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.