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IRREGULAR TIMESSpare the Child Asks:
Who Cares What the Research Says?

Here at Spare The Child, you'll see a lot of references to the research that's been done on the subject on corporal punishment. Some of the research is qualitative, dealing with ideas, but most of it is quantitative, dealing with statistics.

In the last 20 years, a great deal of good research on corporal punishment has been performed, but that doesn't seem to matter to a lot of Americans, who seem to regard research as nothing more than a tool for pointy-headed academics to use in their nefarious plot to interfere with the ability of everyday folks to enjoy their lives without worry. This anti-intellectual attitude is not just held by working class stiffs, but by upper class stiffs as well. In the 2000 presidential debates, future President George W. Bush made fun of rival Al Gore's criticisms of Bush's budgetary plans by calling them "fuzzy math." Unable to come up with any statistics to support his own arguments, Bush simply made fun of the fact that Gore was able to do so. "Why, you need a calculator to figure out what he's saying," Bush sneered, as if using a calculator to calculate figures in the nation's budget was a bad thing. The implicit message was clear: pointy-headed researchers could vote for Gore, but real Americans who value common sense over complicated intellectual figuring should vote for Bush.

Such cheap exploitation of Americans' uneasiness about research is as present in the debate over the legal status of corporal punishment in schools as it is in electoral politics. Whenever I think about people's aversion to the very idea of research on corporal punishment, I remember the time I attended a school board meeting in Memphis, Tennessee. The school board was asked to consider the abolition of corporal punishment in the city's public schools, and as a graduate student engaged in original research into attitudes about corporal punishment, I came to address the board. When I got up to speak, I gave a quick summary of the extensive body of research that suggests that corporal punishment creates much more risk than benefit, and the board listened respectfully. Of the twelve people who spoke before the school board that night, only one defended the use of corporal punishment in the Memphis City Schools, and even that individual admitted that there are serious problems with the administration of corporal punishment. In spite of this overwhelming opposition among the citizens in attendance, the school board voted to preserve the use of corporal punishment in the Memphis City Schools, without change.

Inevitably, the popular criticisms of research were offered as justification. One school board member, commenting before the vote was taken, explained that "It's all well and good what these people say about the research, but the fact is that you can get research to say anything. I'm not about to let a bunch of do-gooders ruin a system that works."

Do-gooders? What was that supposed to mean? If the people who oppose corporal punishment are do-gooders, what does that make the people who support corporal punishment? What was the problem with doing good? Aren't schools and school boards supposed to do good things for the community? If one does not do good, then one either does bad or does nothing.

As for the idea that "you can get research to say anything", nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that unscrupulous individuals can twist research findings to make them appear to support their positions, but the great thing about professional research is there are standards that make such research spin transparent to the educated eye. Good education is essential to the proper interpretation of research, so it's no surprise that poorly-educated people tend to believe that research doesn't make any sense. The answer is not to ignore research, but to learn about it so that it can be properly applied.

If research could truly be made to give any message desired by the researcher, then there would exist plenty of research supporting the idea that corporal punishment is good for children. After all, a substantial percentage of Americans support the use of corporal punishment. If research is nothing more than a tool for popular opinion, then there ought to be a large number of studies indicating the positive effects of corporal punishment. There isn't. The plain fact is that the body of academic research overwhelmingly supports the that corporal punishment is at best ineffective and at worst extremely harmful to children and to society at large. Partisan researchers who attempt to concoct studies supporting the use of corporal punishment remain for the most part unpublished because their research fails to meet professional standards.

When it comes down to it, research is the best tool for understanding that we've got, and it defies common sense to ignore it. Only a fool or a greedy tobacco executive would ignore medical research about the links between cigarette smoke and lung cancer, insisting that such research could be made to say anything. We don't listen to the crank who goes on about how his Aunt Maude smoked a pack a day and lived to be 90 years old because we know that his Aunt Maude is an outlier. The majority of smokers won't be so lucky. Just so, we must not ignore the huge body of solid research indicating the uselessness and harmfulness of corporal punishment. To do so is not just to show our lack of education, but to show a callous indifference to the well-being of our nation's children.

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