The Epic “Cocktail Party”: Attending Large Conferences

Chicago Airport

Last week, 15,000 educational researchers descended on Chicago for the AERA educational research conference.

As a first timer, I’d gotten many great pointers about handling such an enormous gathering. However, having now been there myself, here are a few more tips for attending massive conferences:

1. Go very big or very small 

While the Buddhist philosophy of taking “the Middle Way” applies to most parts of life, it may not apply to big conferences. Colleagues had advised me to avoid the “big name” sessions, which are generally bursting with attendees dying to meet their academic idols. Others told me to ONLY attend such sessions, because smaller ones can be “hit and miss” in their quality.

I actually felt I got the most bang for my buck by either going HUGE or tiny. I actually found the the more medium-sized sessions–generally paper presentations grouped by themes–were still small enough to vary by quality, but still too formally structured with too large an audience to really get to interact with anyone. Continue reading

Does “American” = Human Nature?

PhrenologyOh the dirty secrets of academic research….

Remember those classic “human nature” thought experiments like the Prisoner’s Dilemma? It turns out that the “humans” they’re drawing these conclusions from are, overwhelmingly and unapologetically, humans-of-the-American-persuasion. But does American = human nature?

Take a classic ultimatum game: One player is gifted $100 with one condition: He or she has to offer some of it to an anonymous second player. Player 1 can choose any amount to give, but the second player knows there is $100 to split, and can either a) accept whatever split is offered, or b) refuse any “unfair” split, meaning they both walk away with nothing. These studies commonly find, when player 2s are offered less than a 50/50 split, that they are eager to “punish” this anonymous usurer, even if it means neither of them get anything.

See? 50/50 fairness and a drive to punish those who are unfair are universal characteristics hardwired into our human nature. 

But what if someone tried this in a different cultural context? Ethan Watters of Pacific Standard Magazine, outlined the work of psychologist Joe Henrich, who did just that: Heinrich conducted a similar ultimatum game
with the Machiguenga of Peru and observed vastly different results — almost no refusals occurred no matter what deal was offered:

Rich_Businessman_by_paulh18“It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money…. They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

Watters used this example to highlight a common characteristic of social science research: assuming that the traits of one Continue reading

New Years Resolution: Fall in Love… with Statistics

Statistics booksHere’s what my desk looked like over winter break. Why? Because it’s time to get over my love-hate-distrust-dislike relationship with statistics.

I’ve never particularly disliked math itself; there’s something comforting about having at least one endeavor in life that has an identifiable “right” answer. In fact, if you’re ever stressed about a major life decision, try reviewing high school algebra; balancing equations can be oddly – yet incredibly – therapeutic (Yes, “Nerd alert.” But don’t knock it till you’ve tried it).

Statistics, however, takes all that comfort of certainty away.  

In my first statistics class, I once made the fatal flaw of statistical newbie-ism and used the word “prove” in a sentence. Before I could finish saying “The results prove that…” the professor held up his hand and said – what has since become my mantra when it comes to statistics – “We don’t PROVE anything in statistics.”

Yes, statistics is a powerful tool for exploring relationships and probabilities, but it doesn’t necessarily set out to prove things.Take vitamins for example: Continue reading