The devil’s in the data

Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.
– Clifford Stoll

Data 3
I feel the need to do a bit of a recap at this point, just because the argument I’m trying to make demands so much background. First, I contend that society’s embracing of science as the truest measure of the truth or falsity of something has had unintended negative consequences. Overall, I am a great believer in the power of science to illuminate a great many dark corners in human understanding. That being said, I do not believe it is the lone measure or revealer of truth and/or understanding. It may seem old-fashioned to some, but I believe in intuition, personal experience, imagination, insight, judgement et al as alternative – and sometimes superior – avenues to understanding, as well as sufficient foundations upon which to consider certain actions based on any one, or a combination, of the same. In other words, actions can be considered reasonable and necessary sometimes, even if we don’t have “empirical data” (assuming all things can be reduced to the empirical) to support them. Subjective analysis can sometimes trump the objective.

Second, the overarching confidence we have come to have in scientific and technological innovation to promote “improvement” in society and in our individual lives has morphed into an ideology without our noticing. The orthodoxy of this “techno-faith” allows the adherents to dismiss any assertion or comment that is not supported by “research” or “data”. To clarify, I’m not suggesting that we dispense with either; good research is what leads to advance and innovation, and data, when valid, can serve us well. Unfortunately, in our simplistic encounters with these things, objections need be little more than tag lines to shut down the opposition. If you happen to be a teacher these days and you’ve had questions about certain programs or policies you’ve probably had the experience of raising your concerns with one of the theorists or “specialists” only to be greeted with a sentence that begins: “but the research shows . . .”

Which leads nicely to my third point, namely, that those who appeal to the research are asserting, through such an exclamation, their role as “experts’. It wouldn’t matter if the person asking the question had thirty or more years as a classroom teacher upon which to base a quibble, question or challenge; if the research says something else is true, personal experience cannot offer an alternative interpretation, nor can it qualify data-driven claims. The empirical result trumps all and it is to that “empiricism” I now wish to turn.

Scientific “truth” achieves such status when the outcome of a particular observation proves to be repeatable, regardless of who is doing the observing. The core concept at work here is the scientific method, which says, at its most basic: hypothesize, test, conclude. If we are dealing with the physical world, regardless of size, I have no quibble. If physicists tell me that everything in the universe is built on something called quanta, I’ll take their word for it. When educational theorists, on the other hand, tell me they have discovered the solution to a given educational dilemma and, further, that they have the research to support their claims, it takes significant will power not to immediately snort with derision (a battle I’ve been known to lose).

Key to the validity of any scientific experiment is control of the possible factors that could affect whatever is being tested. If you’ve seen the movie “The Fly”, you have an exaggerated example of what can happen when something unaccounted for ends up in the mix. If you don’t know the film, the scientist is seeking to teleport from location A to B. A fly manages to enter the teleportation chamber and, in the process of being dismantled and then reassembled, fly and human DNA end up mingling. The result, of course, is horrifying, to say the least. An exaggeration, yes, but still a useful illustration of the importance of accounting for all pertinent factors. Such accounting has always been recognized as problematic in the hard sciences but, even more so, in the soft sciences, what we all know as the social sciences.

Data 1
Most people who have attended university probably took some kind of introductory course in psychology or, maybe, sociology. If so, you would have learned about probabilities, trends and the like. History, once the bastion of irrefutable truth in the minds of many, has been recast as “historiography” in many instances, so as to acknowledge the interpretative element at work in any accounting of the past. “Research” in the social science context, does not pretend to provide absolutes; it works to continually refine understanding even as, at some level, it would argue that, when dealing with something as complex as human beings and human society, definitive and unassailable conclusions are pretty hard to come by, impossible to have, in fact.

Still, such subtlety is the preserve, for the most part, of the university and academic journals. In popular culture, to a greater or lesser degree, we have all become experts in psychology of some sort. Who has not spoken of – or been privy to someone else speaking of – what is or isn’t true when it comes to men and women? Each of us, at some time or other, I’m guessing, has made a statement something along the lines of: “oh, you know men/women; they’re just like that (whatever ‘that’ might be at that moment)”. I can’t blame anyone for feeling expert in this regard (we all have a lifetime’s experience of being one or the other, after all) but few would imagine, at the same time, that they are expert psychologists, in a developed sense.

data 2
Education presents a very special problem in the world of research and data. While social scientists may feel it necessary to qualify both expectations and results, they can still be fairly clear on just what it is they are examining: how do people react to certain stimulus alone? While in crowds? With friends? Strangers? But what happens when an entire research industry grows up around something that cannot easily be defined? As Hamlet says: ”Aye, there’s the rub.” (to be continued)


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