Monday, October 4, 2010
Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, looked at the popular assumptions that drive people’s attitudes with suspicion. In our information age, the avalanche of data bits has gone way beyond calculation. And there is no end in sight. Levitt wondered, who verifies those commonly accepted assumptions anymore? The claims? The conclusions? In our media age, filled with sound bytes and slogans, we too easily accept the things that fit our presuppositions and reject the rest. If what we hear or read affirms our preconceived notions, we embrace it and move on to something else.
But what would the data show if someone took the time to assemble the information that exists in all those databases out there? The professor pondered. Data mining may well become a brand new discipline in the information age. Levitt proposed some experiments.
Leo Laporte interviewed Don Tapscott, author of the new book Macrowikinomics, the sequel to his 2007 bestseller Wikinomics. After thirty years studying the impact of the Internet, Tapscott is convinced that much of the conversation about the recent economic meltdown is entirely misplaced. The idea that we are just going to have to weather the storm until our beloved pre-crash economy returns is wistful nonsense. The pre-crash economy will never return. Many hope for a return to “normal.” Normal gone, says Tapscott. We now live in post-industrial America. The corporate model of success and job security has been crushed. Every sphere of our economy is affected: government, education, medicine, manufacturing, information management, financial services, retail, all of it. Reinvention is incumbent for all of our institutions.
We are in that unsettling macro-transformation as I write.
So Levitt the university economics professor teamed up with Stephen Dubner, a New York Times journalist. They set out mine data, and see if their research might show how our esteemed assumptions fare in the glaring light of the assembly of existing data. Their conclusions freaked them out, so to speak. They titled their book Freakonomics.
I suppose most college professors have a special interest in cheating: how to detect it, how to identify culprits and how to prevent it. Levitt used his data-mining tools to find out. The data did not encourage. The propensity to cheat, he found, is ubiquitous. If it is possible and if there is a reasonably good chance of going undetected, most everyone will cheat in order to improve the chance of improvement. Levitt and Dubner studied two unlikely groups: high school and (of all things) Sumo wrestlers. The big city teachers in their study live under intense pressure to improve scores in order to secure budget money and increased wages. The giant Sumo athletes continue a Shinto tradition hundreds of years old. It involves rites of purification. The referee in a Sumo match is a Shinto priest. Some consider it a sport, but many view the dual of the massive Japanese wrestlers as a religious ritual. Levitt and Dubner analyzed the data, and to everyone’s shock and dismay, found widespread cheating among both the teachers and the mammoth Sumo wrestlers, where shame is a most serious offence. The authors’ conclusion: the assumption of character is no deterrent to cheating.
The authors tackled other widely held assumptions. They studied the premise that real estate agents have no conflict of interest in representing their clients. They analyzed the widely held view that crack cocaine dealers live in affluence. They scrutinized the reasons often given for the dramatic drop in crime rates in America’s cities during the 1990s. (Was it better policing? Higher conviction rates? Bigger prisons? Tough politicians?) They investigated the belief that parental involvement, particularly from infancy, has a verifiable effect on intelligence and academic success. Their conclusions, based on comprehensive data mining, surprised everyone.
The researchers asked another question: does a child’s name have a determinative affect on his or her future achievement? The results are fascinating. It is true that we are living in a period of highly innovative naming. There are name consultants. Computer programs will assist young parents in the all-important selection of just the right name. Does it matter? Levitt and Dubner designed and implemented their data-mining program.
Their findings have given birth to a new cottage industry. While they point out that other factors (like nutrition, safety, socio-economic health, tutoring) have even greater significance, names matter. You can look up their database and check on how a specific name might fare in the future. (One clear warning from Freakonimics: don’t name your daughter “Temptress.”)
We have entered into a new world. Our institutions (including our churches) are facing questions that haven’t been asked before. We rely on assumptions that may or may not be valid. We need to be ready for those cherished assumptions to be challenged.
Change is in the wind.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010