Never Mind the Facts. We Know What We Believe. How Solutions for the Public Good Get Sabotaged

In this age of data-based accountability, it’s ironic that assertions based solely on ideology, political one-upsmanship, emotion, or psychological insecurity—even outright lies— are so flagrantly used as the basis for political decisions. It’s almost like an equal and opposite reaction. The more obsessive the data collection and record keeping, the less we want to use any of it if it might conflict with our preconceptions. Makes me wonder, do we even want to know the truth?

Here are a few observations that make me scratch my head.

Healthcare costs continue to rise and it’s difficult for low income people, particularly seniors, to afford the medications they need. There are solutions. For example, Americans pay 2-6 times more for prescription drugs than other countries do. If the Medicaid program could negotiate directly with the pharmaceutical companies, the savings to the federal government and consumers could be huge. Drug costs for the Veteran’s Administration, which can negotiate, are 10-20% lower than drug costs in the rest of the U.S. But, Medicaid is prevented by law from negotiating price.

In another example, Maine decided to benefit from the drug prices of its neighbor, Canada. That didn’t last long though. The pharmaceutical industry challenged Maine’s law in court. A judge overturned it on grounds that drug imports are federal jurisdiction. In both cases, research points to solutions, but implementing those solutions has been blocked, by Congress, the courts, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Reducing crime is a major Trump administration focus. The president campaigned on the issue. Subsequently, he signed an executive order directing the Justice Department “to form a task force on reducing violent crime in America.” Jeff Sessions, at his swearing in as Attorney General, said he’ll target a crime problem that is a “dangerous permanent trend that places the safety of the American people at risk.”

Sounds good. We all want to be safe from crime. However, the facts are that violent crime rates and property crime rates have steadily and precipitously dropped since the early 1990s. Consequently, focusing on reducing crime seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

u.s. crime rates are declining

And then of course, if we don’t want to have to make decisions at all, sometimes it’s best not to collect the data. In the 1990s, researchers found that keeping a gun in the home increased the risk of someone in the household dying from the weapon. This finding didn’t sit well with the National Rifle Association. The NRA attacked the studies and Congress zeroed out the budget for gun violence research and banned the Center for Disease Control from advocating for gun control. An attempt by the Obama Administration to revive research after the Newtown elementary school shooting went nowhere.

Meanwhile, in the absence of additional knowledge about gun violence that could be used to help keep families safe, 48% of gun owners say they need their weapon for protection. That’s up from 26% in 1999. And this is happening despite the fact that crime rates have seriously dropped. Further, some states are allowing open carry, and permitting guns in classrooms and other public venues. We don’t really know whether it will make people safer, increase violence or have no effect, since there isn’t research.

It’s no easy feat to translate data and research findings into policy. As any social scientist doing applied research knows, when you start sharing the results for decision making, values, interests, and power structures come into play and must be navigated. But the task becomes impossible when facts aren’t even wanted, and falsehoods are acceptable to justify ideological or self-interests.

UPDATE April 25, 2017: The National Rifle Association is suing the State of California to reverse new gun control laws enacted last year in the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernadino.

For anyone who may be wondering, here’s an article about What California’s New Gun Control Laws Mean for Hunters, Target Shooters. It includes some specifics on what the new laws entail.

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