Linking the prioritization of children to prevent mass shootings is dangerous

Linking the prioritization of children to prevent mass shootings is dangerous
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Drs Kenneth Dodge and Harold Koplewicz have offered their prescription for preventing violence in American society in an op-ed they published on Oct. 12 entitled, “To prevent violence, we need to prioritize children. Their article illustrates the dangers of advocacy science, the potential for conflicts of interest when demanding societal resources and the pitfalls of extrapolating experimental outcomes to societal populations.

The prescription that the authors give is succinctly, if nonspecifically, captured in the title of the article. The unavoidable implication is that America has not prioritized children. The editorial offers no analysis of the nature or efficacy of past efforts, programs and interventions to prioritize children and no cost to benefit assessment.

Drs Dodge and Koplewicz apparently feel that whatever has been done, to whatever effect, has been insufficient and that this deficiency is substantially contributing to the violence in American society.


The last fifty years of misguided public policy has cultivated, at great expense, the social circumstances which contribute to sociopathic behaviors in adolescents and young adults. By far the most important is the demise of the nuclear family and the lack of adequate parental supervision.

Rather than change course the proposed remedy is a massive new government program of psychological intervention after the fact. Pay to create the problem and pay again to treat it.

The editorial begins with a reference to the recent mass shooting incident in Las Vegas and includes the ritual passage from the progressive liturgy that “guns are central to this tragedy.” It is not made clear how the horrific actions of a mentally unstable, suicidal 64 year old man relate to the topic of the psychosocial health of children.

The authors then make a straw man argument that when it comes to troubled youth, society either assumes they will “grow out of it,” or “they were born that way and can never change.” No evidence is provided for this accusation and I doubt much could be produced by the authors. It appears to be little more than an indulgence in rhetorical finger wagging at their fellow citizens.

The essay then pivots to the “great body of evidence…developmental scientists have accumulated that points…towards why so many people grow up to commit acts of violence.” In a nutshell, psycho-emotional childhood stress and trauma produce an “acquired deficit in the function and volume of brain regions tied to neurocognitive processing” resulting in “defensive processing,” anxiety, anger, lack of empathy and a default resort to violence.

The authors state that “hundreds of research papers have shown that children who receive early interventions have better outcomes in diverse domains, including substance abuse…and arrests for violent crimes.”

I’ve no doubt that some individuals are helped by psychological interventions as children. However, we should be skeptical about extrapolating individual psychotherapy to measurable changes in population based behaviors and national crime statistics. The hundreds of studies alluded to include many with methodological issues including small sample size, uncontrolled case reports, short observation periods, lack of control groups and retrospective analyses among other problems.

For example: A paper on childhood nutrition by Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University in 2012 reported that food choices for children age 8 to 11 could be significantly influenced by branding. But this paper was subsequently retracted due to errors including misstated study description, misstated sample size, inadequate statistical procedures and a mislabeled bar graph. Even the ages studied were incorrect. Of great note: A multi-million dollar federally funded program was, in part, based on this research.

Another example is the The Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University, which for many provided the “settled science” on the issue of climate change. But an email hack in 2009 uncovered a pattern of manipulated and selected temperature data to conform to the global warming orthodoxy. It is unknown how many millions — billions— of dollars have been spent by governments worldwide on a scientific argument that is not settled.

These are just two of many examples in which the peer review process has failed or been willfully subordinated to political objectives.

These problems are more prevalent among studies in the social sciences than the natural sciences. Research in psychology and social psychology straddles this fence and is prone to methodological weaknesses and investigator bias.

When political and economic considerations are brought to bear, specific outcomes are sought and funding and status are at stake, the risks of compromising objectivity and scientific integrity rise dramatically. It is necessary and proper to view public policy driven research with skepticism. The claim that hundreds of published papers support a specific conclusion lacks credibility in such circumstances and does not constitute “settled science” whether in the field of nutrition, climate or social psychology.

The editorial contains an anecdote about a scientific symposium in which some participants suggested policy “should be made by scientists rather than politicians.” The contrast between scientists conducting research with the aim of directing public policy and obtaining funding and politicians legislating policy is clouded at best. Both groups are self-interested parties attempting to feed at the public trough although the politicians seem less oblivious to their true nature.

The authors’ final recommendation is for “early-childhood intervention on a large scale.” This can only be accomplished by mandatory, government conducted psychological evaluations of huge numbers of young children and enforced therapeutic interventions at the government’s hand.

There is a chilling Big Brother-like quality to this, with an enormous cost to be borne by the American taxpayer; for science; and for the children.

Seymour Fein is a physician and the managing partner of CNF Pharma, a pharmaceutical research company.