18 August 2012

"The trap of data, numbers, statistics, and charts"


Maria Konnikova, from "Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one" at Scientific American's Literally Psyched blog:
Every softer discipline these days seems to feel inadequate unless it becomes harder, more quantifiable, more scientific, more precise. That, it seems, would confer some sort of missing legitimacy in our computerized, digitized, number-happy world. But does it really? Or is it actually undermining the very heart of each discipline that falls into the trap of data, numbers, statistics, and charts? Because here’s the truth: most of these disciplines aren’t quantifiable, scientific, or precise. They are messy and complicated. And when you try to straighten out the tangle, you may find that you lose far more than you gain. 
It’s one of the things that irked me about political science and that irks me about psychology—the reliance, insistence, even, on increasingly fancy statistics and data sets to prove any given point, whether it lends itself to that kind of proof or not. I’m not alone in thinking that such a blanket approach ruins the basic nature of the inquiry. Just consider this review of Jerome Kagan’s new book, Psychology’s Ghosts,by the social psychologist Carol Tavris. “Many researchers fail to consider that their measurements of brains, behavior and self-reported experience are profoundly influenced by their subjects’ culture, class and experience, as well as by the situation in which the research is conducted,” Tavris writes. “This is not a new concern, but it takes on a special urgency in this era of high-tech inspired biological reductionism.” The tools of hard science have a part to play, but they are far from the whole story. Forget the qualitative, unquantifiable and irreducible elements, and you are left with so much junk.
And a postscript, via Einstein, here.

4 comments:

  1. Usually when someone talks about something being messy or complicated, they're trying to justify doing something wrong.

    All this seems to based on a strange idea of what science is. Organizing your library is a child's step in science, but it has nothing to do with quantifiability or precision.

    All this also seems to be based on a strange idea of what the humanities are, too. Political science is one of the humanities?

    I think what it all boils down to is whether you really believe that you can learn about the Iagos in everyday life by seeing Othello.

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    1. "All this" doesn't boil down to anything. Konnikova's point is not about reducing things to either/or. Her statement that "The tools of hard science have a part to play, but they are far from the whole story. Forget the qualitative, unquantifiable and irreducible elements, and you are left with so much junk" is pretty unambiguous about not creating a hierarchy in which hard, quantifiable results are the most valued. "Usually when someone talks about something being messy or complicated, they're trying to justify doing something wrong," is a pretty aphorism, but the denial of complexity is a perilous position to take.

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  2. It is unclear why Konnikova tries to lump together literature and political science, ethics and history. It is not clear whether she considers literature a qualitative discipline on a par with linguistics. It is not clear whether she thinks some fields are simply quantitative or are not sciences at all. It is not clear whether the problem is simplistic efforts to quantify or the making an effort to quantify. It is not clear whether she is objecting to reductionism or predictivism or both, or possibly even neither. It is unclear whether she objects to mathematics, or numbers, or facts, or graphs, or graphics, or tables, or flow charts or maps or concept maps or outlines. It is unclear whether she objects to bad science or just to science.

    But one thing you need to realize is that this incoherent mess is not a plea for genuine complexity. Reducing history to tales or psychology to impressions and intuitions is, instead, the opposite, a search for elegant simplicity. Hence the "pretty" (I'd be flattered if I thought you meant it!)aphorism.

    On reflection, it does seem likely that you really do think Iago teaches you more about people than psychology can, trammelled as it is with mere data, instead of understanding. At least try to reread the essay noting when Konnikova switches the terms she uses.

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    1. Really, I don't understand how you read or think, so I'm not going to continue the conversation.

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