What can hurricanes tell us about education research? Quite a bit, it seems.
This is not the first time I’ve referenced an article by Jason Samenow, weather editor for the Washington Post, and I suspect it won’t be the last. His recent commentary on the misinterpretation of hurricane predictions is eerily relevant to education researchers, who must also deal with the recasting of their findings by popular media outlets.
Samenow lists two concerns about the ways that meteorological research is distorted as it moves into general, nontechnical discourse:
- the public is not presented with the full range of weather possibilities, just the eye-catching ones that involve “sexy model simulations” (in this case, hurricanes)
- models that project more than five days into the future are fundamentally unsound, but this disclaimer is conspicuously absent from popular weather reports.
Sound familiar? It should…
How many headlines have we read touting the newest silver bullet of education reform, which, upon further investigation, is not grounded in the quoted research? How many times have we seen legitimate findings misquoted in support of insupportable claims? How many times have we seen a reinterpretation of education research for the general public that is stripped of the necessary cautions and caveats?
A meteorologist makes predictions about the weather based on existing data, prior research, and theory; an education researcher makes predictions about students, teachers, and schools based on the same collection of knowledge. Both scientists answer questions about which the lay-public cares deeply. Both deal with a subject matter that is complicated and unpredictable. Both use a set of analytic tools whose complexity far exceeds the public’s technical sophistication.
And both face the same challenges in ensuring the accurate dissemination of their findings. So what’s a conscientious researcher to do if she wants her work correctly communicated to the public?
Samenow answers by sketching the role of a responsible meteorologist in this troubling dynamic of misinformation. He discourages a campaign of damage control (i.e., publicly calling out those who publish distorted research), arguing that this is “a never-ending and unwinnable game of whack-a-mole.” Instead, he urges scientists to “focus on educating their readers and viewers about the limitations of weather forecasts,” “discuss what is known and not known,” and “share good examples of colleagues doing this the right way.”
I’ll be honest: the firebrand in me is a little disappointed with Samenow’s modest, measured conclusion that “education is the only weapon we have in this fight against social media misinformation.” In response to this misconstrual of the facts – especially when it’s intentional – heads need to roll, right? At the intersection of education research and reform, amidst the rather severe notions of “accountability” that shape current policy, it seems to me that the stakes are just too high to tolerate reckless distortions of the truth.
But the longer I mull it over, the more I think maybe Samenow is right. If we, as researchers, are in this for the long haul, if we really want our work to inform and educate society, then maybe a campaign of thoughtfulness, humility, and leading by example isn’t such a bad way to go.