Posted by: philosodad | September 21, 2009

Expert Advice

So we’ve been talking about spanking a lot lately on Science Based Parenting. I’m against it, myself… but I may and or may not be on solid ground. And the great difficulty that faces all of us is that we don’t actually know that much about the field of Child Psychology.

For example, Ticktock and I are currently arguing about risk assessment in young children, a topic neither of us is well read in, without actually taking the time to define what “young” means. If it weren’t such a grand claim to make, I would access that as the most useless debate on the internet.

But one thing I’ve noticed is that we’re all quoting the same expert when we talk about spanking, Dr. Robert Larzelere. Ticktock describes him as the long-time “lone advocate” of responsible spanking, and I’ve cited him at least twice. That’s curious.

It’s curious because there are very few topics where only one researcher shows up on the correct side of an issue for a very long time. In general, if the field has a solid foundation, open issues have whole communities on every conceivable side. So opinion in the artificial intelligence community, for example, has shifted over the last few years. We’ve learned that expert systems are not the same as intelligent ones. But there was always a substantial population on any side of that discussion you cared to name, with plenty of debate and discussion.

But in the spanking issue, there doesn’t seem to be much debate. From the outside, the view is of Robert Larzelere standing up to the intellectually biased forces of liberal parenting. And while that’s compelling narrative, it’s a red flag to me. Anytime research starts being evaluated primarily in terms of meta-analysis by One Lone Voice™, it’s a red flag.

One of two things is likely true: either the field is on very shaky footing, or this guy is probably wrong.

And I think this is something that we should all bear in mind as laypeople trying to understand the pronouncements of child psychologists. It’s important not to let our own selection bias point us towards the results that we want to validate. We need to evaluate those results in terms of the general opinion in the field.

Another red flag for me is the wording in various articles. Larzelere himself claims that spanking is mostly beneficial for getting children to comply with their parents wishes. That isn’t the same as saying that it is beneficial for the child, or that it isn’t causing other problems in the future with self-control issues. He points out that there is scant evidence that spanking children causes them to engage in violent behavior, but that also isn’t the sole or even most compelling argument against spanking children.

In other words, I spot a strawman argument, there. And whenever someone is constructing strawmen, there’s a real concern that they don’t have a good argument.

There are lots of issues where you can find one lone expert touting meta-studies to show why everyone else in the field is wrong. Michael Behe comes to mind pretty quickly, but there are doctors and biologists who argue that vaccines don’t work or that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. There are historians who deny the holocaust. There are probably climatologists who deny anthropogenic climate change. There are doctors who deny the germ theory of disease. And hey, I guess that all or some of these people may have a point.

But probably they are all wrong. The most likely case, in most fields, is that the majority opinion is slightly more accurate than the minority opinion, and the smaller the minority the more likely they are to be wrong. And if that small minority has spent over a decade beating the same drum and making no headway… I don’t know. I do know that we have to be careful to really review the literature when we step out of our own areas of expertise, and not be afraid to ask for help.



  1. I know it’s always good to go with the scientific consensus, but is there some kind of clearinghouse of what the scientific consensus is? Is it the NAS? Just curious, thanks.

  2. I’ve encountered the argument several times that spanking makes kids more violent, and I’ve only been involved in this debate a few weeks. If he’s addressing a popular misconception, then I don’t think that we can apply the fallacy of “straw man”. You fail to specify to whom he is constructing a “straw man”, but I would most definitely refute the insinuation that he is not challenging a widely held belief.

    Science does not hold inherent value based on the majority opinion. The literature either proves Lazelere’s minority opinion or it disproves him. Certainly, there could be cultural biases that might affect the majority, as well as potential biases from Lazelere. Considering that I haven’t accessed any of the published research, I probably shouldn’t have quoted him at all.

    I just want to say that my previous post was about the rhetoric against spanking, and was not meant to rely entirely on Lazelere. What I mean is that I was combating the claim that spanking is a hostile act of abuse, that there has been no science in favor of it, and that parents who spank should be condemned. By mentioning the abstract on pubmed, I meant to call attention to the other side of the argument, and not make a positive claim one way or the other.

    I do agree that we should seek professional advice and ask for help, which is why I’ve contacted an expert to help with this debate (no reply yet). I’m also willing to admit that I’m not even close to being as smart as philosodad, and I welcome his input. I think a lot of people might think that this is in-house bickering, but we’ve made it quite clear to each other that we should be able to challenge another author’s claims. It’s our attempt to keep each other honest and fair.

    update: I just sent off an interview to Lazelere to get his response to the issues brought up in this post.

  3. It’s true that science doesn’t work by majority rule. And it’s true that cultural bias could affect the majority. But my point is not about your article, exactly.

    We both have to quote people and cite the research to the best of our ability. The challenge that we all face is that we aren’t subject area experts. We don’t have the time or the expertise to go through the literature.

    So what I’m trying to lay out are what I think reasonable guidelines might be to judging the opinions of people who are in the field. Majority opinion is only one guideline. When a very small group of researchers remain a minority for a very long time, it’s a strong indicator that they aren’t making their case. And if they claim that cultural bias is the main reason that they can’t get any traction…

    Well, that’s the same argument that Michael Behe and Kary Mullis make. That doesn’t make Larzelere wrong, it’s just a red flag.

    I’m not making any claim of expertise or personal brilliance. I’ve been spectacularly wrong and stupidly confident more times than I can remember. I’m just saying, we need a way to judge the claims of experts.

    The strawman is versus the literature in general, not versus the popular media. Most studies, such as this one, reference several behaviors, or mental development, not just violence. It isn’t that he isn’t contradicting a widely held belief: it’s that the widely held belief isn’t necessarily the reason why experts frown upon spanking!

    Again, though, I’m no expert. I’m feeling my way. It’s hard to get a good grip on such a difficult and sensitive topic.

  4. If you’re looking for accessible literature that is written by experts, then Tanya Byron’s books or the BBC Child of our Time series might be a good start. Dr Byron is a highly experienced clinical psychologist, and the BBC series has a stellar advisory board.

  5. Can someone please tell me the arguments IN FAVOR of spanking as opposed to non-physical methods of correcting behavior?

    (I commented this on the last post, but probably after everyone moved over to this post)

  6. Dr. Larzelere responded to my interview with a pdf of his meta-analysis and an explanation of how he chose the previous studies between him and Gershon that he included. This was his explanation…

    (1) investigated at least one alternative disciplinary tactic other than spanking in the same way on the same sample and (2) had a child outcome and (3) investigated disciplinary tactics when used prior to the age of 13.

    I hope to have my official interview with Larzelere up early next week. Right now he is working under a deadline to write a grant proposal until the weekend.

  7. Children Who Get Spanked Have Lower IQs

  8. Good post. Diana Baumrind is another researcher frequently standing with Larzelere.

    We pulled together some thoughts on corporal punishment here for IHS

    about a year ago, including an interview with Elizabeth Gershoff, author of an enormous meta-study on the topic. She tracked 11 behavioral variables that correlated with spanking, 10 of which were undesirable. The one remaining was “immediate compliance.”

    IHEU adopted a resolution opposing corporal punishment in 2008: (Full disclosure: I authored the resolution, so I’m not neutral.)

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