peoples tales of woe?”

    From the link kindly provided by our host …

    Frequency of beating as a child was measured by a single Arabic question which, translated into English reads ‘‘Were you beaten as a child?’’ Participants responded on an eight-point scale ranging from ‘never’ to ‘at least once a day’ (see Table 2). Frequency of insult was measured by a single question ‘‘Did your parents verbally insult you?’’ with same response scale.

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