Sunday, March 15, 2009

a question of significance

Today is the Sunday before exam week, winter quarter 2009. I'm being explicit with the date because it is more than likely the close of the quarter that signifies not only my last bit of real required coursework in this PhD, but also the end of the first and likely only statistics course I will ever take. By Tuesday, 11:30 am, I will (hopefully) have lodged into my brain the range of quantitative methods that began with the probability of drawing an ace of spades, and ends with multiple regression, bivariate correlations, and the importance of R squared. We've most certainly come a long way.

Our final lab project ('our' here is my fabulous partner Naji and I) utilizes a multi-country global data set from 2000 in an attempt to discern which factors reported (independent variables) ultimately have a significant effect on income inequality (the Gini index). The fact that I can even write that sentence and know what it means is substantial progress for those of us who live primarily in the right side of our brain. On several occasions, I have compared the mental process of taking a math class to the slow turning of a giant freighter in a narrow canal (not so unlike the intended mission of the bailout package on the US economy) or the struggle to crank a wheel that has sat hidden and rusted for years (not so unlike that cartoon of a thing that seems to unhinge the island in time on LOST). Nine and a half weeks in, the gears have loosened and the fallout is at least comprehendible, if not comprehensive. Though I won't hide my excitement that the end of the struggle is near, I also can't help but be just a bit excited about the baby steps of inchoate bridging something like statistics provides. As someone consciously and laboriously building a bridge between the humanities/arts/architecture and social sciences, an awareness of the vocabulary and concepts that form the basis for 'substantiating' quantitative research might very well come in handy.

On the flip side, however, it also reveals itself as a shaky house of cards. If I've learned nothing else, I've most certainly learned that randomness is very important business and is the key to predicting everything (as in you must have random samples) and simultaneously the key to determining just how possible the probable might be (how confident or not you are in your results). Yes, what the 'outside world' (outside of quantitative methods) has been lead to believe is a more precise and exact form of research, is mostly the task of laboriously proving that results do, at best, hold some truthiness (thank you Stephen Colbert). Which is, actually, its own kind of rigor.

What statistics can also do, though, is gauge significance. By using the SPSS computer program (the wizard for us stats adolescents), you can determine the degree to which one factor in a data set influences another factor. (You stats people are laughing out loud at my over simplification. You other people are thinking - why on earth does this matter at all?) Briefly (taken from our current lab project), if we're trying to determine why a country has income inequality, we can test a correlation hypothesis in SPSS and it will tell us that, yes, how much a country spends on health care is significantly correlated to its level of income inequality. And then if we run that same test with other variables - say life expectancy or degree of urbanization - ultimately, we hope, we can find more and more of the factors that relate to income inequality and then, in the long run, work to change those factors to make societies more equal. Ah, if it were only so easy....

Which brings us to the class I am teaching at Otis. Two weeks ago we had an 'intervention' of sorts. Struggling with the students' lack of commitment to the assignments, my astute co-teacher recommended we have an open session within which we could air our concerns, hopefully address them, and move past them to some real progress. It was a fantastic session and one really enlightening issue that emerged was, also, this question of significance. Here we are working with people who are homeless, one student said, and we're talking about making art. What good does art do - shouldn't we be doing something more significant? And, in turn, is promoting 'awareness' - one of our project options - a significant enough concern of art making? (As a short aside, it is interesting to imagine this in statistical terms, to ask if there really is some sort of correlation between an increase in awareness and a reduction in homelessness, or a reduction in the abuse that those living on the streets frequently receive.)

Of course I'm a strong believer in the fact that, in lieu of finding a way to house everyone in a single semester, there are thousands of alternative ways to contribute meaningfully to the lives and plight of people who find themselves marginalized. And, to bring this back to the cause of the week, that doing something with the smallest degree of significance is better than doing nothing at all.

I so often find myself speaking to people who are immobilized by the magnitude of the world's problems. Particularly now, when they seem so huge and so close to home. So, in honor of my stats final and my new found direction with my Otis class, I'm asking everyone to get unstuck, to turn the crank of small possibility, and do something that may seem insignificant, but isn't. And then do it again. And then do something else. Don't worry for now that you're not solving the big problems, not answering the big questions. Don't let the magnitude of need hold you back. Give yourself permission to warm up to greater things, greater risks even.

An easy one that I've noticed is buying a box of Girl Scout cookies. According to USA Today, Girl Scout cookie pre-orders were down 19% this year due to the economy and particularly harsh winter weather. Much of the funds they raise go to scholarships and community projects; one troop in Atlanta has used creative capitalism techniques to get buyers who can't or shouldn't eat the cookies themselves to purchase a box to be given to Operation Sandbox and sent to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It may seem insignificant, it may even be insignificant, but what stats has taught us, is that the most unlikely contributors might also prove to be vital. This week, allow even the smallest of opportunities - picking up trash, recycling something you usually don't bother to wash, giving away the 75 cents in your pocket - to become significant in its own right. Building on the small acts is the very thing that makes them worthwhile.

**thanks to the poster design team in my Otis class for this bit of visual research.


Julie said...

Linda- I like your post and look forward to hearing more about the changing direction of the Otis class. It sounds like you guys had a fantastic and open discussion. Good luck on that final, lets meet whenever you have some time!

- Julie

lcsamuels said...

Thanks, Julie. Hope to see you soon.