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The Meaning of Grades

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I taught a first-year student seminar this term and finished assigning final grades. In examining the varying performance of the students on the weekly writing tasks and the final semester project, my thoughts turned to the recent faculty intellectual life report. Among a large set of good recommendations, the report once again raised the issue of grade compression. Three years ago, I wrote about this, but the issues remain.

When I first arrived at Georgetown in 2012, a set of faculty made sure I was aware of their concerns. One dean noted that large portions of each class were achieving the “Latin honors” of cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude status at graduation, diluting the honorific meaning of those appellations. He really didn’t know what to say when a parent was so proud of his child achieving a GPA of 3.0, when he himself knew that put the student in the lower percentiles of his classmates.

By that time, the McDonough School of Business had already decided to enforce some spread of grades across their classes. The result was the mean grade for business majors was lower than the mean grade of their peers in other Georgetown schools, and their graduates were disproportionately failing to achieve Latin honors.

So, we agreed to fix the cum laude and above designations, to have them based on percentages of the class, not fixed GPA’s. For example, cum laude is awarded to the top 25% of the graduating class within each school, a GPA that last year ranged from 3.66 to 3.81; summa cum laude, to the top 5% of the class, a GPA from 3.88 to 3.95, quite close to the maximum of 4.00. The GPA targets are updated each year to reflect changes in the percentiles.

The other changes we made were ones that increased transparency. First, on the internal transcripts that students see each term, we post both their individual grade and the mean grade in the course. This is to convey a B (3.0) in a course with a A- average (3.67) might have a different meaning than a B in a course with a C+ (2.33) average. Second, we asked the registrar to give to each department chair/unit head the distribution of grades in every class in their unit, in hopes that more transparency would generate faculty discussions about grading standards.

Over the subsequent years, it has become clear that faculty do not agree on the meaning of grades. Some hold strong to the meaning prescribed in the student bulletin: a D is a minimum passing grade; a C is adequate performance; a B is good performance; and an A is excellent performance. Further, they interpret these evaluations as relative to students in the current class. Such an interpretation implies that, unless there is rare perfect homogeneity in performance, there should be some variation in grades.

Other faculty assert that they specify a set of learning goals for their class, with a corresponding set of assessment tools. If all the students pass that threshold, they should all receive an A, in their opinion. (There does not seem to be much discussion of raising the learning goals in an attempt to stretch the students.)

There are many other related sentiments – a common one that small seminar classes often demonstrate superior performance among students, and hence, giving them all A’s makes sense; another, that students flock to courses known to given high grades; another, that we place our students at a disadvantage for graduate schools’ admission if we give lower mean grades than our peer institutions; another, that lower mean grades produce more harmful competition among students within classes; finally, faculty report that parents are increasingly vocal in supporting high grades for their child.

There are, however, equity problems in continuing grade compression. Departments that provide lower mean grades produce majors that disproportionately don’t achieve Latin honors. Some majors achieve lower grades in their own department than they do in other departments; other majors received much higher grades inside their own department than outside their department. When grading practices systematically vary across fields, the GPA yields little information about the student’s performance without knowing the courses taken.

As GPA’s continue their advance to their maximum of 4.0, they contain little discriminating information across students. Indeed, judgments about graduates will increasingly depend on other attributes.

“Scientific Facts”

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Currently, there are many signs of attitudinal gulfs among those with different levels of education. This is a post concerning disagreements about the value of science, as an enterprise that contributes to the common good. There appear to be three features of science that contribute to the balkanization of support.

First, much of priority-setting for science funding, the evaluation of new proposed work, and the assessment of the value of products, depend on the judgments of those in the same field. This notion of “peer review” is a feature of most all research endeavors but is most prominent in science. A critique of this process often labels peer review as “cronyism.” Friends and associates are merely supporting one another. “You support my research, and I’ll support your research.” The obvious fear is that funded research fails to advance the common good in the most efficient way. Instead of a meritocracy, the evaluation process is an elite friends’ network of self-aggrandizement. The importance of the proposed research does not determine its likelihood of support but rather the connections of those proposing it to those reviewing it.

Protections against such cronyism include recusal rules for reviewers, which exclude collaborators, mentors/mentees, and colleagues from the same university. They include transparency of all grants awarded by funding agencies, with descriptions of the work proposed. Increasingly, they include linkage between grants awarded and the research products of the grant.

