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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 14, 2007

Originally posted on Half an Hour, September 14, 2007.

I just want to capture my part of a discussion that took place on Matthew Tabor's website.

To introduce this, I'll quote part of the post I was responding to (I don't want to cite everything in the post because his site is not licensed under Creative Commons):

The Journal of Common Sense in Education has a new submission ready for peer-review: rightly or wrongly, appearance is a factor. I can’t be too bothered when I read about wasted time and resources dedicated to questions that could be answered properly by anyone who has a) left their home in the last 20 years and/or b) has firing neurons. Why?

Because I’m pleased that third-rate researchers are putting time into trivial subjects instead of mucking up research that actually matters. It’s the lesser of two evils.

EdWeek hops on the bandwagon:

Researchers Julia Smith of Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., and Nancy Niehmi of Nazareth College of Rochester, N.Y., analyzed test results and other data for nearly 9,000 boys across the country who started kindergarten in 1998. They found that kindergarten teachers systematically perceived boys who were shorter than average—or even just shorter than the other boys in their class—to be less skilled in reading, mathematics, and general knowledge than their test results indicated.

Well done.

Here is my response:

I don’t see why you consider this to be useless research.

First of all, teachers shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of height, don’t you think? Because height has nothing to do about academic ability.

You may call such discrimination a “fact of life” but it remains true that this is a learned behavior and one that perpetuates inequities in the school system.

It’s also the sort of behaviour that may change over time. So while we knew that teachers discriminated against height 20 years ago, it may be that they no longer do so. You can’t tell unless you check to find out.

Lots of things like this change. A study in 1950 might have found that most teachers are racists. You wouldn’t call a similar study conducted 20 years later useless because “it’s something we learned 20 years ago”.

Indeed, the idea that we can say of any demographic that “we learned it 20 years ago” betrays an almost abnormally underdeveloped understanding of humans and society. Do you think that if we’ve studied attitudes once that we’ve established it for all time? Weird! Odd!

We need to survey for attitudes and behaviours on an ongoing basis, because these change, and because inappropriate attitudes and behaviours, especially on the part of teachers, can cause great and unnecessary harm.

Tabor replied, in part:

The study wasn’t about whether we should discriminate on the basis of height. It was about if we do, which is a very different thing and is not to be confused with a value judgment....

Your point about re-checking the status of discrimination is valid; even so, I’d put “height discrimination” about 384th on the list of important issues in education.

There is not a compelling case that the status of height discrimination or the factors contributing to it have changed dramatically between 1987 and now. A compelling case may warrant a re-examination of the situation; that’s the basis for most race-based research, the situational foundation of which is constantly in flux. This is not the case with height discrimination with 5 year olds.

My response:

> I’d put “height discrimination” about 384th on the list of important issues in education.


We’ve got plenty of researchers, enough that we can get down to things that are 384th on your list.

Which is a good thing, because for other people, such things rank a lot higher.

> There is not a compelling case that the status of height discrimination or the factors contributing to it have changed dramatically between 1987 and now

Well, interestingly, the only way to create such a case would be to research it.

That’s the thing about research - you do it to determine *whether* there is a compelling case. You don’t do it only *if* there is a compelling case.


Both you and a commenter spend time talking about how you hate to ‘fritter and waste’ time on such ‘nonsense’. Then why are you writing about it?

Why not focus on the things that are important to you? If we have researchers working on *those*, then what do you care if other people are working on other things?

Nobody expects to have the entire force and weight of the government or the national research infrastructure lined up behind *your* priorities. At the very best, the most you can claim is some part of that.

It’s like police work. If your house is burgled, they’ll send some officers to investigate. But they won’t send the entire force - and it would be pretty trivial to complain that some police out there somewhere are investigating crimes that you consider to be unimportant.

So unless you can show that the height-researchers are directly diverting resources away from much more important things, then you don’t have a case.

And if you don’t have a case, then you’re just being nasty for no good reason, to make political points or something, I don’t know.

Another response from Mathew Tabor, greatly clipped:

I don’t adhere to the relativism that you seem to - that is not an insult, just an honest way of comparing our views. Though some victim of height discrimination might rank the issue above 384th, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us should bow to their interests...

I judge research by its value...

My response:

> I judge research by its value.

No, you judge research by what *you* value. Big difference.

Discrimination doesn’t bother you. You think it’s something short people just have to live with. So research in to it is trivial.

You represent your values as absolutes:

> in no way will I suggest that the average women’s studies dissertation carries more value than the investigation of a cheaper cure for malaria.

Leaving aside the basic dishonesty of comparing “the average” something with the “cure” of something…

It may be that understanding the systematic discrimination against half the population may produce many more returns for society that the savings obtained by treating malaria more cheaply.

It may even be that the cheaper cure to malaria is made possible by a woman who is earning a PhD as a result of a program that was created as a consequence of the dissertation author’s work.

We don’t live in a world of simple causes and effects where everything is predictable. We live in a complex world where a wide range of factors go into producing results.

The idea that you have some sort of privileged position from which to judge which studies will produce good results (even if ‘good results’ = ‘things you want’, which is itself questionable) is unsustainable.

Another response from Matthew Tabor, again clipped heavily:
You’ve misrepresented me quite badly. At no point did I say that discrimination didn’t bother me or that I “think it’s something short people just have to live with.” There are many real problems in education and elsewhere - I don’t question that. I do question the priorities we sometimes have in addressing those problems.

