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Andres Siplane: Shooting oneself in the academic foot

Andres Siplane
Andres Siplane Source: Private collection

No reform should be based on just one or two studies, Andres Siplane writes

I recently read in a newspaper that the state is planning to train fewer social workers because a report suggested it. Earlier this week, people's blood pressure spiked when the Bank of Estonia couldn't really find anything positive about the planned pension reform.

This kind of approach and the practice of citing studies is very nice and inspires hope. It shows that we still try to make knowledge-based decisions. And if one's opponent sets about looking for weak spots in the study instead of taking it out on individuals, we have all the prerequisites for a civilized debate.

However, this also means that looking for weaknesses in the study and failing to find any should cause one to agree with its conclusions and adjust their positions regarding reforms accordingly. Because if you say "A", you must also say "B."

But in cases where people have already shaped dogmatic positions regarding reforms and do not plan to surrender them, it would make more sense to attack opponents based on their personal traits, as opposed to engaging in academic debate.

The real problem is more serious still. No reform should be based on a single study. Or two studies (one by the author of the reform plan and one by its opponents). And I can bet that in four cases out of five that single study is based on people filling out a form. Because such surveys are easy to do online, and because for too many people the word "study" means a form they need to fill out.

In truth, there are dozens of methods for perceiving, measuring and assigning meaning to the reality around us. And if we mostly limit the perception of social processes to survey forms, the result will be a rather uniform world.

It would be just as one-sided if we based all our studies on participation experiments for example.  At least it would be a little more fun.

What I mean to say is that every reform should be based on a host of studies by different authors and using different methods. Measure nine times and all that.

Justifying a reform using a single study in its respective field sounds suspicious. A single study cannot shed light on all the aspects of a complex phenomenon and constitutes an exercise in self-deception if we believe it and shape our society accordingly.

Andres Siplane has worked in positions related to social policy and social welfare both at the local and national government and in academia. In 2011-2014, he was the Head of the Support Centre of the Estonian Defence Forces and, from 2014, has served as an adviser for social affairs to the Estonian Ministry of Defence. He holds a BA (1999) and an MSc (2001) in social work from Tallinn University.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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