Science and Violence

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

December 28, 1992|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington. -- The federal government's plentiful inventory of research projects closely reflects public fears of the world's hazards, starting with military aggression, which still gets the most, and carrying on through dreadful diseases and natural disasters.

There's an exception, however, to the principle of fear generating research money. It's violent crime. Americans repeatedly tell pollsters that fear of violence is at or near the top of their personal worries. And with good reason: murder, assault, robbery, rape, and other violent crimes are the daily stuff of press reports throughout the country, while personal experience with these offenses is far from rare.

Violence -- its causes and prevention -- is a manageable subject for serious research. In fact, researchers have produced a good deal of useful knowledge about violence. But research on violence is an outcast at the federal trough, accorded crumbs that would be barely noticeable in the budgets of big-time research agencies like NASA and the Department of Energy.

The financial facts are appalling. While the federal government spends about $75 billion a year on research and development of all kinds, the sums identifiable for research on violence total about $20 million, according to a National Academy of Sciences report, ''Understanding and Preventing Violence.''

While much is said on the subject, the researchers found, little is actually known with certainty, and little is being done to enlarge our understanding. They noted, for example, that while many adult perpetrators of violence were aggressive as children, many aggressive children grow up to become peaceful adults. They suggest a long-term research project that would observe groups of children for perhaps a dozen years to look for clues about the origins of different behavior.

They note many other areas of poor understanding, among them the effects of imprisonment on rates of violent criminal behavior. Longer terms lengthen the time that offenders are prevented from striking again. But the hoped-for deterrent effect appears to be in doubt. Though the prison-inmate population nearly tripled between 1975 and 1989, the study reports, the number of violent crimes remained almost unchanged -- about 2.9 million per year.

What does seem to deter violent crime, it suggests, is a higher likelihood of swiftly getting caught, thus raising the issue of whether vigorous policing is a better investment than costly prisons.

Reviewing the existing scientific literature on violent crime, the study repeatedly found that reliable knowledge is sparse. Regarding sexual violence, for example, it states, ''Little is known about how potentials for sexual violence develop, how violent sexual offenders differ from the general male population in terms of either sexual preference or socialization toward women, or how the occurrence and recurrence of violent sexual behavior can be prevented.''

The sciences that inquire into human behavior have always been politically suspect, since they tread on cultural sensitivities and often collide with strongly held feelings about virtue and personal responsibility. An additional factor is fear of stereotyping and stigmatizing racial and ethnic groups with crackpot theories on the origins of anti-social behavior.

Earlier this year, the government's chief mental-health official, Frederick Goodwin, head of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, was forced to resign in the uproar that followed his observation that studies of monkeys might shed light on the behavior of violent inner-city youths. The statement was denounced as racially demeaning, though Dr. Goodwin strongly denied any such intention.

The episode demonstrates that research on violence is subject to misunderstanding as well as misuse. But, with that problem recognized, the federal purse should be opened to assure a respectable level of research in this long-neglected field.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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