What do the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, banning gay marriage, outlawing marijuana, the Salem Witch Trials, and Voter ID laws all have in common? Each is a “solution” designed to solve a non-existent problem, with disastrous consequences. This website will examine a variety of examples from politics and social policy, religion, medicine and other aspects of social life. We will discover a major source of misery in modern life–one that is sometimes intentional but one that can be avoided. My purpose is for us to work together to bring a halt to SoluProbs™: Solutions without Problems.
Here’s a preview of some of the topics covered elsewhere on this website. The “problem” of Saddam Hussein of Iraq planning to attack the USA with Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) produced the “solution” of a 2003 American invasion of Iraq. In actuality, Saddam had no WMDs and no plans to attack the USA, but the “solution” lingers on, well into its second decade. The unprovoked attack on Iraq continues to cost American lives and dollars, and it fuels al-Qaeda and Daesh (aka ISIL) with the image and message that the USA is at war with all of Islam. Moreover, this view is openly voiced by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and other American politicians.
The disastrous Iraq invasion is not the first time non-existing “problems” have produced “solutions” that generated terrible consequences. The American colonists in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, conducted Witch Trials to identify those evil witches who were ruining the crops and causing disease. Of course, there were no witches, but people were put to death as witches by the misguided “solution.” A few hundred years earlier, a similar “problem” of witches and their Satanic cats causing the Black Death in Europe led to the “solution” of killing witches and their cats. The eradication of cats was a special break for the rats, whose fleas were actually spreading the bubonic plague. Once again, the presumed problem was not real, but the solution caused the death of those accused as witches, not to mention the increased numbers who died of the plague itself.
Same-sex marriages were banned in America because of the “problem” that permitting gay couples to marry would presumably bring an end of marriage as an institution. Surprise! Now that same-sex marriages are legal throughout the United States, and gay and lesbian couples are tying the knot every day, the institution of marriage still seems to be with us. Even though some people are still fueling anti-gay bigotry, the “problem” used to justify their hatred was a lie. The “solution,” was real in the damage it caused to many innocent victims, however.
Solutions without problems are a lot like shooting at ghosts. You don’t hurt the ghosts, but you wreak havoc with anyone or anything in your line of fire.
The examples listed to the right (or the bottom for SmartPhones)analyze a variety of Solutions without Problems in various aspects of life, and I welcome your comments on those and your suggestions of other examples. You will also find places on these pages to comment and to join the team.
Earl Babbie, Ph.D., Campbell Professor Emeritus in Behavioral Sciences, Chapman University
More on the Concept of Solutions without Problems
Solutions without Problems have the following elements:
1. A social problem is presumed to exist.
2. A solution is devised and implemented to solve the problem.
3. In fact, the problem did not exist.
4. (Often) the solution causes problems that didn’t exist before.
This concept does not include ineffective solutions to real problems. For example, millions of dollars are still spent on Abstinence Only “sex education” (sic) in the nation’s schools as an attempt to solve the problem of teen pregnancies. All the evaluations of this “solution” indicate that it doesn’t work. Some analyses suggest it is actually harmful, leaving students uneducated about sex as their hormones begin to rage. However, Abstinence Only does NOT fit in the present project because the problem of teen pregnancy is real.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, establishing Prohibition, was one of our more dramatic failures as a nation–so bad that it was eventually repealed. I have not included Prohibition in this project–despite the many problems caused by that solution–because I think alcohol consumption can legitimately be seen as a problem: alcoholism, drunk driving, spousal abuse, etc. As a nation, we have decided the benefits outweigh the costs. By the same token, I have not included the War on Drugs, as miserable a failure as it has been, because I think it can reasonably be argued that the misuse of heroin, cocaine, meth and other hard drugs in problematic. I have included a unit on the outlawing of marijuana because the “Reefer Madness” views that prompted its ban were not true. And as legal marijuana becomes more and more available in the U. S., we are not seeing the problems warned against as justification for outlawing weed.
In other cases, we need to split hairs a bit. As you saw above, I’ve included the Salem Witch Trials as a Solution without a Problem, even though the failed crops and sickness were real. Had the colonists simply defined the problem as failed crops, they would have sought agricultural solutions. They would have looked for medical solutions to their health problems. Instead, the “problem” was framed as the “witches” who were harming crops and health, and that made the trials and executions logical responses. The witches were not real, however; hence the problem, so defined, did not exist.
I have two purposes in spelling out the organizing concept of this project. First, I want to make my choices more understandable. Second, and more important, this project aims to generate a proactive awareness of the SoluProbs™ that plague us. I hope you will join me in identifying and dealing with the very real problem of Solutions without Problems.
There is a place to the right of this page where you can suggest additional SoluProbs: Solutions without Problems. (On SmartPhones, it may be at the bottom of the page.)
Please make this project your own and we can develop a proactive methodology for social change together. The following epilogue may move us in that direction.
A Sociologist’s Epilogue
I’ve spent the past forty or so years writing college textbooks on the subject of social research methods, and there is one topic that is very germane to this project. It is called “evaluation research.” Here’s how it typically works.
1. We feel there is a problem: juvenile delinquency, for example.
2. We measure it to see how bad it is.
3. We figure out a solution that might improve things.
4. We implement the solution.
5. Some time later, we re-measure the problem to see if the solution worked.
There’s a common disconnect in the application of this model, especially when public policy and politics are involved: often nobody goes to the trouble of re-measuring the problem to see if the “solution” actually worked. Rather, the vested interests built up around the “solution” keep it alive forever, whether it works or not.
This project has dealt with a different disconnect: Step #2 is skipped. As we will see, all too often, “solutions” are put in place before we’ve actually determined there is a problem to solve. Voter IDs offer a case in point. It would have been useful to measure the extent of the problem–which we’ll see is virtually nonexistent–before establishing costly and dysfunctional solutions. Every example in this project reflects a failure to undertake Step #2 properly.
Sometimes, measuring a problem can be tricky, as we’ll see in the case of Saddam’s alleged plans to nuke America. To be sure, a lot of evidence was collected for the purpose of assessing the problem: some suggested the threat might be real, some denied the threat. As we look back on the situation now, we can see the evidence was cherry-picked to justify a course of action already desired by the administration. Our costly actions were not based on an accurate measurement of the presumed problem.
Sometimes, the measurement of the problem is absolutely perverse. In the case of the Salem Witch Trials, measurements were devised for determining whether a suspect was actually a witch. Most notable was the “dunking chair.” A woman (it was almost always a woman) would be tied to a chair attached to a long pole. The chair would be lowered into a pool of water until she was completely submerged. After a set period of time, she would be raised from the water. If she survived the dunking, that was proof she was a witch and needed to be executed. If the woman drowned, that proved she was not a witch. She was exonerated. Dead but exonerated.
Evidence and measurement are key to determining the existence of an alleged problem. Some politicians and talk-show hosts, for example, might argue that the reduction of CO2 emissions is a solution without a problem, contending that anthropocentric climate change is not real. However, when 97% of climate scientists say it is real, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this website. Reducing CO2 is a solution for a real problem.
We can never be one hundred percent free of error in the measurement of problems that may need solving, but we can do much better than we have in the past. There are so many real and compelling problems that need solutions, we should focus our attention and resources on those. I hope the examples in this project will alert us to the bogus problems.
I am especially grateful for the initial suggestions and guidance I have received from (alphabetically):
- Aaron Babbie
- Byron Callas
- George Hozendorf
- Jane Putch
- Suzanne Babbie
Artwork from ShutterStock.com
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