I'm interested in a variety of topics..
... If you've been reading SRS for a while you know I'm fascinated by matters cognitive, aquatic, geologic, musical, and biological. We've also talked about historical issues and hysterical tales.
One thing we haven't talked about much is the effect of unanticipated consequences.
We invent something for a particular purpose--that is, we design or build something to achieve a particular end. We do X to achieve Y.
But as you know, The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley.
For example: Eugene Schieffelin's plan was to introduce a few starlings into the American landscape, and within a few years, all of North America suffers from an abundance of giant flocks of starlings filling the sky, leaving messes everywhere, and eating crops. Even the Audubon Society says it's okay to hate starlings.
So it was with great interest that I heard a story on NPR (here's the transcript and the audio) pointing out that passing a law banning thin-film plastic bags in supermarkets seems to have actually caused an INCREASE in the number of plastic bags sold.
That's pretty counter-intuitive--and clearly an unintended consequence of the law. The intent was to reduce the consumption of bags. That doesn't seem to have worked out.
BUT... the story producers did one thing that drives me crazy: After creating a great story (and I encourage you to listen to it, because the story really is excellent), they neglect to give any citations or follow-up!
Don't DO that!
However, it give us, the Regulars at SRS, a chance to practice our sleuthing skills. Our Challenge for this week is a natural outgrowth from reading this story. These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself every time you hear a news story that makes a surprising claim. In particular, news stories that make counterintuitive claims should be followed up... if only with a single query to validate what you've heard.
After hearing this story about plastic bags, I naturally asked:
1. The story is clearly talking about a paper that Rebecca Taylor wrote. Can you find that paper? (What's the title? Where was it published?)
2. Once you find that paper, can you tell us where the data was collected from? How representative is this data?
3. What do you call the counterintuitive effect when a partial regulation of consumer products results in the increased consumption of these products? Is there a technical term we can use in future searches on this topic?
4. How well has banning plastic bags worked in other places? Can you find another study of a place where plastic bags have been banned? How well did that work out?
I hope you see this little Challenge as a kind of model for your own research practices when reading the news. Many stories leave you with deep questions, even if the writers don't provide the follow-up information, I'm sure our SRS readers can find the missing information.
Let us know if you can, and how you went about finding it!