Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Why

So now we will try to find out why.

You know what I think? I don't think these guys were particularly smart or trying to make a statement.  I think they were just frustrated with their lives, and bored, like lots of young men in the world. I think the conversation went something like this.

"I have an idea. Let's blow up the Boston Marathon."


"Let's blow up the Boston Marathon. Nothing big. We'll make some bombs. There are instructions on the Internet, it looks easy. People will be scared. It'll be fun. Whaddya think?"

"Are you crazy?"

"Probably, man, probably."

Friday, April 19, 2013

Strange week

This has been a very strange week. To say the least.

On Monday, Marathon Monday, I was at work at a staff meeting and things seemed fairly normal.  Then suddenly, around 3 pm, hundreds of ambulances and police cars started racing down Huntington Ave. What was going on? we wondered. Someone from my office informed us that there were bombings at the Marathon. Bombings? It didn't make sense. Who would bomb the Marathon?

That was just the beginning.

Three people were dead and hundreds wounded. People lost legs, feet. But no one came forward to claim responsibility. I started to think that it was just some stupid person who decided that it would be fun to set off bombs at the Boston Marathon.

The week progressed. We learned that the bombs were made from pressure cookers filled with shrapnel, nails, BBs. Crude but effective. On Wednesday there were rumors that a suspect was about to be arrested, but it never happened. A promised press conference was cancelled.

People started holding vigils, healing services. Even President Obama came to Boston on Thursday to attend a service. He gave an inspiring speech. It seemed like things were getting better. The healing had begun.

On Thursday night, the FBI revealed photos of two suspects: two young white men in hats, one black, one white. The photos were quite clear. I was sure that someone would recognize them and contact the police. Maybe it would all be over soon.

Overnight, I started getting alert messages from Harvard. Something was going on at MIT. Something was going on in Cambridge. By morning, the two suspects had robbed a convenience store, killed an MIT police officer, had a shoot-out with police that included bombs being thrown, and one of the suspects had died. By morning, Watertown and surrounding towns were in lock down. J's school was cancelled. Public transportation was stopped.  The hunt for the second suspect was on. Thousands of police and military flooded into Watertown and started a house to house search. It was feared that the suspect, like his brother, was wearing a suicide bomb.

We have basically been home all day with just a few breaks. Boston is basically a ghost town. They haven't found the second man.

This is insane.The world is insane. What is going on? Why do these things keep happening?

There is no clue as to why these two young men did this. And we may never know why. Which is the saddest thing of all.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Research is starting to drive me crazy.

I have come to the realization that research is starting to drive me crazy.

I know, I know. I've been all gung-ho about research for years. Trying to find out whether programs, projects, educational interventions actually work - we must do research to find out!

Well...I'm not as enamored these days. Let me explain.

When you are doing research about something very black and white, such as - does this drug work to help a person with such and such a condition - the results of the research are (mostly) clear. Yes, the drug works, or no, it doesn't. When you are doing research about an educational program, or about a public health program that has to do with behavior change -- what we in the biz call "social and behavioral research" -- sometimes the results are less clear. The program worked for some, but not for others. The program changed behavior a bit, but not enough to make a big different. Or the program's effects didn't last very long.

What's driving me crazy these days is all that these people are doing all this research, and I just don't feel like it's helping anyone in any meaningful way. Researchers do studies, assign groups to different "treatments," have control groups, put people through whatever intervention they are studying (improve diet, increase exercise, etc.) and then gather some results. The results show: folks improved their diet - a little bit. Folks exercised more while on the program. For a while.

And then there's the whole quantitative/qualitative divide. Lots of researchers administer surveys to their participants and they end up with numbers: x percent of the participants ate 5 servings of veggies each day. Y percent of the participants were able to name three things they could do to increase their physical activity. This is quantitative research. Qualitative research (which is my preferred mode) has to do with asking the participants more open-ended questions: what did you like about this program? What worked for you? What didn't? And why? Then you end up with much richer data about participants' experiences with the program.

But in the end...does any of this make anyone healthier?

Here's a recent example: I went to a lecture yesterday about a very interesting program called Micro-Clinics presented by a very smart guy named Daniel Zoughbie that uses the power of group relationships to change behavior. You can see a short video about it here.

So he was presenting with another guy, a School of Public Health researcher, and the researcher got so involved with the numbers and figuring out how to measure whether it was exactly this thing, the micro-clinics, that was causing the effect, or was it something else? And I felt like he was missing the point entirely.

You can't separate this stuff out. It's not like medicine. Each group is different, the dynamics are different, the teachers are different. Whether the micro-clinics work or not to change behavior is something that has to do with all these different variables mixed together. Research isn't going to be able to discover the exact thing that works. This project is about relationships, and what's great is, it seems to be working.

So I left that workshop discouraged. Maybe research isn't the answer after all. Or, at least, not for everything.