Sunday, January 25, 2009

As Far As Tamping Down The "Messiah" Talk Goes, This Isn't Helping

I'm frequently annoyed when the results of a scientific study are played up in the press before undergoing peer review. However, it's easy to understand how hard it would be to keep this under your hat:

Now researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election.


Researchers in the last decade assembled university students with identical SAT scores and administered tests to them, discovering that blacks performed significantly poorer when asked at the start to fill out a form identifying themselves by race. The researchers attributed those results to anxiety that caused them to tighten up during exams in which they risked confirming a racial stereotype.

In the study made public on Thursday, Dr. Friedman and his colleagues compiled a brief test, drawing 20 questions from the verbal sections of the Graduate Record Exam, and administering it four times to about 120 white and black test-takers during last year’s presidential campaign.

In total, 472 Americans — 84 blacks and 388 whites — took the exam. Both white and black test-takers ranged in age from 18 to 63, and their educational attainment ranged from high school dropout to Ph.D.

On the initial test last summer, whites on average correctly answered about 12 of 20 questions, compared with about 8.5 correct answers for blacks, Dr. Friedman said. But on the tests administered immediately after Mr. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech, and just after his election victory, black performance improved, rendering the white-black gap “statistically nonsignificant,” he said.

If there was ever a study that cried out for immediate efforts at replication, this is it. Could it really be that societal-reinforced poor self-image and consequent test-taking anxiety are all we need to explain demographic differences on standardized tests? This is like catnip to bleeding heart liberals like me, so we have to be doubly skeptical, await the results of peer review, and see if other workers can produce similar results independently.

But man, what if?


Hat tip to DougJ at Balloon Juice and Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, both of whom add thoughts worth reading.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I asked my Ho if he had seen this. His reply:

I saw that earlier. The book, "Predictably Irrational", talks about the effect of stereotypes on performance. It talks about asian girls who, if asked about being asian before a test, perform better. If asked about being a girl, perform worse.

Follow the gourd!

That last part may need explanation....