Saturday, 14 August 2004

Empiricism and Public Policy

I have long been a critic of public policy of any ideological persuasion that ignores (or worse, misrepresents) empirical data. My friends will vouch that I have changed my views a handful of times sometimes quite radically when presented with solid evidence that I was wrong. Unfortunately, criticism on these grounds directed at anyone currently in power is too easily portrayed as partisan screeding. Just look at the Bush apologists' response to the ever-growing cadre of critics. I admit, however, looking back at some of my own comments in recent months (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) that I have focused perhaps too much on President Bush, because he is a convenient target. (Never mind that he has painted that target on himself a dozen times over.)

I have been a Robert Cringely fan for nearly as long. Two days ago he published a column ("Fred Nold's Legacy") that really struck a cord. The best part is, he based it on an episode from 22 ago that continues to haunt us today, in ways we scarcely understand.

Cringely tells the story of the Department of Justice's commissioning of a study on the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines by two Hoover Institution economists, Michael Block and Fred Nold. When the DoJ realized their report would criticize the Guidelines instead of rubberstamping them, it pulled the plug and implemented revisions that went against the weight of the evidence.

It is one thing to make what turns out to have been a mistake and another thing altogether to make what you have reason to believe will be a mistake. Why would the DoJ, having good reason to believe that the new sentencing guidelines would create the very prison explosion we've seen in the last 20 years, go ahead with the new guidelines? My view is that they went ahead because they were more interested in punishment than deterrence. They went ahead because they didn't perceive those in prison as being constituents. They went ahead because it enabled the building of larger organizations with more power. They went ahead because the idea of a society with less crime is itself a threat to the prestige of those in law enforcement.

Posted at 11:40:07 AM | Permalink
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Topics: Politics, Skeptical Inquiry
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