• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Learning Through Experiments

Parenthood as science.

March 30, 2017

At Ursuline College, the Mathematics department is housed in what I (and others) call “the Math and Science Building.” We are therefore just down the hall from the Biology department, and just above the Chemistry department. This sometimes leads to very interesting discussions over lunch about topics ranging from the beauty of Linear Algebra (yes, there is such a thing!) to the latest research on Evolution. It is a place that I, while a social scientist at heart, feel very much at home.

It is only recently that Economists have begun to approach our field using the experimental techniques commonly applied in the natural sciences. As I watch this approach, I have found these new attempts to apply experimental approaches to the social sciences to be fascinating. One Economist whose work I love to read is Dan Arieley, who writes a column in the Wall Street Journal, which is posted as a blog, that is fascinating. He has managed to take Economic principles and link them to important questions that we all face in life, and it is not just the questions that he addresses that are so interesting, but also the technique he uses. Thanks to this group of Economists who have recently begun to use experimental techniques in approaching economic questions, we can now say with more certainty that the ideas we can prove with Calculus actually do materialize in the “real world.” This is not the usual direction economic research takes, as made famous by the quote from Ronald Reagan that “an economist is someone who sees something that works in practice and wonders if it would work in theory.”

I thought of this newer branch of Economics recently when I stumbled upon an article about an attempt to measure the honesty of people who might be faced with a moral issue. As someone who studies how much people give away of their time and money, this was particularly interesting to me. In this experiment, people were mistakenly (or so it was presented) given gift cards to which they were not entitled. The response of the recipients was found to differ between those who were rich and those who were poor. As those participating did not know they were part of an experiment, such a test is labeled as a “natural field experiment.” This is a test similar to others, some bordering on being labeled as, “Psychology,” instead of “Economics”, that have been done in which people are asked whether some money on the ground belongs to them, whether they will pay for bagels that ask the recipient only for a donation, or whether they will be willing to help a blind person who it appears has just won the lottery.

I have a friend who has a saying that is interesting for those of us with only one child. She quotes someone who said that “children are like pancakes; the first one is just an experiment.” I can see why she would say that, since so much of being a parent, from figuring out how to burp a baby to navigating the trials of adolescence, are experiences in figuring things out by experimentation. I remember the worry I had when I first allowed my daughter to ride her bike around the block without my supervision. It was frightening for me at first, but it helped her take a major step in achieving independence.

It is interesting that my friend who likes to repeat this quite also has only one child, so she, like me, did not get to use the knowledge learned from a first child in raising another child. Perhaps we both will apply such knowledge in helping to raise grandchildren?

Readers, do you ever feel that being a parent is really just one big experiment? And do you employ the “scientific method” in figuring out what to do? And if you do, how do you do that? Inquiring parental minds want to know.



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