“Some of Them Will Have the Wrong Answer”

In Exploratory Data Analysis, John Tukey tells about visiting a high-school chemistry class. Each student in the class had done an experiment to determine a physical constant. Tukey suggested to the teacher that they gather and plot the results. The teacher didn’t like this idea. Some of the students will have gotten the wrong answer, said the teacher. Tukey didn’t know what to say.

In a previous post, I said there is great stagnation in health care. Obesity and mental illness are the examples most obvious to me, but there are many other problems on which our health care system has made little progress for a long time. (Sure, we should have universal health care but the idea that this will do much about the obesity epidemic, the autoimmune disease epidemic, the autism epidemic, and so on, is absurd. Doctors don’t know how to get people to lose weight. A reasonable health care system would focus on prevention. That is something the current batch of doctors doesn’t know how to do.) I added that a reasonable health policy would empower those who benefit from change.

That’s a difficult thing for people in power to do. Not only does it mean giving up power, it also means giving it to “the wrong people”. The people you like to demonize. People who are . . . not respectable. Not clubbable, John Cheever might say. And, quite apart from that, some of them will have the wrong answer. Tukey’s high-school chemistry class was at a fancy private school, where we might expect such elitist attitudes. But I heard the same thing from colleagues at UC Berkeley when I would suggest giving students much more power to determine what they learned in a psychology class. Some of them will want to learn the wrong things, said my colleagues. I think Tukey was trying to say that the chemistry teacher didn’t understand variability but I think the psychological point of his story is even more interesting.