Operational Definitions and Data Collection

Americans’ Dirty Secret Revealed by Bjorn Carey
See also: Google News on washing hands [broken link was remove] – Soap and Detergent Association press release [another broken link was remove]

A study released recently spawned a flurry of articles on washing hands. I have seen such reporting before and again I find it interesting (as sad as that might be). The stories repeatedly say things like: “Men’s hands dirtier than women’s.” The study actual was focused on the percentage of people who washed their hands. While there is likely a correlation, making such leaps in reporting data is not wise. This example is often mirrored in the data use of organizations; where interpretations of the data are given as the facts instead of the data itself.

However that is not what I find most interesting. Instead I find the lack of operational definition interesting. In many of the articles they have quotes like:

In a recent telephone survey, 91 percent of the subjects claimed they always washed their hands after using public restrooms. But, when researchers observed people leaving public restrooms, only 83 percent actually did so.

Only 75 percent of men washed their hands compared to 90 percent of women, the observations revealed.

Claims are often made about results that only are justified based on unstated assumptions about the real world results that the data are meant to represent. But those claims are undermined when there is no evidence provided that the assumptions are valid. Without operational definitions for the data there is a significant risk of making claims about what the data means that are not valid.

A few of the links contain something similar to: “Yesterday’s results come from the American Society of Microbiology’s latest look at how many people take what is considered the single easiest step to staying healthy: spending 20 seconds rubbing with soap under the faucet.” from the Winston Salem Journal.

This leads me to suspect that “washing your hands” might not be operationally defined as running your hands under the water but instead using soap and water for something close to 20 seconds but even in sources explaining the methodology [and another broken link was remove] they don’t describe what is considered “washing your hands.”

I have emailed to see if I can get a clearer idea of what the operational definition was. I’ll update this if I get additional details. [they never replied]

When collecting and reporting data it is important to include the operational definitions associated with that data.

Links: Center for Disease Control Clean Hands Save Lives “Handwashing is one of the most important things you can do to keep from getting sick and from spreading germs to others.”

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