Idiot Says What?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 15th, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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It is time for a basic lesson in research and the creation of sound conclusions.  Too many people are publicly exposing their stupid sides because they simply don’t understand the basics of how to draw conclusions.

So, let me give you a primer.

NUMBER ONE:  We never, ever generalize our learning from one subject to the whole group into which that one subject might fall.  In other words, experiencing the inefficiencies of one nonprofit does not allow us to generalize and conclude that all nonprofits are inefficient.  And just so you are clear, we do not conclude that all nonprofits are awesome because we had a fantastic experience with one nonprofit.  (But somehow, people never seem to want to generalize on the basis of a good experience but can’t be quick enough to damn all based on a bad experience with one.)  Our experiences with one nonprofit simply allow us to talk about one nonprofit.

I am sick and tired of hearing people pontificate about the sins of the nonprofit sector because they have looked at one nonprofit, heard from someone else (which amounts to hearsay) about the problems of one nonprofit.  Let’s damn all nonprofit executive directors because one in your region receives what some perceive to be an “excessive” salary.  Because one nonprofit in your region wasn’t providing sufficient oversight which allowed the treasurer to abscond with some of the organization’s money does not mean every nonprofit is not providing financial oversight.  One is one and in the rules of statistics—and life—you cannot generalize to the whole group based on what you know of one.  Politicians, commentators, yacky talk-show hosts, are you listening?  Do you get this?  There are approximately 1.8 million nonprofits in the United States; you cannot paint them all with the same brush based on your experience with one.

NUMBER TWO:  Not only do you not draw conclusions about the larger group based on your experience with one, you can’t even draw conclusions about the larger group based on your experience with a tiny subset of that group.  One, three, 10 out of 1.8 million?  Sorry, it just doesn’t cut it.  I’d be happy if folks had seen 1%–that would be 18,000, for those of you as challenged with math as you are with sound reasoning.  Ten percent? Now you are really talking.  (That would be 180,000 nonprofits.  Seen that many?   Didn’t think so.)

But, truth be told, it depends on that 10%.  Is it representative of the whole?  We can’t make pronouncements about arts and culture organizations, for example, based on a 10% sample or all large arts organizations or all performing arts organizations.  The arts and culture component of the nonprofit sector is made up of large, small and everything in between organizations; of performing and nonperforming arts organizations; of modern to classical to ancient.  All have similar challenges and functions and each has very different challenges and functions.

So, this summer, when Rush Limbaugh flagged all nonprofit employees as “lazy idiots” and “rapists in terms of finance and the economy” (just what does that actually mean?), just how many nonprofit employees had he met?  He was lucky we were in a recession and unemployment was down, because there were fewer people he had to meet!  But in 2009 a very rough estimate is that there were about 120 million people between the ages of 18 and 64 employed in the United States.  If we take the estimate that one in 12 jobs in the United States are in the nonprofit sector, that means there were approximately 10 million people employed by the nonprofit sector.  Just how many of those “lazy idiots” has Limbaugh actually met?

NUMBER THREE:  We never, ever generalize from our learning of one kind of subject—say social service organizations, event though they tend to be the largest piece of the nonprofit pie–to all other kinds of subjects—such as the nonprofit sector as a whole or to environmental or education or social change nonprofits.  Would we generalize from the entertainment industry and reach conclusions about the biotechnology industry or retail or construction?  If we did, we’d be foolish.  We know, for example, that we cannot generalize about people if we have only studied men.

Consider all of the wrong conclusions educators made over the years about how best to educate children when it was finally accepted beginning in the 1970s how differently males and females learn and perform in classrooms.  Using only adult male subjects in medical research and then generalizing to “all adults” led to decades of poor medical treatment for women because men’s and women’s bodies are not the same and do not necessarily experience things—such as heart attacks—the same.

NUMBER FOUR:  We never, ever reach conclusions based on the hearsay of others.  If you are going to fire barbs, sling mud, spew venom, all from your bully pulpit, then you damn well better have done your own research and know the facts and not be relying on the stories—true or false, exaggerated or not–of others.  People love to damn academics, sitting in their ivory towers.  But the reality is that many, many academics do solid, credible research, based on large and representative samples of whatever their subject matter is.  For these folks know the importance of building conclusions—and the subsequent responses to these conclusions—based on solid, tested research methods.  Perhaps it is time for politicians, talking, vacuous heads and every egocentric individual who loves to hear him/herself talk  – to go to (or back to) school to learn how to reach accurate conclusions.

And what better way to reiterate my point about dangerous conclusions than to share another gem illustrating Rush Limbaugh’s research skills:

“The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there. It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.” —Rush Limbaugh, on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico


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