Rejoinder to Gary Guttings Doubts about the Behavioral Sciences

Gary Gutting, Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame published an opinion piece this week on the New York Times Opinionater pages. In it, he asserts that “we need to develop a much better sense of the severely limited reliability of social scientific results” and that “Given the limited predictive success and the lack of consensus in social sciences, their conclusions can seldom be primary guides to setting policy. At best, they can supplement the general knowledge, practical experience, good sense and critical intelligence that we can only hope our political leaders will have.”

Dr. Gutting is woefully uninformed about the effectiveness of the behavioral sciences. His view are at least thirty years out of date. He is clearly unaware of the Institute of Medicine report on prevention, which describes the results of numerous randomized trials showing the benefits of many family and school interventions for preventing virtually the entire range of psychological and behavioral problems of human beings.

First, with respect to the assertion that randomized controlled trials “are seldom possible when human beings are involved,” the IOM report on prevention indicates that there were more than 290 randomized trials evaluating preventive interventions between 1999 and 2007. Clearly he is mistaken about the possibility of doing randomized trials.

He is also mistaken about the ability of the behavioral sciences to specify policies and practices that can enhance human wellbeing. The IOM report describes many experimental evaluations of family interventions that routinely show that parents’ skills can be enhanced, children’s positive social development improved, and that problems as diverse as antisocial behavior, drug abuse, depression, and risky sexual behavior cen be prevented. There are family interventions for every stage of development, from the prenatal period through adolescence. At every age, we have solid experimental evidence that the social behaviors that lead children to fail in school and develop multiple problems can be prevented.

Then there are school-based interventions. Here too we have solid experimental evidence that preschools and public schools can be transformed to nurture children’s’ academic and social development. To take just one example, the Psychiatrist, Sheppard Kellam did a randomized trial of the Good Behavior Game, which rewards children for working cooperatively in small groups. He found that when children played the game in first grade, they developed the self-regulatory skills that enhanced their development. Children whose classrooms were randomly assigned to play the game in first grade, were less likely to have problems with suicidality, antisocial behavior, or drug abuse as young adults! I am confident that any physicist who was aware of this research would prefer to have their children in a classroom that played the Good Behavior Game.

Dr. Gutting should also be aware the clinical psychology has made enormous progress in the past thirty years thanks, in part, to its relentless use of randomized trials. I have just reviewed more than fifty randomized trials of an approach to treatment called, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT helps people become more willing to have unpleasant thoughts and feelings in the service of their pursuing valued directions. There are randomized trials showing the benefit of ACT for: anxiety, depression, job burnout, drug abuse, cigarette smoking, schizophrenia, epilepsy, , diabetes, physical activity, prejudice, willingness to innovate, and willingness of drug abuse counselors to try new practices.

Canards about the inferior nature of the behavioral sciences have been a staple of public discussion in some intellectual circles for many years. But times have changed. Like other areas of science there has been a steady accumulation of knowledge. It is time for academics who have an influence on public discussion to become better informed about the very valuable tools that are already available to society to prevent virtually all of the psychological and behavioral problems that plague society. Hopefully people like Dr. Gutting will learn about the tremendous progress that has been made in behavioral science research. Perhaps then he will be writing opinion pieces demanding that society inform its policy-making with all of the evidence that can guide us to achieve communities where many fewer young people develop problems and many more succeed.

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