Friday, November 6, 2009

Count Me Out

We have to develop a counternarrative to explain what we do; we don't need more [if there were an html code for scornful tone of voice, I would insert it before this noun] "data"!

— colleague, in debate about the means of improving student retention and measuring educational outcomes

One of the big buzzwords in education and management, and—well, come to think of it—almost every field of endeavor is "assessment." I once went to a whole conference dedicated to it, though I didn't realize it till I got there. Boy, was that a mistake (and this, even before the airport was snowed in and the foundation didn't want to spring for the hotel room; but I digress). I thought we were going there to share project results, and we did that, but a large portion of the weekend was devoted to rather inane lectures and exhortations on the topic of assessment. And in case we forgot any of the material, one hectoring consultant gave us each a free mousepad on which were imprinted the seven principles of "planning an evaluation." An object to be treasured.

It's easy to make fun of this drivel, but I know that there was an underlying purpose. Individuals and organizations are increasingly held accountable: to demonstrate effective use of funds, or simply to document their claims. And, in order to do that, one has to have evidence. Most claims about performance are expressed in terms that are comparative and thus at least implicitly measurable. Indeed, how can you possibly tell—much less, demonstrate to someone else— that whatever you are doing has increased or improved without recourse to some quantitative measure?

I can understand and sympathize with some of the faculty resistance to the creeping culture of consultants, what is seen as administrative micromanagement or surveillance, and so forth. At least these are things that one can debate. It's similar to the problem of "No Child Left Behind" and an emphasis on standardized testing that leads to "teaching to the test" rather than teaching in order to convey anything of greater substance. Fine.

Far deeper and more dismaying, though, is the inveterate resistance to measurement, as such, indeed, the notion that any sort of quantifiable evidence is weaker than descriptive or anecdotal evidence, by definition a "fiction," and generally just not something to be taken seriously.

One thing that always amazes me: No one ever (well, until the previously cited speaker and others of a like mind—or mindlessness) boasts about being illiterate, yet it is all too common to hear supposedly educated academics say, "oh, I don't understand graphs," or "statistics confuse me."

Already two decade ago, John Allen Paulos observed, with alarm:
Innumeracy, an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of numbers and chance, plagues far too many otherwise knowledgeable citizens. The same people who cringe when words such as 'imply' and 'infer' are confused react without a trace of embarrassment to even the most egregious of numerical solecisms. I remember once listening to someone at a party drone on about the difference between 'continually' and 'continuously.' Later that evening we were watching the news, and the TV weathercaster announced that there was a 50 percent chance of rain for Saturday and a 50 percent chance for Sunday, and concluded that there was therefore a 100 percent chance of rain that weekend. The remark went right by the self-styled grammarian, and even after I explained the mistake to him, he wasn't nearly as indignant as he would have been had the weathercaster left a dangling participle. In fact, unlike other failings which are hidden, mathematical innumeracy is often flaunted: 'I can't even balance my checkbook.' 'I'm a people person, not a numbers person.' Or 'I always hated math.'
He has some explanations:
Part of the reason for this perverse pride in mathematical ignorance is that its consequences are not usually as obvious as are those of other weaknesses.
He further attributes this arrogant ignorance in part to flawed education, but mainly to psychological factors:
Some people personalize events excessively, resisting an external perspective, and since numbers and an impersonal view of the world are intimately related, this resistance contributes to an almost willful innumeracy.

Quasi-mathematical questions arise naturally when one transcends one's self, family, and friends. How many? How long ago? How far away? How fast? What links this to that? Which is more likely? How do you integrate your projects with local, national, and international events? with historical, biological, geological, and astronomical time scales?

People too firmly rooted to the center of their lives find such questions uncongenial at best, quite distasteful at worst. Numbers and 'science' have appeal for these people only if they're tied to them personally
Innumeracy (NY, 1988), 3-4, 80-81
Solipsism over statistics: perfectly explains what I see around me every day.

Whatever the explanation, it's really a disgrace. Or is it an embarrassment? Oh, well, seven of one, a half dozen of another.

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