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Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2000 / 15 Shevat 5761

Evan Gahr

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Consumer Reports

Of 'players,' boozers, and your tax dollars -- COLLEGE students drink for different reasons.

"Players," or men who seek many women sexual partners, are motivated by "sensation propensities" and "sexual narcissism"

All that may sound like common sense, but common sense is not so common--or cheap when the government is involved. Every year, the federal government plunks down hundreds of millions of dollars so that pseudo-scientific researchers can laboriously confirm the obvious (see above) or provide a scientific veneer for leftist cliches. All across the country, federal money underwrites psychology professors whose research often appears little more than a remarkable exercise in banality-of both the political and non-political variety. In fiscal year 1999, the National Institutes of Health gave more than $364 million to college psychology departments for research and development. Money is fungible, of course. The grants help subsidize professors who are already paid handsomely for their often less than arduous toils in the groves of academia. (Fiscal 2000 figures are not yet available, but preliminary data suggests the profs have continued to guzzle at the federal trough.)

Indeed, the largesse to an essentially privileged special interest group-represented by the far-left American Psychological Association-operates below the radar screen. When the Pentagon pays $435 for a hammer that's a national scandal. But, let the government plunk down, hundreds of millions of dollars each year for psychological studies with no apparent practical benefit, and almost no one objects. "This stuff has not been exposed," says psychiatrist Sally Satel, author of PC, M.D. How Political Correctness is Corrupting Medicine. "It's an enormous misallocation of resources."

The money comes from different research bodies under the NIH's auspices, such as the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alchoholism. The research is supposed to "enhance health." Among recipients of NIH grants, the psychologists seem particularly beholden to rather dubious and trendy theories. When a chemist or physicist received money for research at least he's a practitioner of hard science. We all know the rules of physics. Or the periodic table of chemistry. What are the time-honored rules of psychology? If anybody in Congress ever gets serious about waste at the NIH, these studies are probably the best place to start.

When not proving the obvious, psychology professors often make crass political assertions the starting point for their research. Thumb through their studies and you'll find cliches about, sexism, both "blatant and subtle," racism and virtually every ism you can shake a stick at. No wonder: applications for NIH grants are "peer-reviewed"-by other psychology professors who sit on the review committees. He who pays the piper calls the tunes.

Lately a whole slew of studies have explored most every angle imaginable about "self-esteem." Once the exclusive domain of left-leaning educators and "Stuart Smiley," the saccharine sweet self-help guru on "Saturday Night Live," "self-esteem" is now investigated by at least 72 studies currently funded by the NIH. Professors, mostly psychologists, now study the intersection of self-esteem with weight, racism, sexism, alcoholism, homosexuality--and even tobacco use among Arab-American teenagers.

But why is self-esteem so important? As University of Michigan psychology professor Jennifer Crocker, states in her successful NIH research proposal, "Self-Esteem (SE) is a central aspect of mental health." It is? Says who? The "Saturday Night Live" self-help guru Stuart Smiley? The reality, as demonstrated by countless studies, is that neurochemistry is a central aspect of mental health. Persons with chemical imbalances are more vulnerable to depression than those without it. And horrific mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, are also chemical-based.

Nevertheless, Self-Esteem Uber-Alles is the central theme of Crocker's federally-funded research, a five-year project launched in 1998 with $252,833 from the NIH. In fiscal 1999, she received 276,508. (That year, total NIH funding, including her study, for the University of Michigan psychology department was $2, 417, 623.)

Besides self-esteem the other big obsession for psychological researchers is, of course, social ills. Many of these government-subsidized studies and professors assume that individuals are largely at the mercy of social forces. No wonder that Christine Iijima Hall, a former Arizona State University psychology professor, finds personal responsibility a dangerous distraction. In a much cited paper, which appeared in the June 1997 American Psychologist, the APA's flagship publication, she explains that "Rather than placing the responsibility and blame on clients"-for a whole host of ostensible mental disorders -"psychologists must see that societal forces such as racism are operating."

