Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Everything is Subjective

This morning I read a post by Russ Goerend that hits on a lot of issues that have been going through my mind lately and the subsequent conversations on Twitter around the topic have clarified my thinking a little bit more. The topic is data.

In Russ' post he embeds a Tweet from another educator whose logic bothers him:

To which Russ replies:
If that’s what you are without data, what are you with data? “Just” a person with an opinion and data? Just a person with data?

This led to an even more interesting thought when Russ' post was discussed on Twitter:

William didn't reply so I felt the need to butt in. This line of reasoning is what I have been thinking about lately and felt this the logical place to express this idea:

To which set off a debate on the semantics of which was opinion, the data itself or the act of collecting it which to me is not nearly as important as the fact that this all calls into question the nature of data and the value of objectivity. Continuing to think through this conversation today I came to this thought which had not occurred to me before:

Two books I have recently read (actually one I am half-way through right now) address this issue but never quite nail it down. First, in Gerald W. Bracey's (2009) Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality: Transforming the Fire Consuming America's Schools Bracey discusses how data can be twisted around to make make arguments that the data itself doesn't necessarily support. One example he gives is the data that lies at the heart of the (1983) commission report, A Nation at Risk, which arguably set off much of the data-driven madness we are currently under. In that report Bracey says there was a data set consisting of 9 points (3 tests given to 3 different age groups). Of those 9 data sets all but one showed growth and improvement by students attending our school but the report only uses that one data set from that one test given to that one age group to base its claims that America's schools were in serious trouble. Here we have an opinion that is not only choosing the method of gathering data it is determining the data set upon which to focus attention. And, as so many education writers (Alfie Kohn, Diane Ravich, Herb Kohl, and Johnathan Kozol just to name a few) have pointed out, the instruments we use to collect this testing data are also flawed and reflect a cultural bias of the test makers. The data itself is boiling with bias and opinions.

Then, in Neil Postman's (1985) Amuzing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman points out that the nature of what we consider reliable data sources has changed over time. Once it was that “feeling is believing” then “saying is believing” then “seeing is believing” then “reading is believing” then “deducing is believing” and now “counting is believing.” Postman argues that it is the media driven culture that has reduced our concept of what is believable data to that which can be counted, that which can be objectified and abstracted.

So, as Postman points out, the nature of truth is flexible and as Bracey points out, there are ways to manipulate the truth. Among all this non-linear discourse on the matter was a conversation I had with Jennifer Borgioli stemming from and included in the conversation with William and Russ on Twitter. Jennifer nails the real issue with this tweet:

If you want to effect change the real issue is not how we use data. Data can be used as either a tool or a weapon but it is not the greatest source of power. Instead, we ought to be thinking about how to create new social constructs. Objectivity only exists within a context and objective measurement can only exist within that kind of frame of reference. Ultimately everything is subjective. Our collective fetish with data has caused many people great harm because it ends up being used as a weapon. Data is by nature an abstraction and when it is used to measure people it objectifies people; when people are objectified it opens them up to be exploited. The way to fight "counting is believing" is to construct a new context where something else is the arbiter of truth. What that looks like and how we get there I am not completely sure.

Reading is Believing:

Feeling is Believing:

Counting is Believing:

Never Tell Me the Odds!

Deducing is Believing:

Seeing is Believing:

That's no moon. It's a space station

Saying is Believing:


William Chamberlain said...

I still believe the war for data comes from distrust of teachers. We all have people whose opinions we trust (to the point of causing us to change our thoughts or actions.) Many no longer put teachers in that category. Data is what others use to replace trust.

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