In the old days, the “Ivory Tower” approach seemed to rely heavily on intuition, theory, and “because I said so.” Now, academia has become more focused on hypothesis development and testing…a more “evidence-based” approach. The general public seems to be moving in a similar direction, and lawmakers should take heed of this new trend in using metrics in policymaking.
The average college professor appears to be obsessed with theory. Usually that’s where you’ll see a lot of on-line complaints from current and former students. It’s too broad…it’s too abstract. And that’s exactly what it’s designed to be. An abstract theory is designed to be that way, being broad also means applying to as many situations as possible. Abstract theories are also more flexible as well. People don’t care about a theory that doesn’t mean anything to them.
But theory alone, without any concrete evaluation, is too vague to be useful, right? That’s where the hypothesis comes in. A hypothesis is a more specific version of the theory that can be tested. Therefore, it’s not “an educated guess.” It’s a connection between variables that’s ready to be scrutinized with evidence.
There are several ways of testing a hypothesis. Georgians could compare contemporary times to past times. They could compare themselves to other states in the region, or throughout the United States. Even within Georgia, county could be compared to county to determine where a policy works, or doesn’t work. Just as Federalists long ago thought of states as “laboratories” of polices, more freedom to counties and districts could do the same.
Of course, there’s a desire (even pressure) to find a “cause-and-effect” relationship. But it’s far more important to conduct one’s test in an unbiased fashion. Making up the data, rigging the test, falsifying conclusions are all bad moves in hypothesis testing. Contrary to media reports, fraud in academia is a career killer.
It’s also critical to realize what you actually have. Folks who discover this technique are quick to believe that their hypothesis test “proves” something. But you often don’t have a scientific law, or phenomenon that occurs in every situation, or no situation. At best, you have a relationship between variables under a given set of circumstances.
This all sounds too complicated for policymakers, but it actually has a great deal of public interest. Witness the success of the Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters,” where urban legends are closely scrutinized, rather than simply assumed to exist (or not exist). Now there’s “Unsolved History,” “Battlefield Detectives,” and crime shows with reenactments.
Take a quick look at some of the key political issues in Georgia. Are the state’s ethics laws too cumbersome to be effective? Would a given redistricting plan benefit incumbents or not? Should an education program be cut, or will it cost the state more money in the future? How does the public really feel about Sunday alcohol sales? Would a “fair tax” plan increase or lose revenue? And what are Georgia’s natural resources really worth? Any legitimate test of these would be better than somebody’s “best guess.”
I’ve written and reviewed articles for academic journals, presenting and discussing others’ papers at conferences. It’s hard to get published these days without such an approach. Pointing at one’s degree, one’s pedigree, or one’s “gut feeling” won’t get you anywhere in academia today. It shouldn’t get you very far in writing and enforcing state laws either.