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Testing, Testing – Do We Test Interventions Sufficiently?

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?

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