I was skimming through the headlines in the NY Times, and the column titled: “Bleeding Heart Tightwads” caught my eye. The gist of Kristoff’s column is that there is a hefty amount of data to show that political conservatives are more generous in giving cash to charities than political liberals.
It seems backwards, since political liberals are often seen as pushing the government to help combat social ills like poverty, lack of health insurance, etc. Yet the data can’t lie, can it?
Political commentaries aside, the article piqued my interest and I thought others might find some fodder in this.
Statistics and Scientific Inquiry
About halfway through the column, Kristof quotes an author who researched this topic (Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares)
“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”
This tiny little narrative is a great summary of statistical and scientific inquiry.
Brooks started with a hypothesis – that political liberals gave more to charities than political conservatives. He designed an experiment that he thought would support his hypothesis.
When the data didn’t jive with his expectations, he redesigned his experiment and repeated it. Same results.
Only after repeated surprises (cognitive dissonance?) did he finally alter his views and come to a new conclusion.
When I learned about the scientific method in school (no, I don’t teach science, so this is not coming from a science educator’s perspective), it always seemed like the experiments were self-serving. You conducted them to prove a result you already knew – or at least that you thought you knew.
Brooks’ experience is, I think, more in line with the real work of science and statistics. Yes, a lot of experiments are designed to prove pre-developed hypotheses. But the real discoveries – the meaty, world-altering discoveries – are often unexpected.
At this point, the scientific method proved its true usefulness in clarifying and supporting this unexpected conclusion.
Think Outside the Box
Something else that jumped out at me throughout the column was that this is a great opportunity to think outside the box. Simple data that leads to unexpected conclusions calls for some novel, creative thought to answer the simple question: Why?
The researcher Brooks (and the columnist Kristoff) both seem to think that since political liberals are concerned about social issues, they’ll donate money to solve them. Likewise, political conservatives don’t seem concerned, so they’ll keep their money in their pockets.
It’s certainly a plausible solution. But, since the data proves it wrong, it’s time to come up with an alternative explanation.
Instead of looking at the difference in concern over social problems, consider the difference liberals and conservatives have about the role of government.
Liberals think that one of the jobs of government is to build safety nets, solve social ills, and help give everyone a semblance of economic equality – or, at least, equality of opportunity. Conservatives, by contrast, want the government to be as hands off as possible, allowing the market and the mechanisms of competition to sort out who should be rich and poor, insured and uninsured, etc.
Couldn’t this lead back to the data? If liberals think that the government should be spending tax money on solving social problems, why would they be donating their personal income? They are, in a way, donating money by proxy – by voting to raise taxes so that the government can deal with these issues.
If indeed conservatives donate a lot of money to charities, then this could be explained by the fact that conservatives do care about people, but they feel philanthropy should handle social ills – not the government.
While I’m not suggesting this is the correct or only conclusion to draw, it is an example of thinking outside the box and explaining a phenomena in an alternative way. This is a skill that many adults lack, and it’s something our students should definitely develop.
For more in that vein, check out the Freakonomics blog at NYTimes. The blog, and the book by the same name, are great examples of coming up with explanations to phenomena that aren’t already adequately explained.
Something We Should All Give: Blood
Towards the end, Kristoff mentions something else: blood donations. Let’s sidestep the political conversation over whether liberals or conservatives give more blood.
I’ll put it simply: we should all give blood. There is constantly a need, and there is simply no other way to get human blood to save people’s lives.
Last year, I organized a blood drive at my school with the help of some students. Throughout the day, students and staff donated a little over 50 pints of blood for the local blood center. I wished it would have been bigger, but it was a great first effort – and we’re planning on hosting our second annual blood drive this May.
If you don’t give blood, think about it. You can usually make an appointment at a local blood center and be done in about an hour. I go on a Saturday morning every few months.
If you do give blood, does your school host a blood drive? I first donated when I was a senior in high school, and they are a great way to introduce your students to the need for blood donations. If people don’t know that blood is so vital, why would they go out of their way to donate some?
You’ll have to do some legwork promoting the blood drive and jumping through administrative hoops, but the blood center handles most of the work. In my case, they brought the beds, the staff, and even the snacks. All we had to do was show up.
Check out the list of local blood centers and find one near you. Somebody, somewhere is counting on it.
This morning, I went over to the NJ Blood Center building in New Brunswick to ...1 Comment »