Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Social Science Proving the Obvious

I had a fun discussion with Mrs Spew today about a potential science fair project that the little Spew was pondering, but then rejected because the initial experiment suggests that the findings would be dull.  In the publishing social science business, we always want our findings to be counter-intuitive and even mind-blowing.  If they aren't, we try desperately to frame them that way.  "You see, the conventional wisdom is x, and we found y!"  Even if the conventional wisdom is pretty darned silly (hint, see my first book about this strategy).*
* The good news for my earliest academic enterprise is that people still buy into the old conventional wisdom, which means that my book is still counter-intuitive even if I should be disappointed that people have not been persuaded by it.
Why do I bring this up today?  Because a new study has come out that shows that Canadian Defence bureaucrats do NOT pay attention to studies taken by academics and other outsiders.   Just shocking.  Really.  It seems to be the case that the bureaucrats just file the studies and go ahead with whatever they were doing.  Now, this is actually an important study because it seems to prove that the folks at the Department of National Defence (yes, DND, which means decisions really depend on a twenty-sided die being rolled) are inattentive to outsiders.**  Perhaps we expected it, but knowing this means we can try to assert (at least in grant applications) that we need to do more to disseminate our findings.
** And it makes sense that they don't pay attention to outsiders, as they must respond to the incentives of their organization.  Doing otherwise can mean being frozen in position, if not losing one's position.  Political science can explain pretty easily why folks in chains of command look up and down and not outside.

But, of course, what it really means is that we need to find other folks to influence since these folks are not persuade-able.  Like politicians, maybe.  Perhaps military folks who take lesson-learning very, very seriously.  But not the media since this has been an incredibly crappy weak for the Canadian media.

  1. One TV station and then the rest of the media engage in mob coverage (not research, just coverage) of the Chief of Defence Staff flying government jets.
  2. The study mentioned above actually includes a big mistake--putting the Leslie transformation study into the same category as outside experts.  Why?  Because the Leslie transformation project was sponsored by the government, so it has more legs.  The bureaucrats may fight it, they may resist it, they may win, but they certainly cannot ignore it.
  3. Columns that make huge mistakes about higher education, creating ignorance rather than illumination.
These have not been the best of times in American media, but the Canadian media has its own challenges.  I guess I wish Gus from the Wire had his hands on the controls. (NSFW language)

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