Basing Legislative Action on Research Data: Prejudice, Prudence, and Empirical Limitations
Donn Byrne Kathryn Kelley The University at Albany State University of New York
When psychologists find themselves in the relatively unfamiliar position of being consulted as experts about important issues of public policy, two common--though incompatible--reactions are commonly observed. One response is to retreat rapidly to the laboratory behind a protective shield bearing the inscription MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED. The opposite choice is based on the assumption that important decisions are going to be made with or without psychological input. Therefore, psychologists may as well charge boldly forth, brandishing whatever theory and data are available, in an attempt to influence the decision-making process.
Though we find it easy enough to advance arguments to support either reaction, our basic message is to urge that caution be exercised. When major societal changes are being considered in the form of introducing new legislation, repealing existing legislation, or altering enforcement and regulatory practices with respect to current laws, a conservative stance has much to recommend it. Because any change involves countless unforeseen (and unforeseeable) consequences, it is vital that the reason for such change be very well established. The same point is made more pithily in the familiar saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That advice could be