Yesterday my wife and I took took my (almost) 4-year-old daughter to a specialist for a consultation on a certain medical procedure. This procedure is minor and fairly routine for young children, but I didn’t know very much about it going into the appointment. The physician did a few checks and made a preliminary diagnosis and recommendation, depending on the outcome of another particular test, which we were told could be completed in a few minutes from then. We all went back out into the waiting room until we could go back for the additional test. I will admit that I felt a bit of anxiety. I didn’t really understand what the doctor had explained to us and I didn’t have the knowledge base to judge the preliminary recommendation.
While in the waiting room, I whipped out my smartphone and began Googling about the particular procedure. The search terms I used brought up a lot of hits, some from professional medical associations and others from individuals sharing their opinions on the matter (some informed, some not) and others from professional associations representing alternative views on the procedure.
Within about ten minutes, I had about a dozen opinions and perspectives on the matter. These included reports of empirical studies on the procedure, which described experiments with terms like “random assignment,” “double-blind,” “statistically significant difference,” “treatment group,” “control group,” etc. Due to my academic training in political science, I was able to critically evaluate and understand the “gist” of these reports even though they were reports of medical studies, which I have no formal training in.
After just a few minutes reading through all this material, I had a much better understanding the procedure in question. I also better understood the basis for the physician’s recommendations. I also felt like I had a clearer picture of the pros/cons of the procedure and the extent to which my daughter’s symptoms matched up against those that the procedure is designed to address. I then understood the objective of the follow-up test that we were awaiting and what the implications of the results would mean in terms of the necessity of the procedure. During the meeting with the physician following the test, I was much more confident in my understanding of the situation and was able to ask appropriate follow-up questions to help my wife and I make an informed decision on the matter.
All in all, I came away from this experience with a few key insights:
- I think technology is amazing. In a matter of minutes in a doctor’s waiting room, I was able to independently access a universe of information related to a particular question that I had.
- Even though I could access a “universe of information,” I still needed tools to be able to make sense of it. Because of skills that I have learned in my academic training, I was able to quickly sift through the dozens of Google search returns and separate them out into “credible sources,” “non-credible sources,” and “potentially credible, but with a distinct bias/agenda/perspective.” I was then able to apply that categorization to give different “weights of credibility/importance” to each particular viewpoint. I also was able to recognize which organizations would be more likely to have credible information because of previous experience looking up credible information in other domains (for me, political science).
- Because of skills that I have learned in my academic training, I was also able to critically evaluate reports of academic studies related to the procedure. I understood what it meant when an article reported whether or not there was a “statistically significant difference between the control and treatment groups” and what that might imply for my daughter receiving the particular treatment.
- Yes, my academic training enables me to be a better political scientist, but it also has equipped me with skills that are easily transferable to other issue domains. Thus, I was able to make a more informed, evidence-based decision about how to best care for my daughter. Yesterday, my academic training directly helped me be a better parent.
What is the point of all this?
To my students: the skills you learn in higher education have widespread and important applicability in almost every facet of your lives. This is why it’s important to get an education that teaches you how to “think critically” and evaluate evidence. Sure, it helps you better understand the political (economic, sociological, physical, etc.) world, but it also helps you to better interact with the world around you and make a positive contribution to it.
But on a more practical level, this is why I make you learn how to read academic research articles, compute levels of statistical significance between variables, and do your own empirical studies of political data. Even though most of you won’t go on to be professional political scientists, you will always be able to use these skills, whatever your responsibilities or opportunities may be.