Tag: research

Be skeptical of your own thinking

Blood sucker

Budding politician?

You don’t have to know a lot about history to know that people used to think illness could be caused by too much blood, and so the way to cure illness was to bleed the patient. I heard that George Washington died as a result of being bled to treat pneumonia (turns out it was actually “acute epiglottitis“). We just shake our heads and sigh at the ignorance.

You may not realize that the idea of “having too much blood” made perfect sense, supported by evidence and observation. Continue reading

photo by: Sarah G...
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Just the facts? The way you say it matters

Detail of Aaron's Tree assignment
Creative Commons License photo credit: goldberg

“Just the facts” is a phrase not only a part of American culture, but part of a values system–as if the facts can be separated from the expression of facts. Here’s the reality: there is no such thing as facts apart from the expression of those facts, and the expression of facts inevitably changes the perception. The mere selection of facts, of which facts to focus on, changes perception.

For instance, Scott Shane notes a very important dichotomy in the way people talk about tax increases on businesses (as if a tax increase on business doesn’t just get passed on to the rest of us anyway–but that’s a different point). In his article Less than a Tenth or More than Four Fifths? he says, “The share of small businesses and the fraction of small business income hit by tax increases are usually very different numbers.” Both are simply facts, and yet the choice of which to focus on in a talk or a paper yield very different impressions.

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Separating evidence and interpretation

This is for both speech and journalism students. People sometimes have trouble separating evidence from the conclusions drawn from that evidence. Here’s a great example. Recently a study in Wisconsin, which has had a school voucher program in place for a while, found “parity” between representative samples of both public school and voucher-funded private school students. (That means they performed about the same grade-wise.) I don’t know how long the link will remain live, but right now you can read a newspaper story at the Journal-Sentinel.

Even though the researchers have repeatedly warned of the dangers of basing too much on the results of one study, media and politicians seem to have jumped on the results, with all claiming it supports whatever their position is.

Opponents of school vouchers are saying, in essence, “See! See! Private schools aren’t doing it any better. So we can finally just drop all this voucher nonsense and keep doing things the way we were.”

Proponents of school vouchers are saying, in essence, “Let me get this straight. The private schools are achieving the same results as public schools while costing a third less, a savings of several thousand dollars per student. How is it again that this proves vouchers are a bad idea? I don’t get it.”

This alone should help students understand why persuasion must go well beyond simply piling up facts.

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