Second, the ever-changing knowledge set produced by scientific progress confuses the uninitiated. Science constantly creates new hypotheses. Some are supported, and the findings add to currently accepted knowledge. However, few scientists expect that all parts of the currently accepted knowledge will be invariant in the future. Science progresses. What appeared to be true in one era is refined and changed with discoveries in a later era. For those who seek invariant truth, such change can be misunderstood as poor performance, that nothing is believable out of science because its “truth” is dynamic.

Third is the fact that science, like all academic fields, is in constant deliberation. There are always controversies. Different theories explaining target phenomena appear to be attractive to different subgroups. Different approaches to questions are supported by subgroups. Debates are common. Most scientists would say debates are necessary. Opposing viewpoints, orally presented in conferences, printed in journals and books, are the necessary fuel to progress. The debates help identify future research directions and clarify puzzles, all to the benefit of seeking a better approximation to the truth.

From the outside, not knowing these last two features of research, it’s easy to attack research by noting that what the fields are claiming are “findings” are constantly changing. You can’t believe anything they say because in a few months they’ll say something different. You just can’t count on them, so ignore them. Further, when popular media describe the internal debate over theories, methods, and findings, they often do so through the lens of a two-party debate. “They don’t agree within the group. The findings are ‘controversial.’” “There is a lack of consensus even among themselves. There are many who don’t accept the conclusions.”

These three features of science lead one to hypothesize that part of the large educational differences in support of science is due to a failure of science and researchers to describe their work and its culture. How can scientists communicate that current findings will be subject to the similar refinements and changes as prior findings? How can scientists help the media understand that controversies are the engine for advancement in science? Widening the support for science requires that we tackle these questions with the same vigor we use in our research.

Costs and Quality of Higher Education

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A common attribute of service sector organizations is that their costs of operation have increased at higher rates than those of other sectors. Sectors of the economy that have used electronic or mechanical processes to assist human labor have shown larger productivity gains (output per labor hour). For example, manufacturing firms, using automation, have increased their production per employee in significant ways. Higher productivity often leads to cost benefits for the resulting products.

In contrast, for example, psychotherapy using clinical therapists, show lower productivity gains. It’s difficult to imagine how a single therapist could greatly increase the number of patients served without a loss of quality. Hence, the cost inflation is larger for such activities than those not solely dependent on human labor.

Using traditional categories, higher education falls into the service sector of an economy – it provides educational services to students. In that sense, universities share many of the attributes of other service sector providers. Having a faculty member teach ten times as many students in a single class will increase productivity, if only measured by number of students taught, but the service provided is generally believed to be of lower quality.

Part of the process of explaining the cost inflation of higher education is, therefore, inevitably intertwined with arguments about what constitutes quality aspects of education. This question has led to discussions of what are the desirable outcomes of education.

As we crawled slowly out of the Great Recession, great attention was paid to income impacts of education. We now have highly replicated results that the value of a bachelor’s degree is over $1 million in increased lifetime earnings, relative to a high school diploma. Further, if you factor out the missed employment for four years of a bachelor’s curriculum and the cost of tuition, the economic gains of higher education remain clear. Higher education pays off in income gains.

If income were the sole outcome of higher education that was relevant, we could easily compare quality adjusted productivity across different curricula. But we believe, especially at Georgetown, that empathy, civic engagement, commitment to social justice, creative thinking, leadership, resilience, self-teaching ability, etc., are also outcomes to be valued. Not all of these are correlated with income of first job.

However, the measurement of these attributes is not easy. Behavioral, observable indicators are available only for a few. Most are internalized attributes that are usually (but imperfectly) measured only by self-report.

For those of us who work in highly selective universities, there is another concern. Entering our universities are highly accomplished young people, with superior cognitive abilities, many who sought out rigorous educational curricula and excelled. That they then achieve great success after graduation begs a question. What evidence do we have that what the students experience in our university is a cause of their later success? How do we know our institutions are significantly increasing the chances of their success? Would they have achieved the same wonderful outcomes without us?

To explain costs of higher education, we must understand and provide evidence for the value of education. To explain the value of education, we need more serious attention to measuring the outcomes of education that we value.

Identifying Mechanisms Producing Liberal Arts Educational Outcomes

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I’ve participated in multiple discussions over the last few days, all of which are relevant to an important issue facing the country. The question of interest is the effect of a liberal arts education to valued life outcomes.

