I studied political science for a masters and focused generally on public health. A big challenge in both areas is that the people who end up participating in our studies or who are the targets of our interventions are often different in one way or another from the general population, and that makes it hard to tell whether our study or intervention was meaningful. We might see a result and want to attribute it to a specific thing happening in society or that we introduced to a group, but it could just be that the people observed already had some particular quality that led to the outcome we saw. Our theory and our intervention may have just been a small thing on the side that didn’t really do what it looks like it did.
Another challenge in both areas is accomplishing our goals without being able to directly address our goals. We may want to do something like prevent drug overdose deaths, but public opinion won’t support safe injection sites, legal drug use, or free needles for drug addicts. We can work toward our goals, but we often have to do them in an oblique manner that purports to address one thing, while in the background really addressing another thing.
These experiences from my educational background come to mind when I think about the following quote from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Their example is about education, but it relates to what I discussed above because it shows how our current education system seems to be doing one thing, but really accomplishes another goal in an indirect way. It does so by taking qualities that people already have, and purporting to provide an intervention to enhance those qualities, but runs into the same selection bias I mentioned in my opening paragraph.
“Educated workers are generally better workers, but not necessarily because school made them better. Instead, a lot of the value of education lies in giving students a chance to advertise the attractive qualities they already have.”
Education can do a lot of things for us, but pin pointing exactly what it does is tricky because the people attracted to school are in some ways different from the population that is not attracted to higher education. It is hard to say that the schooling is what made the big difference or if the people who do well in school had other qualities that set the stage for the difference observed between those who do well at school and those who don’t. This doesn’t mean school is a waste or that we should invest in it less, but rather that we should consider a wider range of schooling options to allow people to demonstrate their unique qualities in different ways.
The other piece I like about the quote is the obliquity of schooling and education in our journey to tell others how amazing we are. It is hard to demonstrate one’s skills and qualities, but going through an obstacle course, such as college, is a good way to show our positive qualities and skills. Education is one obstacle we use to differentiate ourselves and advertise how capable we are in a socially acceptable manner. There is something to be learned when thinking through policy from the education example. Direct approaches to policy-making sometimes are impossible, but indirect routes can open doors if they make it seem as though another good is being pursued with the outcome we want to see occurring incidentally.