Friday, August 23, 2013

Specious Quantification

Will Wilkinson:

Finally, most work in the psychological and social sciences suffers from a lack of conceptual rigor. It’s a bit sloppy around the edges, and in the middle, too. For example, “happiness research” is a booming field, but the titans of the subdiscipline disagree sharply about what happiness actually is. No experiment or regression will settle it. It’s a philosophical question. Nevertheless, they work like the dickens to measure it, whatever it is—life satisfaction, “flourishing,” pleasure minus pain—and to correlate it to other, more easily quantified things with as much statistical rigor as deemed necessary to appear authoritative. It’s as if the precision of the statistical analysis is supposed somehow to compensate for, or help us forget, the imprecision of thought at the foundation of the enterprise. 

Be damned if I can remember where I read it, but it was just recently that I saw someone lamenting that "we talk about numbers for lack of any meaningful vocabulary to address these issues otherwise," or words to that effect. I can't help but feel something similar is going on when I read an article telling me that I should be concerned about the gender disparity among newspaper crossword editors.

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