It’s first important to note that the term “liberal arts education” is not uniformly understood. From one perspective, the term is a property of an institution – some are liberal arts institutions; others, are not. From another perspective, the term is a function of individual experiences of students. Certainly, the ambiguity of the phrase “liberal arts education” is problematic for public arguments promoting its design. We have all been in conversations that equate the term “liberal arts” only with the humanities, missing its support of multi-disciplinary educational experiences. I have even heard the misinterpretation of the analog phrase, “liberal education,” as describing a political orientation of the education rather than its broad, multi-disciplinary curriculum. As academics describe the role of a liberal arts education, we need to acknowledge the common misinterpretation of the phrase by many outside the university.

Further complicating the discussion is that we’re not clear about what components of a liberal arts education are key to its outcomes. The stereotypical image is that of a small college, with a residential undergraduate population, small classes, a curriculum that forces exposures to multiple disciplines, serious attention to teaching among the faculty, and a rich set of extracurricular activities.

This perspective forces attention not to the experience of the student. It implies that different students at the same institution may experience different dosages of the features of a liberal arts education. It also implies that the same major across different institutions may have different educational experience (e.g., majors in philosophy at MIT or in engineering at Swarthmore vs. the same majors at the other institution).

Separately, I was reminded of the Gallup/Purdue survey of predictors of engagement in one’s career and well-being, using self-reported undergraduate experiences. It finds six strong predictors of these life outcomes:
1. I had a professor who made me excited about learning;
2. My professors cared about me as a person;
3. I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals;
4. I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete;
5. I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning;
6. I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations.

Some of these attributes, especially those involving connections between students and faculty, require a faculty interested in teaching and interaction with undergraduates. These are hoped-for attributes of a liberal arts education. The attribute of extracurricular activities is more common in residential institutions than commuter institutions. So, some of these indicators might be natural features of many liberal education experiences.

Of course, the Gallup work is not singularly focused on identifying the effects of an undergraduate liberal education versus those of other educational designs. As we attempt to understand more about what features of a traditional liberal education produces its valuable outcomes, it does seem attractive to identify, from the student perspective, what experiences are key to those outcomes. This leaves open the possibilities that the “dosage” of those experiences will vary over students in the same institution. Further, it will help identify what features of liberal education deserve more investment by liberal arts institutions and which might be adopted by other institutions, to the benefit of students.

What is New; What is True

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While there are a variety of cultures across disciplines, departments, schools, fields of a university, there are also commonalities. The commonalities are most vivid in the scholarship or research activities of the diverse fields. It is true that there are very diverse methods and styles of scholarship. One field may pride itself on the work of scholars working by themselves; others, the work of multi-person teams. One field may create book length products of their scholarship; others, produce smaller bites of work disseminated through journal articles.

The commonality in scholarship and research exists in the privileging of novelty and creativity. Fields are constantly innovating, continuously attempting to expand their bases. New ideas, new approaches, new interpretations are valued. It is through such work that fields advance. They build upon their foundations. They enlarge their influence. Doing the same thing as prior research is devalued as repetitive or uninteresting. (I’ve written earlier about a weakness of this culture, but here I want to praise it.)

PhD students are mentored to choose an unexplored area or select an unsolved problem. New assistant professors are encouraged to forge a clear new identity, to build a distinctive theme in their scholarship to succeed. Innovation is the name of the game.

While each discipline values innovation, how do they determine which innovations are of lasting value? What is both new and true? All fields rely on some sort of peer review. That is, others in the same field judge whether an innovative product is a valued new contribution.

Some fields have rather strong paradigms, consisting of principles and time-tested findings. In them, a novel result that solves a knotty puzzle within the paradigm, but is consistent with the body of principles, can be rather quickly accepted. A piece of work whose novelty violates some of the well-accepted principles, on the other hand, is often greeted with intense skepticism. In that sense, the peer review criteria rest on the large base of prior research results, which are the foundation of the paradigm. The new work is evaluated using the old as a lens.

In fields with much weaker paradigms or fields that are collection of diverse approaches and foci, peer review values new interpretations and new approaches. Such fields value critiques of past work, but demand evidence. Radical new approaches require larger evidentiary bases for them to be accepted. Glowing reviews of books, awards for books, and later publications that build upon an approach taken in a book are signals of acceptance of innovation. The author is sought out by others for commentary in his field of expertise.

