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May 02 2010

Placebo Protests

I was just listening to Token Skeptic #18, and nearly gave myself whiplash with all my nodding in agreement. In my classes, I am known for my opposition to the goal of “raising awareness”; fuzzy, ill-defined concepts like that do more harm than good. Take a page from the success of science, and operationally define the things you wish to change, or it is too easy to either see change where there has been none, or miss real change that has happened while you were off looking at something relatively irrelevant.

Michael McRae (featured on the first half of the podcast) uses the term “placebo protest” to describe a protest which makes the protesters feel good, but which has no measurable effect on the actual problem. To my cynical mind, such protests, along with ribbon pins and magnets, and prayer, are much more about making us feel like we are doing something, than they are about actually doing something. The second half of the podcast features Desiree Schell of Skeptically Speaking, whose experience as an organizer leads her to a very similar view as McRae’s (in part; she has considerably more to say, as does McRae–I am focusing on just one part).
Mind you, not everything we do needs to be for a reason, nor should we hesitate to admit it when we do something frivolous for fun (like, say, this blog) without knowing if it has positive, negative, or no effects at all on the problems of society. But when we wish to make a difference, we have tools which we should use.
Should you set off to “raise awareness”,
Expect results to be a mess–
I see your good intent, in fairness,
But how will you infer success?
Such actions claim that education
Cures all sort of social ill;
That ignorance is motivation;
Problems come from lack of will:
“If only they could see what we see,
Then they’d surely make a change!”
Seems so simple, seems so easy…
Seems it doesn’t work. How strange.
Without a goal that one can measure
Meeting it is hard to do
And though the task may bring you pleasure
That’s not the end which we pursue!
Name a target; set your goal
In such a way that, when you’re done
You’ll know your actions played a role,
And bit by bit, the war is won.
So, go, listen to the podcast. There’s more there than what I reacted to, and worth listening to!

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Anna O'Connell

    Thank you, Digital Cuttlefish!May I share that with the parents of special needs children on a school district committee I serve on? One serious problem is that the special ed teachers, social workers, and other education industry school employees are required to write measurable annual "goals" or "objectives" for their educational interventions for these kids. And even when parents explain their concepts of appropriate measurements or standards in great detail, many seem to be unable to make the goals concrete, responsibility specific or the outcomes measurable.

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    Anna–I would be honored. Good luck!(jut wrote, and deleted as unhelpful, a long screed about the fight *against* useful, operationalized goals in education… no doubt you are already well aware of the literature there!)

  3. 3
    David Waldock

    A timely post as I'm writing an essay on whether public engagement with science will "undermine" science.

  4. 4
    Anna O'Connell

    Cuttlefish -Links to research on the benefit of well-constructed operationalized goals would NOT be unhelpful. There might be newer stuff or something old that's particulartly relevant for particular situations we're stuggling with right now. Given that you are particularly good at turning phrases, even a screed from your pen might yield a stirring quote that helps the cause of maximizing the potential learning of kids with disabilities.

  5. 5
    Thinker

    A bit late to the party, but I wanted to share one of my favorite expressions:"If you don't know where you're going, you're likely to end up somewhere else!"

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