Marginal changes no longer interesting?

10 May 2009

David Brooks wrote an interesting column this week on the charter schools run by the Harlem Children’s Zone. In it he describes the the findings of the HCZ experiment and Roland Fryer‘s comment that the study “changed his life as a scientist.”

Later on in the article Brooks quotes Fryer as saying “The results changed my life as a researcher because I am no longer interested in marginal changes.”

I know Roland has a reputation that has grown by leaps and bounds, but statements like this give me pause. Does that mean that he’s just not going to publish anything where the estimated treatment effects are small?

As a scientist, I’m interested in the truth, whether its big, small, marginal, whatever. I have to wonder about folks who issue blanket statements that rule out any potential finding on research done objectively. Moreover, I think the essence of what we do as scientists is look for marginal changes — after all, how do we know what works and what doesn’t work? Even within an experiment like HCZ, there must be aspects that are more effective than others. Wouldn’t we like to know what they are?

If the claims in Brooks’s articles are true — that’s great. But I’m wary of anybody who claims to be objective and then sounds like an evangelist.

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