Friday, October 16, 2015

Let's Think About It

A major problem in America is that the decisions facing us are so difficult to research and when the results come in, people only want to believe what they already believe.  At the end of the day we are back where we started, shouting bumper-sticker slogans at each other.  A couple of examples came up in the past week.  One is a pair of studies on the relationship between gun ownership and crime.  The other is about the effectiveness of Medicaid.

First is a 2007 article published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, which has been recently resurrected by those favoring fewer gun laws and labeled as an “overlooked” study.  It compared data from countries in Europe and the US and concluded that the more guns a nation has in private ownership, the less criminal activity.  One website calls this “astonishing” and prints the conclusions in five pages of detail adding that the Harvard article “cites the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the United Nations International Study on Firearms Regulation.  (However, citing an organization does not in any way imply endorsement by that organization.)  Readers sign on below and make comments in favor or against it.

The original article (45 pages of heavy reading with 150 footnotes) contains a warning in the conclusion:  “Each individual portion of evidence is subject to cavil—at the very least the general objection that the persuasiveness of social scientific evidence cannot remotely approach the persuasiveness of conclusions in the physical sciences.”  So as they say in many other studies, more research is needed.

A second, more recent study comes from a closely related source, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.  It shows the opposite effect and is cheered by those favoring stricter gun laws.  One site gleefully announces that this study “obliterates every single NRA lie about guns.”  The study also comes with a warning:  “The results do need to be interpreted with caution — this study method proves that more guns are linked to more gun crime and overall homicide, but not that access to guns directly causes this criminal uptick.”  Nonetheless, readers sign on below and make comments in favor or against it.

The other example comes from Oregon on the subject of Medicaid published by Forbes.  It seems Oregon had more people eligible for Medicaid than money for the program.  “In 2008, Oregon initiated a limited expansion of its Medicaid program for low-income adults through a lottery drawing of approximately 30,000 names from a waiting list of almost 90,000 persons.”  A random drawing resulted in two groups, one with coverage and one without.  It was an excellent set up for investigation.  After one year of data the authors of a study found that having Medicaid was better than being uninsured, but two years later with additional data found that Medicaid “generated no significant improvement in measured physical health outcomes” while those covered by Medicaid spent more on medical services!

These examples are not to favor or discourage gun ownership or to discredit Medicaid.  They merely show that some objective analysis is possible on a range of subjects, and is especially important on big, potentially very expensive issues.  The problems arise when these studies hit the media in a piecemeal fashion and as each result comes out the opposing viewpoints reply either with “I told you so” or with an attack on the methodology or motives of the authors.  No one ever pulls all the information together, perhaps for fear that the final result will not be what they wanted it to be.

This kind of disorganization and emotional knee-jerk reaction will never solve any of our big societal problems.  We will continue to follow the path of popularity vs. finding cost effective and practical solutions.  Politicians will never be motivated to initiate objective investigations unless the public begins to look more like critical thinkers and demand makes-sense instead of feels-good policies.

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