I think that every semester, without fail, I am bound by karma to have one student who says that a perfectly acceptable survey sample is too small. I harp on this over and over in class, and so I think that the Universe will forever stick me with one such student to ensure my humility.
This semester, it was on a survey of high schoolers across the US. Sample size was 2,000 – which I thought was enviable. The result? 49% of students believed… something about creationism, I don’t even remember what. Plus or minus 2.5% at 95% confidence. Sounds pretty damn good to me. I wouldn’t want to argue that one side or the other had a majority based on that survey, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to say that half felt one way, and half the other.
Nevertheless, my student declared that 2000 was a tiny fraction of all students and therefore couldn’t possibly be representative. That, and the onslaught of other dubious crap presented to me as criticism or fact in my students’ papers, has led me to believe that Intro to Soc needs its own introductory class. Let’s call it “Social Facts”. In Social Facts, students learn what constitutes valid, reliable knowledge about society. All the theories are set aside. All that matters is learning all the ways in which information is presented to us in the world, and what to trust.
I honestly think I could make a semester out of that. And I think it would be far more valuable in a gen-ed sense than Intro to Soc, or any intro social science class. My engineer students are probably not going to remember any theory from my class a year from now, or at least not well enough to apply it competently (just look at the rampant misunderstanding of many of the most basic ideas of economics for proof). But a whole course devoted purely to identifying what is good information – that might stick with them. That is something you can easily use on a daily basis. Just turn on CNN.
The same course could be set up to be THE intro course for all of the social sciences, even. Take Social Facts, and then you can branch out into any of the social sciences you like. I think all of the disciplines (except maybe anthro?) would benefit from having students who knew how to interpret surveys, who knew everything that GDP is and is not, who could identify a crappy sample when they saw one, and who knew that poverty can be measured in about five hundred different ways.
I can’t remember where, but I’ve heard statistics referred to as “the fourth literacy” – after reading, writing and arithmetic. I think that is profoundly true. Regardless of what field you’re in, statistics is a damn powerful tool (even for English scholars – see page 10 of this PDF). And yes, even I will consent that qualitative research – done well – has tremendous power to explain social phenomena. As someone who has to live in this society, I think a citizenry that knows how to spot a fact when they see it is a great thing. And as someone who will one day teach intro to soc and methods classes, I think that it’s a TOTALLY FUCKING AWESOME thing.
So can we, uh, make it happen before I resume grad school in 2010?