Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Begin with the end in mind

Most of what I do all day is in the loose category known as operations research.  This is an interesting sort of research that typically starts with a question, and then involves gathering qualitative and quantitative data until you get a hypothesis.  Adjustments are made until you get going in the right direction, which is normally related to either getting more of a good thing or less of a bad thing...or often both.

This is my favorite type of research for any field for a variety of reasons: it's practical, it helps people, it tends to cut through feelings and deals with facts, and it leaves room for people to be surprised.   

The downside is that the questions are often complex and the answers multi-dimensional.  That's why good research of this kind is so darn impressive.  I read a great article today about Jacqueline Campbell and her work to reduce domestic homicide.  She started with a complex problem, and worked both forward and backwards until she came up with something that worked.  Working backwards, she went deep in to the statistics to figure out which situations were the most likely to result in homicide, and then trained the front end responders how to reach out to those who were at the most risk.  While she will not claim credit, it is noted that  the state where she implemented this program (Maryland) has cut their domestic homicide rate in half.  

Domestic violence is an issue that can very easily get mired down in politics and emotion, so it's interesting to note that this is one of the few programs that is getting bipartisan support.  That's such a good outcome when somebody actually pragmatically addresses an issue rather than just catering to their own pet theories.

To note: starting research with a goal in mind is beneficial only when it's not a guise to push an agenda.  It's only good if you really don't know how to get there.   I feel this is research at it's best, research that actually helps a real world problem.  I have nothing against research that helps us see the world in new ways, but my practicality bias is probably why I did engineering and not theoretical physics.  It takes all types, I just wish more would focus on the "how do we get there" type questions.


  1. How could I disagree? In much of psychology and social work, there are still too many of us who want certain answers to be true. People want to prove that homosexual relationships are as healthy as hetero - or that they aren't; that sexual accusations "always have something behind them" - or not; that it's diet, or Western ideas, or cultural. Virtually no one will admit to being purist of any sort, that it is Always their pet explanation. But they default to it so quickly in any uncertainty that it amounts to the same thing.

    Here's mine: undiagnosed brain trauma in childhood, and substance abuse squares any problem. We want sex offenders and rapists to reveal bad attitudes or be porn addicts or whatever, but knocks on the head and illicit substances are head and shoulders above the other correlates.

  2. Sex offenders show a history of childhood brain trauma and substance abuse? I had no idea. If I'd had to guess, I would have said they had suffered sexual abuse in childhood themselves. Huh.