Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas and Research

Searching the web for “Christmas” and “research” (Why would I do that?), as I drink some Christmas tea and munch on Christmas cookies. The search evinces some very disparate types of connections between the two terms. So, I bring you these tidings*:

Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon, in their 2002 article “What Makes for Merry Christmas?”, in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, that’s a, peer-reviewed social science journal) wrote: “Despite the prominent and recurring place that Christmas holds in many people’s lives, there is surprisingly little empirical research about the season. Consumer research has provided interesting analyses of its myths, movies, and media messages…, sociology has examined gift-giving rituals…, and anthropology has investigated meanings of the holiday in various cultures. Within the field of psychology, what literature exists on Christmas mostly concerns whether psychiatric admissions… and suicide rates… increase during the season. Surprisingly, we were unable to find any quantitative empirical studies that have endeavored to understand the experiences and qualities which are associated with happiness during Christmas.”

One of their conclusions, based on a review of the studies they could find: “the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may undermine well-being, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisfied.” Good news, I suppose for those who celebrate Christmas.

They also stated something else about the history of Christmas in America, which, if true, surprised me (and doesn’t it have to be true if it appears in a scientific journal?): “The Christmas holiday has evolved from an event banned in some American colonies to one that dominates the month of December.” (I hadn’t realized that some early colonists banned Christmas.)

The search brought up Penn State University as the third item – fortunately, for something other than the sex abuse scandal there: “The Schatz Center has a large Christmas tree tissue culture research program that benefits from access to walk in environmental growth rooms designed specifically for plant tissue culture in the Biotechnology Institute.” Seriously, the preeminence of football can sometimes cause us to forget that, as the NCAA reminds us in their advertising, “most college atheletes enter careers other than sports.”

Actually, Christmas tree research is a much bigger deal than I ever knew.  At New Mexico State University, "The Christmas Tree Research Program is the longest running program at the (Mora Research) Center. In addition to screening provenances of many native and non-native commercial Christmas tree species, this program played an instrumental role in introducing eldarica pine (Pinus brutia var. eldarica)to New Mexico. Work on both genetics and plantation management has resulted in the shortening of rotation ages of many Christmas tree species in some cases by more than 50%.” Good news for the Christmas tree industry, I suppose.

Abramitzky and colleagues, in The Economic Journal (2010), assessed: “Is Hanukkah Responsive to Christmas?” They state: “We use individual-level survey and county-level expenditure data to examine the extent to which Hanukkah celebrations among US Jews are driven by the presence of Christmas. We document that Jews with young children are more likely to celebrate Hanukkah, that this effect is greater for reform Jews and for strongly-identified Jews, and that Jewish-related expenditure on Hanukkah is higher in counties with lower shares of Jews. All these findings are consistent with the hypothesis that celebration of religious holidays is designed not only for worship and enjoyment but also to provide a counterbalance for children against competing cultural influences.”

Unfortunately, researchers at New York University (my alma mater) reported problems with an evaluation study of something called the “Christmas Gifts Aid Program”, such as: “Lack of Rigorous Methodology: Regrettably, this evaluation had to proceed without the required Randomized Controlled Trial on Christmas Gifts, which failed to be completed as planned. Project managers did a poor job explaining the advantages of RCT participation to the Control Group. Lack of Targeting: The Christmas Gifts aid program was not sufficiently well-targeted to the poor.  Recipients of Christmas Gifts indiscriminately included well-off regions, groups, genders, and individuals. Lack of Net Flows: Evaluators found Christmas Gift recipients engaged in behavior that frustrated the aid program, with Recipients acting as Donors to their own Donors, reducing their own net aid intake. They explained their counterproductive behavior with non-standard concepts such as “Tis more bless’d to give than to receive.”" I’m not sure I fully understand what that means, but it is sad, isn’t it?

Emory University’s Theology Library has a resource page: “In response to annual requests for information about the origin and celebration of Christmas, we've compiled this resource page. The works cited range from scholarly folklore studies to popular commentaries on modern observances.” A worthwhile reference, if you seek that information. Similarly, the Baylor University library web site “Provides some links to traditions, food, and crafts; international in focus.”

