>Years before I went back to school to study the craft of writing,* I spent scads of money to study social welfare policy and public administration at Columbia. Early on in the program, I realized that I went back when I was way too young, but I resolved to learn what I could. I discovered that I really liked statistics. This was a huge surprise.
My last semester at school, I enrolled in a poverty research class. Students paired up and selected a topic to investigate. We then we given national databases, which we ran many numbers over the course of the semester to support or disprove our thesis. It was exciting.
The topic I chose was whether children living in households with two adults had outcomes that matched those of children living in households with married parents. I pictured grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and other family members offering the same support that a spouse might (or might not) give, thus enabling children to live in more stable environments. My partner and I ran a gazillion multivariate regressions, basic stats like averages, and a fancy-schmancy time-hazard regression to see if this was true.
It was not. According to data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, children from married households had better outcomes than those from two adult households, who in turn were better off as adults than children from single parent homes. I was crushed. Did this not mean that horrid policies put forth by right wing nutjobs were correct? That people really should rush off to get married (assuming they have the right, but that's another story), come hell or high water?
As I moped about my findings, my wise professor opened my eyes. He pointed out that the data may not support my theory, but that the social environment in which we live does not provide the same benefits to unmarried people. Perhaps if I recommended that we implement policies that support different types of households rather than continue to punish them for not conforming to a conservative view of family life, then the outcomes would improve.
I hadn't really considered that it was possible to take a "bad" finding and turn it into a tool for advocacy. This changed the way I interpreted studies and all sorts of news reports. Cool.
*Seriously, just typing "to study the craft of writing" cracks me up. I had hoped to learn how to write a book with a plot and characters. Instead, I discovered that I am not "literary" and my writing will never be literary, because my brain does not think that way. While this discovery caused enormous angst last year, I am OK with it now. I'll just admire people who write really beautiful sentences and go about my business trying to entertain people with a serviceable story. Which is not to say that I did not learn anything, because I learned a lot. But anyway...