Panel of social engineers suggests fixes for society’s ills

HOUGHTON — The benefits of an active church, statistical literacy and early intervention for at-risk populations were among the topics discussed at a Saturday forum on reinventing local democracy at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

Micah Cavaleri, a parishioner at Good Shepherd, organized the panel. He said he had been troubled by the direction of progress in America, particularly with the election of Donald Trump.

The panel included Bucky Beach, pastor at Good Shepherd; Angie Carter, assistant professor of energy and environmental justice at Michigan Technological University; Chelsea Schelly, associate professor of sociology at Tech; Peter Stacy, adjunct assistant professor in clinical psychology at Tech; and Adam Feltz, associate professor of psychology and moral ethics at Tech.

Beach, asked about church events such as holding Zen meditation or a dinner for activist Winona LaDuke that brought in nonparishioners, asked, “Why would we not do that?”

In the past, he said, the church had become “more interested in what happens to us after we die than how we live.”

He said the church needed to look at how to be good neighbors, rather than being isolationist. While he values the separation of church and state, Beach said the church does need to be able to engage with the world.

“We’ve spent a lot of time losing our way, and I think we’re finally starting to find our way again,” he said.

An informed citizenry is crucial to democracy. Key to that is statistical literacy, Feltz said. He pointed to an H.G. Wells quote from 1903 in which he predicted statistical literacy would become as important as reading and writing for effective citizenship.

Studies have shown that people who are more statistically literate tend to double-check, deliberate longer and not go with gut reactions, Feltz said.

“For the vast history of human kind, we’ve never encouraged such rich and complicated statistical information as we come across every single day right now,” he said. “We can’t go a day without somebody throwing some kind of statistical information at you.”

Stacy was asked how an intentional community could reduce crime or recidivism. About 80 percent of prison inmates are diagnosed with some kind of mental illness, he said. But as warden of a 2,000-bed prison in Michigan, there was only one part-time psychologist to treat them.

“It’s a very complex question, because whenever we try to do something, most of the mentality in the country right now is that it doesn’t look like the inmate or the offender is being punished sufficiently,” he said.

After running maximum security prisons, Stacy went to the Legislature to try something different. His idea was a large therapeutic community prison, with intense treatment for mental health, chemical dependency and education. The governor vetoed it, saying it was “soft on crime,” but the Legislature overrode the veto.

As someone who does pro bono work with the treatment court in Houghton County, he said the most effective action is not to find the treatment for the addiction but to determine why they have a need for the opiates.

The best option, Stacy said, is early childhood intervention, which has been shown to reduce the likelihood of substance abuse and criminal behavior.

“We know if that we provide services at an early age, that we are going to prevent a lot of the chaos that goes on later on,” he said.