Sam Houston University is planning new research efforts in the Christmas Mountains. No relation to the holiday, of course, but if their research on climate change pays off, it might be a present for all of us.

In any case, I’ll continue to eat my cookies, drink tea, wear my Charlie Brown Santa Claus tie, and enjoy the season. Merry Christmas to you; enjoy the holidays!

*The Merriam-Webster Dictionary “word of the day” for December 25, 2011, meaning “news”.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Crowd Science, for Improving Our Communities

“Crowd science” has entered the realms of physics, biology, classical studies, and the applied social research we do here in Saint Paul.

Crowd science? The term refers to the increasingly common practice in which people pool information which they have gathered independently, and then have access to all of the information which they and others have supplied. As a group, they can develop new understanding and produce products that they never could have produced by working in isolation. In astronomy, for example, far too many galaxies and stars exist for any one individual to observe and analyze. So, the field has shifted dramatically from individual astronomers sitting at their telescopes writing up their discoveries, to networks of astronomers who share their information in a common database which all can use.

Crowd science can involve networks comprised solely of professional scientists. It can also involve mixtures of scientists and the general public, or even just the public alone. A November 20 article in the Pioneer Press described how papyrologists (a new word for me), who had struggled for years to unlock the secrets contained in ancient papyrus documents, moved rapidly forward after devising a clever and innovative way to obtain the assistance of the public – who did not need to know classical languages – in the identification of images on the ancient texts.

Minnesota Compass illustrates these principles. No single entity can possibly gather all the data necessary for understanding communities’ quality of life with respect to health, housing, education, workforce, and other critical dimensions. However, after organizations specializing in these topics have independently gathered information, Compass can compile it and make it accessible in one common location. Moreover, Compass can and does not only summarize trends and report them in summary graphs; it also enables access to raw data, so that everyone from an academic researcher to an amateur neighborhood social scientist can play with those data from all angles and make their own discoveries.

The Minnesota Department of Health, with its Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) initiative, created a version of crowd science, in which Wilder Research energetically participated. SHIP involved the funding and development of programs throughout the state, intended to help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives by reducing the burden of chronic disease. The effort included creation of a system for evaluation of those programs. Information on results from each site can therefore accrete in a common data base, so that we can learn more from collaborative data sharing than we could learn from solely independent review of each site’s results. Wilder Research staff worked with a variety of sites in the metro area and in greater Minnesota, and we look forward to seeing how this crowd science endeavor can produce tangible outcomes in improving everyone’s health!

A good example of moving crowd science from information-gathering to action occurred in our recently completed planning year for the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood. In that effort, we had six “solution action groups” who worked in parallel over a period of six months. Each group focused on the developmental needs of young people, in a different segment of life from birth to post secondary education. They requested and reviewed information; they brought into discussion their observations and insights based on their experience and the events in their own segments of the community. At the end of the process, we blended the independent work of the six task forces to create a cohesive whole, a community-based plan that addresses the life span of the neighborhood’s residents, from prenatal to young adulthood.

In this Information Age, knowledge constitutes power. Harnessing information to create knowledge requires bold, innovative, cost-effective approaches (just like harnessing the power of the sun to create solar power). Crowd science offers one new tool for harnessing information – enabling humans, individually and collectively, to do their part, supported by modern information technology.

In addition, crowd science offers the opportunity to reduce one type of disparity that has existed throughout history. As the Pioneer Press commentator noted, crowd science “may accomplish something else: breaking down some of the old divisions between the highly educated mandarins of the academy and the curious amateurs out in the world.” (Will the committed staff of Wilder Research – inhabitants of the arcane world of social science – lose our jobs if anyone can now draw “scientific” conclusions? Not at all. Our roles will evolve in an exhilarating way. More than ever, people who want to use information will require reliable sources of trustable information; they will need a system that makes that information easily and cheaply available (so that equal access exists and multiple perspectives can figure into interpretation of information); they will need coaching and advice on how to interpret that information; and to obtain responses to certain types of questions, they will always require help from experienced professionals.)

Crowd science: It’s modern, democratic, practical, and effective. We’re excited to play our part in many such efforts, present and future, because crowd science, coupled with collaborative action, will enable us to move our communities forward.