Friday, April 1, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson on "The Measure of a Scientist" and a mentee of mine

One of the regular things I've taken part in at the Urban Institute is the Urban Institute Summer Academy. A couple years ago the Ford Foundation supported us in an eight week program where we have ten undergraduates come for the summer and work on a research project with a mentor from the Urban Institute staff. I've mentored two summer academy students (and hope to one final time this summer), and I've continued to work with my mentee from the summer of 2010 as she's turned her summer project into a senior thesis this year at Dartmouth.

This mentee took on an especially tough project... testing the impact of a policy measure. In most cases these students do the sort of thing students do for their papers in intro statistics or econometrics classes: they look at the relationship between some broad social or economic variables and pontificate on what that means for society, policy, etc. etc. This mentee had a very specific program that she wanted to get a treatment effect for. It was great to have her interested in that, but as anyone who does this sort of thing knows - it's a tough slog. Her results (both in the summer and in the expanded analysis she finished this spring) were abysmally insignificant. It's a fact of life. It happens. You have to stay agnostic when that happens - often you have to stay agnostic on a conclusion you really would have liked to have found. She was disappointed at first, but ended up taking it in stride after about the tenth time I insisted to her that failing to reject the null is an important scientific finding.

I recently stumbled across this discussion by Neil deGrasse Tyson about the measure of a scientist - you really tell a scientist by the way they react to what a more naive observer would characterize as "failure" (but really isn't).

1 comment:

  1. Just like in everyday life, we learn the most in science when we learn the least. I have grown to love non-significant results after 5 years of them--it even shocks me now when I find what I hypothesized!


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