Podcast Review: The Measure of Everyday Life – Stories from Social Science

Written by Uma Hornish: 

The importance of approaching human data with a social sciences perspective is becoming more salient as data revolution continues to amass more raw information faster than we can organize it. In recent years, there have been many podcasts dedicated to talking about the importance of quantitative analysis in understanding and advancing humanity. Author Uma Hornish provides a review of the podcast: The Measure of Everyday Life. Stay tuned for future reviews and more podcast recommendations! 

The podcast, The Measure of Everyday Life: Stories from Social Science, is founded on the concept of  “using research to improve the human condition”. The podcast which was launched in 2015 is hosted by Dr. Brian Southwell, Senior Director of the Science in the Public Sphere Program at RTI International.  RTI is an independent, nonprofit institute that provides research, development, and technical services to government and commercial clients worldwide. Southwell has expert researchers and social scientists come on to discuss the impact and implications of their human-centered work. The topics of each episode are diverse, but the underlying theme of better understanding human actions and thought using data or experimentation prevails in each interview. The tone of the discussion is friendly and seeks to make the topics and the research understandable to a general audience. I was initially struck by how much what is discussed in various episodes of the podcast relates to things I have learned through the QMSS curriculum. The podcast helps shed light on how social science can actively be used to fix complex problems or understand daily queries.

In my last blog post, I looked into countries’ happiness rankings and how happiness is measured. Coincidentally, in an episode of The Measure of Everyday Life, Southwell interviews psychologist Moshen Joshanloo who researches the measurement of well-being. This interview provided me with many new perspectives that I hadn’t considered when writing my previous article. Using a longitudinal study, Joshanloo found that, contrary to popular opinion, there is no relationship between a person’s level of hedonism (pleasure seeking) and their future satisfaction (happiness). Joshanloo also compellingly argues that happiness rankings of countries frequently have skewed results because they typically look only at measures of Western ideas of happiness, such as hedonism and other active emotions. As I found in my previous research, Western countries do tend to rank higher in happiness, but the methods for these rankings are decided mostly by Western researchers. Joshanloo argues that understanding that Eastern countries put more emphasis on passive emotions and accepting all feelings (good or bad) eliminates cultural bias and, with new measurements, allows these countries to show better in happiness rankings. While clearly much subjectivity goes into these measurements, the discussion with Dr. Joshanloo in this podcast allowed me to reevaluate my understanding of world happiness. 

Another episode of this podcast, which once again connected to things I’ve been learning about recently, discussed population growth and well-being. In this episode, Southwell talks to author John Seager who asserts that the onset of declining population growth in the United States and other countries could be a good thing. On a side note, one interesting thing that Seager mentions is that while the U.S. Census attempts to report the population as accurately as possible, some data is deliberately incorrect, blurring at local level to prevent the extraction of personal data. Seager argues that population growth directly causes climate change and social inequities, so a decline or lessening of growth, can’t be bad. However, what the podcast didn’t discuss was what problems would arise with this. As I learned in my world population dynamics class, countries like Japan, which have seen population decline, have an aging population and have begun to face many issues with having a large enough working population. One way that countries can “shrink smart”, according to Seager, is to invest in education. Seager also ends the podcast with the powerful claim that if women’s reproductive rights around the world are improved, population problems will evaporate. There are huge amounts of population data which exist, that, without a social science perspective, tell us an incomplete or inaccurate story. This episode of the podcast aids in a proper understanding of the complexity of population change and what this means for the future. 

One last episode which I listened to was titled, “Making Experiments Work for Public Policy”. In the QMSS 251 class, we recently had to design a hypothetical experiment which the Biden Administration could use the results from to better influence people to get vaccinated. The intention of this project was to teach us how to design an experiment and show us the many difficulties you face which make social experimentation challenging. In this episode, Southwell speaks with David Yokum, the director of the Policy Lab at Brown University, about how experiments can inform public policy. Yokum was responsible for the randomized control trials used to test the first police body cameras in Baltimore. His results showed that, contrary to many expectations before experimentation, the use of force by police officers and number of complaints they received did not change when they were knowingly equipped with body cameras. This type of experimentation, if it acknowledges confounders, bias, and other potential issues with the design, can be useful in enacting beneficial policies. In another study, Yokum and his team found that simply sending people a letter reminding them to get a flu shot greatly increased the turnout of people who got it. Simple actions such as these which allow us to better understand human action, can have a great positive impact on society. 

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Measure of Everyday Life podcast and the number of connections I discovered between it and what I’ve been learning. This podcast helped me further understand the necessity of a QMSS education and all the applicable research and careers which can come out of it. While I only mentioned a few of Southwell’s episodes, many others were equally interesting and covered topics such as water safety, autism, and the idea of imposters. This podcast exceeded my expectations and I would highly recommend it to anyone who, as Southwell likes to add at the end of every episode, wants to “stay curious.” 

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