How to Assess Needs?

Who can best determine what people in a community need to improve their lives?  Asking them seems to be the most helpful part of a good needs assessment.  In Houston, a nonprofit named  Neighborhood Centers assesses needs by “spending hundreds of hours conducting one-on-one interviews and community meetings, inviting residents to specify their priorities, identifying the community’s natural leaders and then going after the needed funds.”  They seek funds from multiple sources to design efforts to meet those needs.

You can read more about the results of this and related efforts at:

What needs do you think would be identified in your community through such an approach?

How does this approach to needs assessment compare to a more standard social science approach?

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Paying for the privilege of participating in a medical experiment?

Medical research may identify a potentially valuable treatment that must be tested in a rigorous experiment.  Usually such experiments are funded by federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health, after a careful review, or by the company that has developed the treatment.  But what if a researcher has identified a promising treatment but can’t secure funding for an experiment?  Could patients–potential research patients–be asked to pay to participate?  Many seriously ill persons are desperate for a new approach that might restore themselves or a loved one to good health.

Should such patients be allowed to “pay to play” if they would like to?  Would it help to advance science?

What types of social science experiments might some people be willing to pay to participate in?  What are the potential advantages and disadvantages of such a funding approach?

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He’s Really Hot Now!

Do you every watch a basketball game and think that a player has a “hot hand,” by making a lot of baskets consecutively?  Do you ever play on slot machines and think that you are having a “streak” of good, or bad, luck?  People often tend to see patterns in random events that are not really there.

But there’s a bit more to it than that.  Are the odds of heads after flipping a coin always 50/50?  Sure.  That’s the basis for knowing that random assignment leads to equal probabilities of selection for each condition in an experiment.  But what is the answer to the question: What are the odds of heads after flipping a coin when you have just obtained a head on the prior toss?

Read more about randomness at,

Does the logic of sampling on the basis of chance make sense to you as a way to achieve a representative sample?

Is it possible to do “better than chance” when choosing individuals in order to create two or more equivalent groups in an experiment?

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Psychics and Pseudoscience

With concerns about reproducibility of results and exposure of instances of fraud–not to mention conflicting research results about what you should eat and how often you should be tested, it is easy to become cynical about the value of scientific research methods (see earlier blogs). But a wide gulf separates investigations of the social world using systematic methods and publication of results from what occurs when social science principles are not considered.

An extreme contrast occurs with fortunetellers–“psychics–whose business is to convince patrons that they know things or can predict events on the basis of some mysterious powers. One storefront psychic in Times Square was charged in court with bilking a man out of $713.975 for promising to reunite him with a dead woman who he had loved. Another was paid $14,500 by a vulnerable woman for a rock the psychic claimed was from a meteorite.

You can read more about psychic pseudoscience in court at:

Why do you think many people believe in paranormal phenomena?

How would suggest testing the assumptions behind paranormal beliefs?

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Photos as Data

Do you store your photos on Google Photos?  Do you know that Google doesn’t just store, it also analyzes?  It scans pictures to identify such features as what you are wearing, what you are doing, and whether you are with someone else. This technology allows you to search your photos for particular features, but it could also be used to direct certain types of ads to you.  And of course it could also be used to answer interesting social science research questions.

What ethics questions come up in thinking about this photo-based research?

How would you want to code your own photos to represent the differen taspects of your life?–+and+the+data+they+provide


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DALY health

What is the cost of disease? It is typical to calculate the cost of illness to society by counting the number of deaths.  The more people killed, the worse the disease.  But when people are disabled by illness, they are losing days of health living.  DALYs–Disability-adjusted life years–provide a standard measure to compare the health loss due to different diseases.  This approach may make it easier to identify the true cost to society of diseases.

What do you think are the 3 most serious diseases based on mortality rates?

What do you think are the 3 most serious diseases based on DALYs?

Now check your answers with the results reported in the New York Times article:

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Googling as Social Data

The horrific tragedy of the April 2013 marathon bombing in Boston sent many people to the web.  In the four days after the bombing, total searches for news rose 50 to 160%, but total searches for religion dropped slightly.  Overall, the searches for churches have dropped by 15% since 2010, but searches for porn have increased by 83%.

Do these search patterns tell us something about the role of religion and how it is changing in today’s society? Check out the New York Times article at:

What interesting research question can you propose that you think could be answered with data on Google searches?

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A Mad Rush to Publish

There’s nothing worse for the progress of science than finding that published results were based on outright fraud or overhyped findings. The editors of a site termed Retraction Watch estimate that an average retraction rate of one scientific paper per day due to misconduct. This represents only 2% of scientists, but it’s enough to make you worry.

The problem may be more common in the most prestigious journals, as some authors may leave no holds barred “for a shot at glory.

What journal policies would you suggest to diminish the incentives for fraud?

What can social scientists and other scientists do to improve monitoring of the quality of their own work and that of others in their discipline?

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The rush to celebrate “eureka” moments

Yet another article on the problem of replication.  If a study is designed with research methods that have been implemented appropriately and reported clearly, repeating that study with the same methods, the findings should be similar.  Right?  This has always been a key expectation for science, but as you know if you have read the blog entry about the Reproducibility Project, there is increasing evidence that the result of most studies do not hold up in this way when they are repeated.

An article by the Boston Globe’s Carolyn Y. Johnson  last March suggests some reasons:

  • Fraud:  but this doesn’t account for most of the problems.
  • Experiments may not be properly set up.
  • A given result that appeared exciting may have been a statistical fluke.
  • Something the researchers hadn’t considered could explain the results.
  • Subtle biases may blind scientists who want to solve a problem.
  • An exciting positive result may just be a result of random chance.

Much of this discussion has been based on efforts to replicate laboratory experiments about biological or other effects. Carolyn Johnson quotes Harvard cell biologist Bjorn Olsen as saying “science is an imperfect human activity that we try to do as best we can.”

Do you think the same problems are more or less likely in sociological research?  In other social sciences?  Why or why not?

What other issues might lessen reproducibility?

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Talking Can Be Good for You, but Maybe Not so Much

A common concern about publications in scientific journals, even those with very high standards, is called “the file drawer problem.” The problem is that studies that find something interesting are more likely to be selected for publication than studies that find “nothing going on.” So, for example, a study that finds that depression lessens after psychotherapy is more likely to be published than one that finds psychotherapy has no effect. It’s also called “positivity bias.” Knowing this, researchers are less likely to submit an article for possible publication if they “didn’t find anything.”

The problem then, is that studies that find a hypothesis are less likely to be published than studies that find the same hypothesis is supported, even when it really is the case that the hypothesized association does not exist. Over time, studies that mistakenly find that there is an association between two or more variables are more likely to be published than those that find no association. The body of published studies will therefore give a misleading–a biased–picture of how the world really operates.

This is exactly what was found in an important study of studies about the effect of psychotherapy on depression. Ellen Driessen and colleagues in Amsterdam examined results from all 55 studies testing talk therapy for depression between 1972 and 2008. They also examined results from 13 unpublished tests of the same association. Their analysis identified that estimates of the value of psychotherapy had been overestimated by about 10% due to positivity bias (a 20% benefit rather than a 30% benefit).

Read more about this important research at:

How would you explain the file drawer problem (positivity bias)?

What steps do you think journals could take to reduce this problem?

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