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Fun With Medical Science!

September 27, 2014

Two recent blog posts on medical breakthroughs waved some caution flags for me, particularly in light of the “science” used to measure teacher performance.

Science World Report posted a brief article describing how “Brain Scans Help Detect Early Childhood Reading Problems“. The researchers conducted brain scans of Kindergarten students as they began to read and “…discovered that the developmental course of the children’s white matter volume predicted their ability to read.” The researchers motives are seemingly pure. They “…hope… that understanding each child’s neurocognitive profiles will help educators provide targeted and personalized education and intervention, particularly in those with special needs.” 

The Mathbabe, Cathy O’Neill, wrote about the use of biomarkers to predict human behavior in a post ominously titled “When Your Genetic Information is Held Against You”. In the post she describes three different studies on the use of these biomarkers and writes:

Studies like this are common and I don’t see a reason they won’t become even more common. The question is how we’re going to use them. Here’s a nasty way I could imagine they get used: when you apply for a job, you fill in a questionnaire that puts you into a category, and then people can see what biomarkers are typical for that category, and what the related health risks look like, and then they can decide whether to hire you. Not getting hired doesn’t say anything about your behaviors, just what happens with “people like you”.

As I noted in a comment I left for the Mathbabe, it ISN’T hard to conceive a LOT of ways this data could be misused in education, particularly in light of the way data is used now. We use test data to measure teacher performance, test data to decide college and graduate school admissions, and “reformers” are recommending we make more and more “data driven” decisions about student placement and school and teacher performance.

The Mathbabe concludes her post with this paragraph:

In the best case scenario, we would use such knowledge strictly to help people stay healthy. In the worst case, we have a system whereby people are judged by their biomarkers and not their behavior. If there were ever a case for regulation, I think this is it.

I try not to be a Luddite when it comes to science and technology… and I try to be optimistic about the ability of our legislators to make ethical decisions… but I’m afraid that the potential profitability of the brain scans, the skepticism the public has for regulations, and the power that money has in our legislatures will conspire to bring about the worst outcomes in this area. I hope my fears are unjustified.

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