Talk Talk

Policy: “We Often Have No Idea What We’re Talking About”

When we debate public policy, we often have no idea what we’re talking about. Even members of Congress may sometimes have no idea because they can’t. We do not analyze public policy with anything close to the scientific rigor with which we study the efficacy of drugs or the safety of cars.

With this opening to a report on NPR, Steve Inskeep expressed an essential truth that troubles people trying to formulate policy for addressing obesity. The example in the report that followed was welfare payments. But he might just as well have been talking about sugar-sweetened beverages.

Science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explained to Inskeep that much debate goes on about the effects of a policy in the absence of any data that proves (or disproves) an effect. He said:

There’s lots of evidence you can martial to support either position [that it works or not], but a lot of the evidence lacks the kind of rigor that even marketers now bring to consumer products. And the most important lack in the evidence is it lacks what scientists would call a control group.

Vendantam and Inskeep went on to discuss a new controlled study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research to examine the impact of cash welfare payments on survival for the male children of women receiving welfare payments. This study found a significant benefit. While he conceded that such research could not settle every last question, Vendantam concluded by saying:

The value here is in applying scientific tools to understanding public policy in order to make it smarter. It really makes no sense that marketers selling toys have better data on what works and what doesn’t than policymakers who are spending billions of dollars.

Well said.

Click here for the report from NPR and here for the study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Talk Talk, photograph © Thomas Hawk / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.