Friday, August 11, 2006

Trust our numbers 

Thomas Sowell writes about how difficult it is to get the numbers to support an argument that goes against conventional wisdom:
"Critics of affirmative action have long said that mismatching black students with colleges that they do not qualify for creates wholly needless academic failures among these students, who drop out or flunk out of colleges that they should never have been in, when most of them are fully qualified to succeed in other colleges.

Has the ending of preferential admissions in the University of California system and the University of Texas system led to a rise in the graduation rates of black students, as critics predicted? Who knows? These universities will not release those statistics."
Sowell's article is the third on the subject of fact-checking published studies. In yesterday's he cites another common problem -- six studies cited as independent verification of some point, only to find all six rely on one result found by one researcher. I've seen that one several times myself. Or the report you write for a boss that says "the results are inconclusive", which means to the higher-ups that they can pick whichever position they wanted beforehand and use half the results to support it. The result? Sowell's mentor George Stigler's advice to "spend a few hours in a library checking up on studies that had been cited."

Think it a waste of time? Had the University of Colorado done it, it might have saved itself the pain of Ward Churchill.