Sunday, June 27, 2010

If you swim after eating, your stomach will cramp

As a student of the physical sciences, the importance of experimentation for determining the true principles behind many natural phenomena is impressed upon me on a near daily basis. However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that carefully designed experiments are even more important for the social sciences.

Within the the social sciences, there are (to my untrained eye at least) few theories to predict the behavior of individuals or groups. Furthermore, their behavior is often influenced greatly by the interests of other groups. For example, McDougall's Born to Run contains a chapter about the drastic increase in foot and knee injuries that occurred following the development of the athletic shoe in the 1970's. Despite an enormous amount of evidence that running shoes are the cause of many running-related injuries, companies such as Nike create a "false truth" for the public: the more cushioned a running shoe is (and the more expensive), the better it is for your feet and knees. Though this is a misconception perpetrated by a company in the field of sports medicine, the idea can be carried over quite easily to the social sciences (see Levitt's Freakanomics). Thus, common wisdom in the social sciences can be attributed to a lack of predictive power and conflicting interests.

The importance of these fields to society is enormous when compared to the physical sciences. After all, if the common wisdom is wrong in the physical sciences, the general public is likely to be affected by not having a new iPod or smart phone until the misconception is discovered and the science is applied to new technologies. However, if misconceptions exist in the social sciences, large groups of people could go without health care, school curricula could be poorly engineered by state governments (New Math, anyone?), and governments could be buried by incredible deficits.

Thus, carefully designed and controlled experiments in the social sciences, and really any science, are important for everyone. Without them, the truth might remain buried in speculation and deception.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Like cures like?

Yesterday some fellow CREOL students and I visited a high school in Sanford to discuss our roles as graduate students and to demonstrate some basic scientific principles of our research with the students. The high school is a special school that is administered by Seminole County for students who have been expelled from normal public high schools. The idea (at least how I understand it) is that placing students with similar behavioral problems in the same setting will allow them to receive more attention from teachers since they are no longer overshadowed by the well-performing students. Of course, the obvious objection to a school such as this is that packing many students who all have had disciplinary issues into the same classroom will prevent everyone from learning effectively since the teachers will be less likely to control the students given their nature.

After speaking with one of the teachers, the consensus seemed to be that the system was working and that the students were more eager to learn (on the average) than they were at a normal institution. Specifically she cited the personal attention that the students receive as a major cause for their better performance. Of course, the school still has a wealth of issues with discipline, but if a few students end up for the better, then I suppose that the school has served some good utilitarian purpose.

Keeping with a utilitarian discussion, it would be worthwhile to consider the cost per student that is paid by the government (and indirectly by taxpayers) to run such a school. Suppose only a small percentage of the students actually perform better academically at this school after having been expelled from a normal public high school. Would the additional costs of running this school justify the improvement in the education of this small percentage?

To be honest, I'm not quite sure what my opinion is on the matter. However, I sincerely respect the teachers, both here and at all schools, who have to deal with both the duty of educating the youth and the need to maneuver through an often hostile bureaucratic system of school administration.