The more radical is the innovation, the longer the process of acceptance might take. Such fields use the dialectic of argument as a tool for innovation. When counter-arguments to an innovation cease or are judged ineffective, the new creation is on its way to incorporation into accepted knowledge.

One of the greatest values of the thirst for innovation within academic disciplines is that erroneous findings or conclusions of little general value are effectively dispelled. The continuous effort to extend knowledge has the great value of purging that which does not stand the test of peer review.


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As I approached the archway of the ICC building yesterday, I noticed, along with other announcements of events, an 8.5 x 10 inch piece of paper taped to the brick wall.

The authoring group or persons were unidentified. Instead of announcing an upcoming lecture or a performing arts event, the sheet contained a numbered list of items. Its format was odd enough that it caught my attention.

The title conveyed that this was a list of features of Georgetown for which the anonymous authors were thankful. It was a list of services on campus, of people who provide care to students and faculty, and of programs that are part of the Georgetown community. Although the list was numbered, I didn’t really perceive a priority implication of the order. Rather, it seemed more like the result of quiet reflection about one’s life on campus.

I must admit the uniqueness of the announcement and the mystery of the who, how, and why of the list captured my attention. I stopped my usual rush to the office in an attempt to understand its origin and purpose. I’ve since given up, but I greatly admire the idea of the list and its effectiveness of literally stopping me in my tracks.

I do know that I owe the author(s) an appreciation. In attempting to unravel the mystery, I’ve realized that I too have a list of those attributes of Georgetown I appreciate.

First to come to mind are the members of several faculty and student groups that give the provost office input on new initiatives and ways to improve the university. All of these are volunteers. Each has his/her own duties and stresses in their current role. They freely give us advice despite limits on their time. Their very willingness to help us in this way is testament to their devotion to the institution. Instead of merely seeking their own success, they want to produce a better community.

Second to mind was a recent event. I was walking across campus yesterday and saw the grounds crew, leaning over the flower beds digging up the dying fall flowers and planting bulbs that will be the Spring flowers. They were each bent at the waist, tilling the soil and injecting the bulbs into the ground. I could imagine my own back ache after hours of such work. It also reminded me of how proud I am to see the bright flowers at the front gates on a sunny Spring morning. I should have thanked those men as those thoughts quickly ran through my mind.

Finally, as the students quickly emptied out of the campus as the hours progressed this Thanksgiving week, the campus became quiet. Today, Wednesday before Thanksgiving, there were few faculty around, almost no students, especially in the afternoon. Those hanging in through the Wednesday hours were disproportionately administrative staff, committed to finishing out their work, regardless of the class schedule. On many days, they often stay later than others. They’re often here when faculty and senior administrators are away. I appreciate their commitment to the institution and to the community of which they are such an important part.

Those are a few of the parts of Georgetown that make me grateful. Thanks to them (and thanks to the author(s) of their own list for making me stop and pay attention!).

Peer Review and Quality Assessment in Research

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Those subject to peer review of their proposals for research funding or of their scholarly products view it as a significant hurdle to succeeding in their careers. To those outside of academia, peer review can be misinterpreted as cronyism that illegitimately rewards friends and allies.  That interpretation is far away from my experience.

The peer review process is founded on the belief that those at the cutting edge of their fields are best suited to judging the value of proposed new work. The rate of success for many federal government research grant proposals is less than 15%. Having served on scores of such review panels, I have vivid memories of the care and critical review that is exercised in the evaluative deliberations. With the success rate so low, the critical review is fierce in most panels.

For all fields, the same peer review process is used to judge the value of completed scholarly products. In those fields producing books, the prestige of publishers is related to the rigor of the review process. Editors jealously compete to attract the best work of the best scholars. Editorial boards give advice to the organization on the value of a given series. The author of a mediocre manuscript submits to a long sequence of presses before an affirmative decision to publish is given, if ever.

For those fields whose scholarship is disseminated through journals, peer review rigor is often reflected in the success rate of submissions, which for some journals hovers in single digit percentages. The decision of a journal is the result of critical reviews by peers in the area the article addresses. The competition is fierce.

So, in sum, most of the attributes of peer review act to reward the very best in scholarship. But there are weaknesses.