Comparing an average soft-discipline social science dissertation to one that delivers a solution to a specific, pressing need was done purposely. It was not dishonest; the point is that those two aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison.

I hope that you don’t sincerely believe that understanding systematic discrimination based on height is likely to produce more returns - or be a more valuable moral goal - than curing a disease that kills over 1 million per year, most of whom are infants, children and pregnant women....

And finally, my last response:

The reason I took the tone I did is because of what I felt was unwarranted nastiness in the original post. Like this, for example:

“I’m pleased that third-rate researchers are putting time into trivial subjects instead of mucking up research that actually matters. It’s the lesser of two evils.”

Given that you have actually named the researchers in question, your attack on them as “third rate” and on their work as “trivial” suggested to me an intent not to, as you say in a comment, to “to stick to the merit [or lack of merit] of the arguments.”

If your intent was a serious evaluation of their arguments, then I apologize for assuming that it was motivated by other concerns. It felt to me that your intent was to discredit the source and the topic, and if you return to your original post, you may see why I may be forgiven for leaping to this conclusion. Again, if that was not your intent, I apologize.

Treating the issue substantively, I am still not convinced by your evaluation of the usefulness of the research in question. It appears to me that the evaluation criteria are not well formed.

Let me be specific. You write that a study of height discrimination is obviously less important than “curing a disease that kills over 1 million per year.” By this, I take it that your criterion for evaluating research work is the number of lives saved by that work.

Now maybe you see what you said differently. You took me to task, after all, for asserting that discrimination doesn’t bother you. Yet you also said that research into it is “trivial”. The conclusion I draw is pretty natural, and when taken in conjunction with your other comments, deductive. I do not misrepresent you if I assign to you the consequences of your statement. And in a similar manner, your statement directly implies that you consider ‘the number of lives saved’ to be the criterion by which we judge research.

If so - and I’m sure you will agree with me that there is significant room for questioning that criterion - then it seems to me that your support for the one sort of research over the other simply doesn’t follow.

The example you chose is ‘finding a cheaper cure for malaria’. Now it may be that lives are saved by lowering the cost of treatment, but unless the savings are dramatic, then that number will be nowhere the million lives being lost to the disease.

But more to the point, when we ask, “what is killing those people,” a more complex answer emerges. Because it is not *simply* that they are dying from malaria. Malaria can be cured with prescription drugs. Therefore, if the people dying had access to the drugs, they would be cured. What is killing them, arguably, is not malaria. It is their lack of access to prescription drugs.

Indeed, if we look at the top causes of death worldwide, it becomes clear what a role income plays, so much so that the list needs to be divided between high, middle and low income countries.
That is why we see malaria at 4.4 percent of deaths in low income countries, and not a factor at all in middle or higher income countries.

Without even looking at the reasons why people die of malaria specifically, it becomes evident that most of the causes of death are what might be called ‘lifestyle’ causes, not diseases. At 4.4 percent for only one group of nations, malaria is in fact a pretty minor cause of death. It is greatly overshadowed by things like heart failure, lung infection and obstruction, cancer and stroke.

These are medical conditions but they have to a large degree social causes - things like diet and nutrition, exercise, smoking and pollution, stress and deprivation. These things in turn are almost totally related to issues of poverty and injustice.

From where I sit, the single-minded focus on ‘disease’ is nothing more than a distraction from the real problems facing people in society. That is not to say that I think research into the cause, treatment and cure of disease is trivial. It is not; it is important, and we should do it.

But it is not so important that it dwarfs all else, and it is certainly nowhere nearly as important as research into justice, equity, and poverty. One major area of this research is research into discrimination. And one well-known type of discrimination is that based on height.

Now I am not saying that some paper on a height-discrimination study will cure poverty on earth. But neither will malaria be cured by the typical the typical paper on that disease. Each type of research project plays the same role: it contributes to our understanding of a wider field. Sometimes there are major breakthroughs that save a lot of lives - but these breakthroughs are rare - and they don’t exist only in medicine.

And that returns me to the reason why I took the tone I did. Because none of what I have just outlined is surprising or even controversial. Most people know this, and when they look on it and reflect, they see that it is true. That’s why society as a whole supports research into many disciplines, most of which have nothing to do with medicine.

There’s a whole class of research, that might be called ‘poverty studies’ or ‘equity studies’ or ’social justice research’ or the like, that examines this sort of question. It is work that is important. And yet it is work that is often dismissed as “trivial” not because it is genuinely trivial, but because if often has political implications, that would impact the power and privilege of the wealthy.

Thus, trivializing research that isn’t part of the ‘hard sciences’ becomes part and course of a wider political strategy, one that is intended to perpetuate wealth and privilege, even if this does result in continued poverty, suffering and death.

Now if this wasn’t your intent when you labled one such study “trivial”, I apologize. And I will say only that, even if this wasn’t your intent, this is the effect.

I think I’ll stop addressing this here and let us both get on to other issues. I will be happy to read your response and let it be. You should, after all, have the last word on your own blog.

And the final reply:


I’d like to be very clear - I discussed only the researcher’s work. That is sticking to the merits of the argument.

Though I appreciate your willingness to let me have the last word, I expressed what I wanted to in the articles and comments. There’s just no need for more, it’s all there.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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