Elliott, a humorist, said he believes 'guys will talk about math," as long as the math centers on a topic that interests them. He said he's still thinking about a strategy to get women talking about math.
Can we get more than a giggle from this story? We can.
It’s obvious that personal, sexual, or embarrassing topics pose special challenges. It’s less obvious that the same challenges may impact even mundane data analysis. A look at tough analytics cases can give us clues about flaws we may have overlooked in our own work.
Ansell explained some details of its research:“Four hundred one males over the age of 18 were measured, one at a time, by qualified medical staff…” at a nightclub in Cancun, Mexico. “Effective measurements” were recorded for 300 men. 101 men were, let’s say, unsuccessful.
So many questions come to mind! Were the men paid? Are there any laws regarding paying people to let you measure their genitals? Had the men been drinking in the nightclub? How would drinking affect the measurements? How would being measured affect the measurements? Where, exactly, do you measure, and how? Do you use a ruler, a tape measure…?
While the details of this project may seem unique, we can draw lessons from it that apply to all sorts of research.
Lesson 1) Know what laws apply to your work, and comply with them.
Lesson 2) The presence of an observer may affect outcomes. Outcomes also may be affected by other factors that are difficult to control when conducting research.
Lesson 3) Clearly define what information is to be collected. Provide detailed, written instructions, including diagrams if applicable. Some data collection tasks require trained professional staff.
Another research area that poses special challenges is the study of sexual behavior. This requires self-reporting, which is affected by memory, embarrassment, and ego, nor are respondents the only concern.
A professor once told me that she had conducted interviews for a major sexual behavior study. But she did not like to interview men, so when it was her turn to do so, she traded duty with a male research partner, and lied about it on the interview notes.
Lesson 4) Staff members don’t always do what you they are supposed to do. Monitor.
Even topics that may seem innocent at first can be layered with personal issues. One of the things that students often discover when exploring real data from the US General Social Survey is that, when asked how many children they have, women report having more children than men. This has been the starting point of some lively class discussions, and leads to one more lesson.
Lesson 5) Sometimes, people cannot, or will not, tell you what you want to know.
Have you learned lessons from challenging research? Please share your stories.