Are Americans becoming more skeptical of scientific inquiry? Some are, according to the pundits. See, for example, Chystia Freeland’s article in the New York Times, “A Deep Faith in What’s Been Proved,” and Paul Krugman’s article in the same paper, “Republicans Against Science.”
Although there does appear to be a growing skepticism about the value of science to address problems such as global warming, there has long been a neglect of social science when it comes to evaluating programs designed to change people’s behavior in beneficial ways, such as those that try to get kids to avoid drugs and alcohol, teach parenting skills, and prevent adolescent behavior problems. Myriad programs that receive federal and state funding have never been adequately tested to see if they work. When they are tested, they are often found to be ineffective or even to do harm.
Consider the D.A.R.E. drug abuse resistance program, which is used in 75% of school districts in the United States and in more than 40 countries. D.A.R.E. lists among its sponsors the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, the U. S. Department of State, all five branches of the U. S. military, and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. President Obama, like his predecessors, designated a day in April as National D.A.R.E. Day to commemorate the program.
There is only one problem: D.A.R.E. doesn’t work. Studies have repeatedly shown that kids who take part in the program are no less likely to smoke, drink, or abuse drugs than kids who do not. To their credit, D.A.R.E. officials revamped the program in 2009, and maybe this new version will do some good (it is currently being tested). But doesn’t it seem like putting the cart before the horse to sink millions of dollars into a program and implement it in 75% of our schools before we know whether it works?
Another example is Healthy Families America, which is a home visitation program designed to prevent child abuse in at-risk families. According to the Healthy Families America website, 54% of its funding came from federals sources, 38% from state governments, and 8% from local sources. But sadly, like the D.A.R.E. drug program, there is little evidence that it works. The program was been implement throughout the United States before it was adequately tested, and like D.A.R.E., it now has an institutional momentum that is hard to stop, despite the lack of hard evidence that it does any good.
I can hear my conservative friends now: “This just goes to show that we should slash funding further instead of wasting government money on failed programs.” But we can’t let problems like teen alcoholism and child abuse go unchecked, the human toll would be intolerable (not to mention the financial toll in terms of health care dollars). I have another suggestion: Let’s invest those funds in finding out which programs work and supporting the ones that do.
Programs such as D.A.R.E. and Healthy Families America are based on common-sense notions of what will work that turn out to be wrong. Meanwhile, there is an abundance of basic research in social psychology that examines the underpinnings of human cognition, emotion, and motivation, research that has led to successful interventions to reduce alcohol and drug use, prevent child abuse, narrow the achievement gap in education, and help people in many other ways. We know that these programs work because they have been put to the test by behavioral scientists in well-controlled experimental studies, in which participants were randomly assigned to get the intervention and or to a control condition that did not.
Timothy Wilson is the Sherrell J. Aston professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Wilson’s book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change was published by Little, Brown in September. Dr. Wilson is a regular contributor to THCB.