Still, finger-pointing is trickier than you might think. NIH-funded academics squabble over their favorite form of determinism-be it racial, economic, or gender. Scientific discourse starts to sound an awful lot like a Modern Language Association meeting-only Uncle Sam foots the bill. With funding from three different NIH grants, UCLA psychology professor Steven Regeser Lopez and Peter Guarnaccia, a professor in the Human Ecology department at Rutgers, recently took to the pages of the 2000 edition of the Annual Review of Psychology to emphasize the primacy of economics. Their 19-page paper, "Cultural Psychopathology Uncovering the Social World of Mental Illness," concludes in part, "It is important that cultural research not obscure the importance of other social forces such as class, poverty, and marginality that work in conjunction with culture to shape people's everyday lives." The scholars inveigh against "superficial cultural analyses that ignore or minimize the powerful political economic inequalities that coexist with culture."

Criticize any of this stuff and you'll likely be accused of interfering with science. But who has really politicized the grant process? Leftist dogma quite literally influences how every grant is awarded, with quota-mongers eager to determine a sufficient number of money is set-aside for studies that ostensibly benefit women and minorities.

The history here is instructive. In 1990, the Congressional Women's Caucus complained that insufficient money was awarded to study illnesses suffered largely or exclusively by women. They also complained that women were excluded from studies of diseases both genders suffer. The charges would later prove overwrought. Nevertheless, as in so many other realms, bogus charges of discrimination became an excuse for quotas. In 1993, Congress mandated the inclusion of women in research studies.

Vivian Pinn, director of the Office of Research on Women's Health at the NIH, brags about the quota system. "Every grant application is reviewed for scientific merit and compliance with inclusion guidelines, including the need for analysis for sex and gender difference in health outcomes," she wrote in the May 5, 2000 USA Today. "Of the 5,089 studies last year, the vast majority (4,015) included both women and men. Just 244 included only men, and 740 studies were designed to study women only."

These figures, of course, literally bespeak a gender imbalance, but not the kind that gets the NIH into trouble. Meanwhile, the quota-mongering is likely to escalate. President Clinton on November 23 signed legislation to establish the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities at the NIH. The Center treats health problems as largely political problems. Just as many psychologists prefer, personal responsibility-the degree to which an individual's behavior might cause or exacerbate a particular affliction-gets short shrift. But society comes under a microscope. With a budget of 50 million for fiscal 2001, the new office is charged with conducting and supporting research on mental and physical health disparities among minorities which could be a consequence of "socioeconomic status" and other external factors.

Moreover, the Center must also work to increase the number of "researchers who are members of health disparity populations." (That's quite a mouthful-and you thought "people of color" was unwieldy!)

Squeezed between political dictates and groups whose self-appointed spokesman easily take offense, it's hardly surprising that the NIH funds particularly banal psychological studies. Moreover, research seems stacked against individual autonomy. Case Western Reserve University psychology professor Roy Baumeister uses federal money (about $200,000 annually since 1997) to explain why individuals don't have much self-control.

His NIH-subsidized project on "Ego Depletion Patterns and Self-Control Failure" seeks to demonstrate that "all the self's acts of volition-choice, responsibility, initiative [and] self-regulation draws on the very same limited resource, which is easily depleted." Essentially, self-control is an energy drain. His proof, so far, is that students who abstain from eating or eat almost nothing before a boring assignment give up quicker than those who chow down on chocolate chip cookies.

But the more obvious conclusion is not that self-control drains energy, but rather, eating the cookie gave the students additional energy to plod along on the dreary task of tracing geometric figures. This analysis is grounded in chemistry and common-sense. Still, Baumeister insists that "active choice-making impairs subsequent self-control and vice-versa."

Think of it : in Baumeister's estimation making choices impairs self-control. Doesn't the general scientific literature tell us that alcohol impairs self-control? Ah, alcohol. The studies conducted by psychologists are particularly astute. Last year, Boise State University psychology professor Rob Turrisi published the startling results of his NIH-funded study of the drinking habits of a wide swath of college freshman. His conclusion: college students drink for different reasons. Therefore, a "one-sized fits all approach" to the problem of college drinking is misguided. You can find more trenchant insights inside a fortune cookie--at a mere fraction of the cost.

JWR contributor Evan Gahr is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. To comment click here.


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© 2001, Evan Gahr