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What it Really Means

As a program evaluator, I am often asked to tell people what things “really mean.” This is invariably a cause for concern. I can, given reliable measures and conditions conducive to careful data collection, say with confidence that the scores on a battery of tasks were higher among a given sample of students after a program’s implementation than before. But does this “really mean” that the students were better at whatever activity those tests were meant to assess? I know what people want me to say; I am just reluctant to say it.

So imagine my relief upon reading an editorial that prompted me to recall the distinction between scientific realism and scientific instrumentalism. Scientific realists maintain that we have access to what has been called the noumenological world: the universe as it truly exists. Instrumentalists (of the scientific, rather than musical, variety) argue that our understanding is constricted to the phenomenological: the world as represented by our sensory perceptions. According to instrumentalism, the best that rational inquiry can do is to provide a framework for understanding our inherently limited observations of the world around us. Based on countless observations, we can predict that when we drop something it will fall. But does that “really mean” the object falls because of a force called gravity?

I am personally inclined to side with the realists in their appraisal of many areas of inquiry, but evaluation is not one of them. Nor, depending on whom you ask, is biology, chemistry, or physics. So, if evaluation is restricted to scientific instrumentalism, at least it has good company.

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One Response to What it Really Means

  1. I’m quite anxious to view the results of this study. I’m also curious as to why this study relied on such a seemingly narrow cast of participants and chose to ignore those of us – like myself – who have been in the figurative trenches presenting this music and developing & practicing new modes of jazz audience development for many years. And quite frankly I also detect little participation and involvement in this study on the part of African Americans. All too often those who forge such studies seem to conveniently “forget” or “overlook” where this music came from. Unless and until I am convinced otherwise, your research study appears to have a similar disparity I’m afraid.

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