Friday, July 25, 2008

Great teachers (Part 3.1)

[Note: this is something of a lemma in my "series" on problem-solving and education. I'll try to keep it brief.]

The Chicago Tribune today has a front-page story on how a new study confirms the results of other stories, that girls are just as good as boys in mathematics. There are a number of things I could say here, based on things I have seen from my years as a high school mathematics coach, but, for this post, I will confine myself to the first two paragraphs of this story:
Desiree Epps-Davis, 14, says she struggles every day to convince some teachers at her Chicago public school that she is just as good at math as the boys in her class.

Now a major new study has proved her right.
I understand that one of the basic tenets of modern journalism is that every story needs to have a human face, that it is more important to find the right (most touching) example of every problem than to actually understand the issues.

But that doesn't mean we need to throw basic logic out the window. No matter how affecting Desiree's story is, the study does not "prove" that she is as good in math as the boys. This is the classic case of confusing the specific with the general, and fuzzy thinkers have been doing this forever.

It is just as likely that we could have seen the statement the other way, that Desiree's demonstrated success "proves" that girls are just as good as boys, which is equally specious logic. It's very hard to believe that we'll ever understand complex situations as long as we (and our media) make fundamental mistakes like this.

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