However, I can recognize when a study has no power. It's generally best not to come to conclusions too broad when your sample size is unimpressive.
On that note, I give you two writers who are generally smarter than this kind of thing. First up, the estimable E.D. Kain at True/Slant, discussing the appalling case of a couple who let their real infant starve to death while "raising" a virtual one on one of those Second-Life-like games:
[O]ne feels almost guilty participating in this virtual world when a story like this surfaces. What other ways could we be spending our time? How may we be neglecting those we love? The average high school student spends five and a half hours a day in front of a screen. This is increasingly true of all age demographics. It’s eerily reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – but in a sense, even more frightening for its lack of anything really sinister. Nobody is out burning books. We’re just creating a world in which they are increasingly irrelevant. And in which family, community, and even our children are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Then there's Rod Dreher on obesity, enraged by the case of a hugely fat woman who strives to gain yet more weight:
This revolting Donna Simpson person weighs 602 pounds, and is trying to get
to 1,000 pounds. Why? She makes her money with a website in which pervs (like
her kinky boyfriend) pay to watch her shove food in her mouth and jiggle around.
"I love eating and people love watching me eat," she says. "It makes
people happy, and I'm not harming anyone."
If... most everybody who is obese can't do anything about it, why is it
that obesity rates have skyrocketed over the course of a single generation? Look
at this map. Obesity like this isn't something that just happened. We are
eating too much, we're eating the wrong kind of food, and we're not exercising.
Of course some of us will have a more difficult time than others controlling our
weight, owing to our genetic inheritance, or environmental factors (e.g., it may
be harder to exercise, or to access healthier food). But in the main, I simply
don't buy that obesity is something largely beyond the individual's ability to
First of all, I'm sure Elizabeth has plenty to say about the question of obesity and free will. But that's not really where I'm going here.
Every so often, someone will seize upon a particularly horrifying or eye-catching story and use it as a jumping-off point for a broader social commentary. However, the truth is, neither of these stories say anything meaningful about anything other than the particular people in it. Perhaps we spend too much time online, and obesity rates are problematic, whatever the cause. But the deeply disturbed people in these two cases are worthless as proxies for society at large.
Both Dreher and Kain doubtless had the opinions they expressed before they read about these people, and the stories were merely the impetus for posts that were already brewing in some murky sulcus or another. But it weakens what might otherwise be stronger commentaries to predicate them on such outliers.