Friday, May 25, 2012

Comparing College Students with the Brain Damaged

There was a The Onion headline once that went something like this:

Study Finds
College Students
Linked to Humans

That hed above, that's satire.  Maybe.  But here's a new study that compares college students to people with brain damage, at least in what they know about politics.  The link doesn't tell you a lot other than the title, so lemme start there:

Assessing Voting Competence and Political Knowledge: Comparing Individuals with Traumatic Brain Injuries and “Average” College Students 

How's that for fun?  You're probably asking, what the hell, why study this?  Isn't it obvious that there's no difference?

As a professor and father of a college student, I'm right there with ya.  But let's get to the study itself.  As you can tell from the link above, all we have access to is the title, so I used a different database to scare up an abstract, but not full paper, to get a sense of what's going on here.  

It's not as dumb a study as the title suggests.

First, the authors note that many states bar people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) from voting.  This I did now know.  So the authors found 14 people with TBI and compared them with with 22 "average" college students on, according to them, "measures of voting capacity and election-specific political knowledge." 

Okay, you see the problem right off.  We're comparing 14 people with 22 people.  How do you decide, from an N of 22, who is "average?"  I've got no idea either.  And the tests they used to measure competency and knowledge are new to me.  Let's turn to the abstract itself for some guidance:

We compared their responses to healthy controls (HC) (students at a large public university in North Carolina; n = 22) on voting competency and political knowledge using the Competency Assessment Tool for Voting (designed by Appelbaum, Bonnie, and Karlawish), as well as measures of 2008 election information and questions drawn from the United States Citizen and Immigration Services citizenship exam. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to compare election-specific knowledge of persons with TBI and HCs. We find that those with TB! scored similarly to the healthy controls on competence to vote and election-specific knowledge. We conclude suffrage laws should not be based on overly broad, general assumptions regarding the cognitive capacity of citizens, but on whether or not they express a desire to vote.

So as I said above, there's a good finding here depending on how much quality you place on the voting knowledge and competence of "average" college students in the first place.  The data strongly suggest that states that ban people with severe brain trauma from voting need to rethink these laws.

For me -- and I can't resist -- the idea that "average" college students and people with brain damage score about the same on political knowledge tests, that says a lot about college students themselves.

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