The ‘dignity’ of drawing conclusions

Each week, Symposium provides a blogging forum for the week’s featured article. This week’s author is Prof. Andrew Gelman. You can read his blog here as well as his frequent posts on The Monkey Cage.

Today, I’m broaching a broader question about science writing, and communicating science more generally to the public: Do we state conclusions up front, or do we present research findings in a way to engage the reader analytically?

Amanda Martinez, a science writer who has been published in The Atlantic, New, Scientific American, and others, made a comment recently that I think sums up my approach as well. Science communication, she said, accords you “the basic human dignity of allowing you to draw your own conclusions.”

I really like that way of putting it, and this is something I tried hard to do with our book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, which looks at how class and income disparity affect voting patterns. We put our information and reasoning right there in front of the readers, so that it could be analyzed, rather than hide behind a bunch of statistically-significant regression coefficients.

This approach is related to the idea of presenting research findings quantitatively, which lends itself to clearer statements of uncertainty and variation, like I discussed in my piece here. A qualitative approach, by contrast, seems to come out more deterministically, as “X causes Y” or “when A happens, B happens.”

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