Why I probably won’t take your survey

I wrote recently that if you want to be confident in generalizing observations from a sample to the entire population, your sample needs to be representative. But maybe you’re skeptical. You might have noticed that a lot of people don’t pay much attention to representativeness, and somehow there are hardly any consequences for them. But that doesn’t mean that there are never consequences, for them or other people.

In the “hard sciences,” sampling can be easier. Unless there is some major impurity, a liter of water from New York usually has the same properties as one from Buenos Aires. If you’re worried about impurities you can distill the samples to increase the chance that they’re the same. Similarly, the commonalities in a basalt column or a wheel often outweigh any variation. A pigeon in New York is the same as one in London, right? A mother in New York is the same as a mother in Buenos Aires

Well, maybe. As we’ve seen, a swan in New York can be very different from a swan in Sydney. And when we get into the realm of social sciences, things get more complex and the complexity gets hard to avoid. There are probably more differences between a mother in New York and one in Buenos Aires than for pigeons or stones or water, and the differences are more important to more people.

This is not just speculation based on rigid rules about sampling. As Bethany Brookshire wrote last year, psychologists are coming to realize the drawbacks of building so much of their science around WEIRD people. And when she says WEIRD, she means WEIRD like me: White, Educated and from an Industrialized, Rich, Democratic country. And not just any WEIRD people, but college sophomores. Brookshire points out how much that skews the results in a particular study of virginity, but she also links to a review by Heinrich, Heine and Norenzayan (2010) that examines several studies and concludes that “members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.”

I think about this whenever I get an invitation to participate in a social science study. I get them pretty frequently, probably at least twice a week, on email lists and Twitter, and occasionally Tumblr and even Facebook. Often they’re directly from the researchers themselves: “Native English speakers, please fill out my questionnaire on demonstratives!” That means that they’re going primarily to a population of educated people, most of whom are white from an industrialized, rich, democratic country.

(A quick reminder, in case you just tuned in: This applies to universal observations – percentages, averages and all or none statements. It does not apply to existential statements, where you simply say that you found ten people who say “less apples.” You take those wherever you find them, as long as they’re reliable sources.)

I don’t have a real problem with using non-representative samples for pilot studies. You have a hunch about something, you want to see if it’s not just you before you spend a lot of time sending a survey out to people you don’t know. I have a huge problem with it being used for anything that’s published in a peer-reviewed journal or disseminated in the mainstream media. And yeah, that means I have a huge problem with just about any online dialect survey.

I also don’t like the idea of students generalizing universal observations from non-representative online surveys for their term papers and master’s theses. People learn skills by doing. If they get practice taking representative samples, they’ll know how to do that. If they get practice making qualitative, existential observations, they’ll be able to do those. If they spend their time in school making unfounded generalizations from unrepresentative samples (with a bit of handwaving boilerplate, of course!), most of them will keep doing that after they graduate.

So that’s my piece. I’m actually going to keep relatively quiet about this because some of the people who do those studies (or their friends) might be on hiring committees, but I do want to at least register my objections here. And if you’re wondering why I haven’t filled out your survey, or even forwarded it to all my friends, this is your answer.

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