May 13, 2010

But now they can create a variable for overly_sensitive and dont_understand

This story is a doozy for academics (chronicle of higher ed version, sub required). Two business school professors sent a fake email to 6300 professors purporting to be from a prospective PhD student, with different versions of the email asking for an appointment now (today) or later (a week away). Different versions of the email also varied the apparent race and gender of the student.

Deception in the name of research. It's been done before and will be done again. A really important question is whether the impact on the deceived is outweighed by the scientific benefit of obtaining possibly better estimates of what people think and do. It's all very well for an historian to say "Involving colleagues, or any human beings, in a study without their knowledge and their prior consent is unethical," because historians rarely face this issue. Historians who use social science research so often delegate the dirty business of data collection to people long before us.

I happen to think that this kind of field experiment (it's not really survey research as some people think) is necessary. In the first instance there's the research done by sociologists and economists about racial and gender discrimination in housing and labor markets. You can't do this without deception, and there is to me a clear greater good in knowing the extent of discrimination in society.

But a more abstract and important question is how does measurement affect behavior? People say different things in surveys than they subconsciously reveal in laboratory experiments. But even in laboratory experiments people know they are being studied, and it's quite likely there's some kind of impact on their behavior in that setting. So field experiments where people don't know they're being studied, and might be [nearly] harmlessly manipulated are necessary to work out how people respond in different situations. Research involving deception has inherent risks, but that's a reason to monitor it closely and make sure the consequences for the deceived participants are low, not to never do it.

Posted by eroberts at 12:07 AM

May 11, 2010

Why not just fund schools a different way?

The poor will always be with us. What a lot of social policy strives to achieve is that the poor are more of a random, changing aggregate and not a static, related and identifiable group. Unfortunately there is lots of evidence that poverty is persistent. Here is some American discussion of that issue showing how race, housing, education all contribute to poverty. One of the peculiar American aspects of this discussion is the implicit identification of "urban" with "poor" and "troubled." In a lot of American academic and policy discussion this language flows quite naturally, as if it were just natural that inner cities (urban) were poorer than suburbs.

Some of the policy discussion that follows is then all about moving the people. Thus in the 1970s school children began being bussed long distances to school to pursue racial integration. And still today. However the explicit goal of racially integrated schools is less common, giving way to the goal of giving children in areas with poor schools the opportunity to go to better schools. Laudable goal, and perhaps the least worst method possible in the circumstances. The other way to move people is to move their residences, so American research on race and poverty often comes to focus on how to reduce housing segregation.

The goals here are worthy, but one thing I don't quite understand is why there isn't more effort to substitute state for local funding of schools. Money is fungible and moves across city borders somewhat more easily than people. The local control of schools is long standing in American education, but that doesn't make it right for the future.

It's the kiss of death to any suggestion for American reform to say that "other countries" do something, but it really is true that in other comparable countries with problems of race and poverty, some of it is mitigated by the education system that directs resources from richer to poorer areas through state/province or national taxes.

Posted by eroberts at 10:05 PM