Can science stop the violence?

November 12, 1992

After being forced to scuttle a University of Maryland conference on genetic links to violent crime earlier this year, federal officials are again mired in controversy over research aimed at rescuing the country from violent crime.

The dispute concerns a proposed study on the causes and prevention of violent crime among youths, which has climbed alarmingly in recent years. A report by the National Crime Analysis Project at Northeastern University, for example, found that the number of 17-year-olds arrested for murder rose 121 percent from 1985 through 1991. Among 15-year-olds, the increase was a frightening 217 percent during the same period.

Researchers say such figures suggest the country may be on the verge of a new epidemic of murder similar to that of the late 1960s and '70s, when the violent crime rate doubled in five years.

Given that prospect, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan has argued that violence ought to be regarded as a major public health emergency justifying accelerated research to identify its causes and means of prevention.

Yet the initiative has become bogged down in a debate with the Congressional Black Caucus and community groups, who fear it will stigmatize poor and minority youngsters as potential offenders if the studies attempt to use biological traits to link violence with race or social class.

Speculation about such a link, a variant on the old nature-versus-nurture debate, surfaces periodically in the scientific literature. Each time, further research shows the theory has no basis in fact. Even experts who support in principle the idea of expanded research on youth violence have questioned the wisdom of attempts to draw links between crime and factors such as genetic makeup or family structure.

Secretary Sullivan rejects such criticism as misinformed. Yet there is little doubt the controversy has undermined support for expanded federal research on violence at a time when both fear of violent crime and crime itself are rising. That is why the government needs to distinguish clearly between research that aims at a truly comprehensive understanding of the causes and prevention of violence and the kind of pseudo-scientific studies that merely serve to reinforce harmful stereotypes. Until the latter is no part of the equation, the former won't get the public support it deserves.

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