I have vivid memories of a scientist friend of mine, now one of the most highly cited in his field, in his early years of work. He was attacking the dominant paradigm in practice in his field and having repeated difficulties getting his work published. The rejections brought criticism, calls for more evidence, and resistance to his approach. He was forced to publish his work in less impactful, second-tier journals. All was not lost, as the value of his work was eventually recognized, albeit much more slowly that, in retrospect, it deserved to be.

Peer review is effective in evaluating the marginal contribution of work fully within the accepted framework of a subfield. Peer review performs less well for work disruptive of the status quo. Its conservatism in evaluating field-changing results is a weakness from one perspective, but a strength, from another, as it asks a higher level of evidence for such challenges to decades of accepted findings.

As the number of scholarly outlets increases with web-based journals and other electronic publications, the opportunities have increased to get one’s work disseminated. One hopes that path-breaking work has higher opportunity to see the light of day. In any case, honest criticism inherent in the peer review process remains a strength of the academic enterprise.

The Role of the Seminar in Intellectual Growth

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The new Intellectual Life Report of the main campus faculty proffers the argument that first year seminars may be important tools for the growth of our students. It’s an idea worth pursuing.

Universities offer unique lessons when faculty members reveal to students the passionate interests they have in their area of expertise. There are many ways that this can happen. Sometimes, there is a component of a lecture-based class that highlights the research area of the instructor. Students recognize these components by a noticeable animation in the instructor’s behavior. The excitement in the lecturer’s voice becomes contagious. Laptops are closed. Attention is paid. Memories are constructed. Increasing the opportunities for our faculty to deliver such content is worthwhile. For first-year students, contact with an active scholar in his/her field of expertise is a new experience.

Another key lesson underlying intellectual growth is “going deep.” This means different experiences in different fields. In some, it is very careful reading, slowly decomposing thoughts, reassembling them, imagining alternative meanings. Going deep in other fields exposes students to the edge of a dominant paradigm. It reveals the questions that are not yet answered. It may reveal a nagging puzzle facing the field. For first-year students, such activities are novel.

These experiences often accompany critique of content that is being consumed by the students. They are asked to challenge the ideas, methods, or conclusions of the authors they are reading. This criticism requires a level of attention that goes far beyond that necessary to regurgitate the content. The reader is looking for gaps in the logic, weaknesses in the execution of the research, or flaws in the conclusions. Few first-year students have experienced such exercises.

Perhaps the most important experience is linked to all of the above – the act of original scholarship or research. While many experts in a field have suspicions about the real contribution of undergraduate research, they miss, in my opinion, a real benefit of the research experience to the student. Regardless of the topic, regardless of limited sophistication in the field, the act of trying to answer a question that you yourself have crafted, one that captures your interest, brings unique value. First, you discover the feeling of “living by your wits.” It’s your question; you need to figure out how to proceed. Second, answering such questions most often proceed in unanticipated directions before you can wrestle them into submission. Experiencing that life cycle of work is difficult but thrilling. Third, the feeling that you have created a new thought or a new finding, however small, is the seed of lasting creativity. Psychologists talk about a trait, the “need for cognition,” which, I think, is nurtured through these experiences.

All of these experiences are enhanced when the students have an environment that allows them to communicate their work to others. This communication forces a certain translation from their deeper understanding to others who may not share it. They are exposed to the comments and suggestions of peers in this work. They learn the give-and-take of constructive criticism in real time. Few first-year students have been active participants in such dialogue.

Successful first-year seminars, proposed by the Intellectual Life Report, are not merely classes with a small number of students. They are pedagogical designs that, through the actions above and others, reveal to the student the joys of the life of the mind. They succeed when the students conclude that their role is not that of a receptacle into which information is poured. Instead, they are capable of shaping their own learning. They can self-teach. They can invent new combinations of information to interpret the world. These experiences can change how they benefit from later courses at Georgetown. Indeed, these are experiences critical to a life well-lived.

The Inquiring Minds of Students

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It is common for degree programs to have a set of required courses, taken by all who seek the degree, as well as a set of elective courses, subject to the choice of a student. As a student of statistics, one of my fondest memories was taking a statistical sampling course (required for me) with a graduate student from the archeology department (an elective for her). She wanted to import statistical methods into site investigations to increase the likelihood of discovery. Her presence in the class enlarged the set of practical examples we all, as students, struggled to apply to the theories we were learning. She made the class better for everyone.

