Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barbara Oakley

She had me with this line…

On page 148, in describing the state of teenager Carole Alden's room, Barbara Oakley writes:

“But within a few days it would deteriorate, as if entropy worked double-time around her.”
How can you not like someone who uses the word “entropy” in everyday language?

Cold-Blooded Kindness” is the most recent work of Dr. Barbara Oakley, associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. The book tells the story of Carole Elizabeth Alden, a wife and mother who accepts a plea agreement in the killing of her husband. Ms. Alden is currently serving a sentence of up to fifteen years at the Utah State Penitentiary.

While the story itself is fascinating, Dr. Oakley uses the narrative to give us a glimpse of the behaviors and motivations of people who are caught up in difficult life experiences. We find that we may not be able to fully determine human intent, but we can do research and draw conclusions. We are led on a cerebral “Alice in Wonderland” journey where Dr. Oakley helps us compare what we know about events with what we see in the various human responses.

Our journey comes with a twist: As Dr. Oakley summarizes in the final chapter of the book, “This book really isn’t about gullible Carole. It’s about gullible us.”

Her point is that there is still much we don’t know about human behavior, and we are often misled by studies that employ a dubious form of research; a research energized by people motivated to “do the right thing” rather than go where the science takes them.

Dr. Oakley is not afraid to name names. She takes to task the work of Lenore Walker (pages 47 to 51) and Marc Hauser (295-299), but has praise for Murray Straus (162-163). The openness of her writing is not without cost. She is the target (along with her publisher) of retribution from Carole Alden herself (306) and blowback from at least one former executive at the New York Academy of Medicine (298).

Still, her work is appreciated by people like me (on the periphery), and hopefully by those who perform research in the science and engineering fields. She helps to restore the reputation of the scientific principles that sometimes are abandoned when research has political overtones.

A case in point is a post from this blog about the backfire effect, a term derived from a paper about political misperceptions. The thesis of the paper was that Republicans “dig in” and hold on to misperceptions, even when confronted with facts that prove otherwise. I was disappointed to see how our culture applauded the research used to draw this conclusion.

You will have to review the post to see how it relates to "Cold-Blooded Kindness." Just know that I am pleased there are people in the academic community like Dr. Oakley who foster the integrity of scientific research.

UPDATE 8/17/2011:
Linked by The Other McCain!  Thanks, Smitty.

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