The Epistemology and Politics of Data Mining

Philosophers love to find data that shows a correlation between majoring in philosophy and doing well on standardized tests, such as the GRE. Here’s the latest example of such data, showing that philosophy majors did better than other majors on the 2013 GRE.

I use such information as well, in class and in public talks, but I’m always careful to note that the direction of explanation needs to be assessed carefully. One pretty good guess as to direction of explanation is selection effect: those with a generalized ability to do better at such tests are also those with an ability to do well in philosophy, a discipline that (at its best) requires good reasoning skills as well as good communication skills, written and oral. We’d like the general public to treat the data as a reason to major in philosophy, but such a use is more befitting of politicians than philosophers.


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The Epistemology and Politics of Data Mining — 4 Comments

  1. http://emilyryall.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/The-Game-of-Philosophy.pdf
    This is the official website for Dr Emily Ryall, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire.

    Emily S T Ryall|The Game of Philosophy
    … “Rather, it [Philosophy] is a hedonistic activity purely because it is a game to be played.
    This view stems from Wittgenstein’s conception that philosophy is ultimately a pointless and dangerous pursuit of which one needs to be cured; one shouldn’t undertake philosophical activity as a means to solve unanswerable problems, because as is explicitly stated , they are by nature unanswerable. In the end, as Wittgenstein writes, you are resigned to leaving everything as it is.

    Furthermore, if I accept Wittgenstein’s pessimistic conclusion, then why am I still doing it (philosophy)?
    The simple answer is that, fundamentally, it is enjoyable.”

    SH: I think a more accurate attribution to Wittgenstein than “pessimistic” is to reach a state of “disillusionment”, which is the fruit which Socrates adjures us to strive for, “and if I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living — that you are still less likely to believe.”

    I think the more one adheres to Socrates advice, then the more one is likely to arrive at the perspective that there aren’t ultimate answers, that there isn’t an absolute moral authority, so that you best you can do is to resign yourself to trying to make self-defined moral choices to the complex, perhaps infinite variety of ethical experiences that life provides.

    Elite philosophers share a wide and deep command of analogy. Quite a few philosophy majors go on to become lawyers where the tactical skills and strategic analysis of game playing match planning a defense with planning a paper. Very good philosophers make very good bridge players. Should the professional philosopher look down her nose at the professional bridge player who in turn looks down his nose at the professional bowler?
    Rating the value of different occupations seems to me to be a moral striving without any self-structuring set of rules available. Can unfunny comedians masquerade as philosophers?

  2. Hi Jon,

    You write: “We’d like the general public to treat the data as a reason to major in philosophy, but such a use is more befitting of politicians than philosophers.”

    Well, if you’ve been following state politics in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas, etc., you will know that the argument is intended precisely for the benefit of politicians and their constituents. When students stop majoring in philosophy, our departments lose lines, lose TA’ships, lose real estate, lose research budgets, etc. If we (at least in some states) want our departments to be heavily resourced, we need to find some way of encouraging students to major in philosophy. And what speaks to a worried and debt-laden student more clearly than high standardized test scores?

  3. Ram, you are exactly right about this, and it is just the sort of ammunition we have to use in contexts where we are talking to those who look for measurables before deciding to fund. I also think it is a very good thing for students to major in philosophy, and use the data in that context as well, though I’m always careful to point out that correlation doesn’t show causation. To use the data without explaining that sort of thing is morally problematic, as I see things.

  4. Hi Jon,

    “One pretty good guess as to direction of explanation is selection effect: those with a generalized ability to do better at such tests are also those with an ability to do well in philosophy.”

    I’m not seeing how this would well explain the data. Could you elaborate?

    By contrast, it’s pretty clear how the alternative direction-of-explanation directly explains the data: extended philosophical training promotes the acquisition of skills relevant to excelling at this sort of standardized test.

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