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Why is the drinking age 21, and other age-old questions

Adolescent development expert Laurence Steinberg will give a lecture in Coffman Theater on Thursday.

The required ages to drive, smoke, drink, rent cars and run for president are all different. Psychology and neuroscience can help explain why.

Laurence Steinberg, a leading psychological development expert from Temple University, will give a lecture at the University of Minnesota on Thursday explaining how research findings about adolescent development can be used to inform laws.

But while scientific evidence from psychologists and neurologists may support the legal age of 18 and the drinking age of 21, not everyone — especially young people — agrees.

Steinberg was a lead author on the amicus brief for the Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons, which eliminated the juvenile death penalty.

The decision reflected public opinion in the country. Almost 70 percent of Americans opposed a juvenile death penalty, according to a 2002 Gallup Poll.

Steinberg, whose textbook is used in psychology classes at the University, said he’ll use his experiences working with lawyers and lawmakers, as well as his own research findings, to inform the lecture. While science should be part of the legal process, he said, it shouldn’t decide laws.

“Science should be part of the discussion but not the whole discussion,” he said. “Scientists should welcome the opportunity to help policymakers make smarter decisions.”

University Law School associate professor Francis Shen conducts similar research at the University, looking at the intersection of law and neuroscience. He agreed that science has limitations and can’t dictate policy.

Lauren Pietrek, global studies, sociology and law senior, said she thinks the drinking age should be 18. She spent a year in Iceland where the drinking age is 20 and said the U.S. law “doesn’t make sense.”

“There’s no magical threshold you go through when you turn 21,” she said. “If people were allowed to drink when they’re 18, they’d be able to learn their limits a little better.”

When surveyed, 40 percent of 18- through 34-year-olds said they think the drinking age should be lowered, according to a 2007 Gallup Poll. But as those surveyed get older, the support decreases: Only 17 percent of people aged 35-54 think it should change.

On campus, almost half of 18-year-old students said they drink, according to the 2010 College Student Health Survey Report from Boynton Health Service. For 20-year-olds, this number rose to almost 63 percent.

Thang Phan, a chemical engineering freshman, said the drinking age should remain at 21, because there would be more accidents if it was 18.

Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984 that made the legal age 21.

University psychology professor and department chair Monica Luciana said setting the legal age at 18 isn’t the best option for every “adult” decision people make because individuals are so different. This issue is present when determining every age limitation, she said.

“We have to try to address both group-based trends but also account for subject variability,” Luciana said. “So it’s not always so straightforward in terms of setting age limits for privileged kinds of behaviors.”

The lecture will be in the Coffman Union Theater at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday.

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