My memory returns to that as I learn in my student advisory committees about student desires to enrich their education with electives outside their major focus, outside the school of their program, or outside their program’s campus. Increasingly, students want to broaden their knowledge with courses far outside their field. They see connections between diverse fields that the standard curriculum does not reflect.

We are striving to increase knowledge production at Georgetown by supporting the interdisciplinary inquiry that faculty members wish to pursue. It is logical, I believe, to support similar desires on the part of our students, whether or not we have previously conceived of the value of combining knowledge domains.

The newest Intellectual Life Report of the faculty has urged a lowering of barriers for students to enroll in courses throughout the university. There are cultural, pedagogical, and logistical challenges that must be overcome to implement this recommendation.

Some faculty are worried about the burden of teaching students without prerequisite knowledge to succeed in a course. Certainly, we need to articulate the needed knowledge more clearly, to assure that students not taking the normal sequence of prior courses, are aware of what skills and knowledge are needed to succeed in the class.

Some school cultures breed strong identities for students inside the school, complicating the acceptance of those outside the school in their classes. We need effective ways to address those cultural weaknesses.

Schools vary greatly in their class sizes. The relative burden of adding one more student varies as a function of the class size. We probably need to have new conversations about class size differences across schools.

If a new section of an existing class must be developed because of demand external to the program, financial support is needed. This is another variant of the constant problem of calibrating the supply of talented instructors to the demand for given courses. We’ll need to address this.

Student formation may be harmed if they choose courses outside their field that add little to their cumulative knowledge. Widening the menu of elective courses probably requires more advising guidance from mentors.

All of the counterarguments for permitting more flexibility for students’ election of courses, I believe, can be addressed.

Careful structuring of academic practices to serve both our students and faculty can be achieved.

Facts Without a Point of View

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Daniel Patrick Moynihan is thought to have first uttered the famous line: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This is a post about the need for facts to be assembled without a point of view.

One of the attributes of academia that, in my opinion, ensures its continuity is a sharp separation between the viewpoint of the human beings involved in assembling facts and the outcome of the fact-seeking.

Now, before I am attacked by the constructionist side of my brain: I am fully aware of how the cultures of disciplines act as a lens that focuses on some facts more than others. I accept that the dominant conceptual framework of a field can blind one to facts that contradict well-honed assumptions. I know how difficult it is for a lone critic to have impact on the accepted paradigm.

However, I also know how every field thirsts for new ideas, new approaches, new facts that extend current understanding. Each field rewards the new. All scholars believe their job is to get closer to a perfect understanding. Each work attempts to add the new. In addition, the dialectic among alternative conclusions, active peer review, and field debate are also deeply embedded in most academic fields. I am certain of nothing more than that we are critical of others’ work. We are suspicious of work that appears to have been too heavily manipulated by the author’s point of view. We are suspicious of over-stating or over-interpreting. Reputations depend on letting the material guide the outcome, not the predispositions of the scholar. The “facts” produced by the research must stand on their own.

At the societal level, democracies depend on a continual flow of facts about their current status. What portion of the population is employed for pay? What is the income distribution across households? What subgroups suffer health conditions at higher rates? How is the price of everyday necessities changing? What portion of the population is victimized by criminal acts? On this score, most modern nation states have constructed a similar divide between the units that collect information for common good uses and those in control of the reins of government. Most don’t let the political ideology of the current elected leadership affect the production of such information. The collection of those facts should be a dispassionate one.

These numbers are useful to a society only if they are credible to large portions of the populace. Credibility has both technical and socio-emotional features. For the large portions of the population, however, the technical aspects of such information are unknown or not easily understood. Hence, trust is the basis of credibility. Without trust in the authoring organization, these numbers have little value in a democracy. One source of trust is the separation of the production of statistical information from political interference.

Hence, just as in the academy, the collection of facts at a nation-state level must be driven by a “disinterested” search for the truth. “Disinterested” here means that investigator is indifferent to the outcome of the fact gathering. Just as in academic research, the continuous search for a better approximation to truth is the motivation of the author.

Societies that lose the ability to collect information in such a manner risk creating a citizenry that loses trust in the information itself. Without trusted information, the chances of an informed citizenry guiding the democracy are limited.

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