Jumping to conclusions

This rather odd article about suicide from The Conversation is another great example of how problems dictate solutions:

Means restriction may seem a simple way of preventing suicides. It includes measures such as erecting safety barriers on bridges, detoxifying domestic gas, and restricting access to firearms, poisons and drugs. It can be enacted through legislation, making it politically appealing.

However, society, culture, and context matter. Means restriction can be very effective, but it can also have quite different impacts across different locations and populations. Sometimes impacts may only be short term, rather than long-lasting. And what works to reduce suicides for one group or in one location may not work for another.

The problem here is being constructed as the fact that people are killing themselves. The solution, it follows, is how best to stop them — the authors are weighing up the different possibilities:

So if means restriction has the potential to reduce suicides using one method, will people just shift to another method?

One on hand, some suggest that if substitution happens, then restricting highly lethal methods may still reduce deaths. When substitution occurs, it may involve less lethal methods, increasing the chances of survival.

On the other hand, if a method with relatively low lethality is restricted, then it is possible that people who may have used that method will instead use a more lethal means, resulting in a lower likelihood of survival.

This sort of scientific ‘evidence-based’ cost-benefit analysis approach to social policy is quite fashionable at the moment. Personally I think it has more than a whiff of the absurd about it.

Suicide, for all that’s been written about it, especially since Emile Durkheim’s landmark study in 1897 (which also has a whiff of the absurd about it in my view), is still one of the least understood social phenomena in existence.

Locating the problem at its logical end point, when it becomes action, is not unlike the way the problem of gun violence is understood in America. People are being shot in schools, so we should put in armed guards and give the kids bulletproof vests.

Of course, you might think that this sort of thinking comes from taking the idea of social facts rather more seriously than it deserves. I couldn’t possibly comment on that.