Folklore is philosophy (Abigail Tulenkois, 2/26/24, Aeon)


The Hungarian folktale Pretty Maid Ibronka terrified and tantalised me as a child. In the story, the young Ibronka must tie herself to the devil with string in order to discover important truths. These days, as a PhD student in philosophy, I sometimes worry I’ve done the same. I still believe in philosophy’s capacity to seek truth, but I’m conscious that I’ve tethered myself to an academic heritage plagued by formidable demons.

The demons of academic philosophy come in familiar guises: exclusivity, hegemony and investment in the myth of individual genius. As the ethicist Jill Hernandez notes, philosophy has been slower to change than many of its sister disciplines in the humanities: ‘It may be a surprise to many … given that theology and, certainly, religious studies tend to be inclusive, but philosophy is mostly resistant toward including diverse voices.’ Simultaneously, philosophy has grown increasingly specialised due to the pressures of professionalisation. Academics zero in on narrower and narrower topics in order to establish unique niches and, in the process, what was once a discipline that sought answers to humanity’s most fundamental questions becomes a jargon-riddled puzzle for a narrow group of insiders.

This was inevitable once Physics became obscurantist. It was intolerable for specialists that people could understand their fields but they couldn’t understand others. So they just added phoney-baloney theories too.

WHAT IF WE JUDGED ACADEMICS JUST ON THEIR TEACHING?:


Statistical Significance—and Why It Matters for Parenting (Emily Oster, Jan 29 2024, Parent Data)

Publication bias and p-hacking are two shorthand, jargony ways to describe journal and researcher behaviors that make it more likely that the results we observe in published papers are occurring just by chance.

First: Academic journals are more likely to publish papers that find significant results. It’s not hard to see why this might be true. It’s not very interesting to publish a result saying that M&M color doesn’t impact multiplication speed — that’s kind of what we expected. But a result that says it does matter — that’s more surprising, and more likely to spark the interest of a journal editor.

This is what we call publication bias, and it turns out that this pattern means that the results we see in print are actually a lot more likely to be statistical accidents. Often, many researchers are looking into the same question. It’s not just my research team who is interested in the M&M-multiplication relationship — imagine there are 99 other teams doing the same thing. Even if there is no relationship, on average 5 of those teams will find something significant.

These 5 “successful” teams are more likely to get their results published. That’s what we all see in journals, but what we do not see is the 95 times it didn’t work. When we read these studies, we’re assuming, implicitly, that we are seeing all the studies that were run. But we’re not, and we’re more likely to see the significant-by-chance results.

The issue of publication bias would be problematic just on its own. But it’s even more problematic when it interacts with researchers’ incentives. Researchers need to publish, and (see above) it is easier to do so when results are significant. This can lead to what people sometimes call p-hacking (the “p” stands for probability).

When researchers run a study, there are often a lot of ways to analyze the data. You can analyze the impact on different subgroups of the population. You can analyze the impact of different circumstances. You can test many different treatments. The idea of the xkcd cartoon is that you could test the impact of all the different M&M colors on some outcome.

The more of these tests you do, the more likely you are to get a significant effect by chance. If you do 100 tests, you expect 5 of them to be significant at the 5% level. And then, because of publication bias, you write up the results focusing only on the significant groups or significant M&M colors. Of course, those are just accidental. But as a consumer of research, we do not see all the other things that happened in the background.

For these two reasons: some of what we see published, even if it is from a randomized experiment, is likely to be a result of statistical chance. There is a somewhat notorious paper that suggests that “most” research findings are false; I think this is overkill, but it’s a perspective.

IT’S NH, JAKE:

A Top College Reinstates the SAT (David Leonhardt, Feb. 5, 2024, NY Times)

Three Dartmouth economists and a sociologist then dug into the numbers. One of their main findings did not surprise them: Test scores were a better predictor than high school grades — or student essays and teacher recommendations — of how well students would fare at Dartmouth. […]

As the four professors — Elizabeth Cascio, Bruce Sacerdote, Doug Staiger and Michele Tine — wrote in a memo, referring to the SAT’s 1,600-point scale, “There are hundreds of less-advantaged applicants with scores in the 1,400 range who should be submitting scores to identify themselves to admissions, but do not under test-optional policies.” Some of these applicants were rejected because the admissions office could not be confident about their academic qualifications. The students would have probably been accepted had they submitted their test scores, Lee Coffin, Dartmouth’s dean of admissions, told me.

That finding, as much as any other, led to Dartmouth’s announcement this morning. “Our goal at Dartmouth is academic excellence in the service of training the broadest swath of future leaders,” Beilock told me. “I’m convinced by the data that this will help us do that.”

It’s worth acknowledging a crucial part of this story. Dartmouth admits disadvantaged students who have scores that are lower on average than those of privileged students. The college doesn’t apologize for that. Students from poor neighborhoods or troubled high schools have effectively been running with wind in their face. They are not competing fairly with affluent teenagers.

The conservative Ivy.

…AND THEN THE FACTS PUNCH YOU IN THE MOUTH:

Standardized Tests Don’t Deserve Our Hate (Aidan Muller, January 16, 2024, The Dartmouth)

Until recently, I advocated strongly for the permanent adoption of test-optional admissions and even went so far as to support test-blind admissions. However, empirical evidence does not always echo our feelings — especially about something like test-taking — and what we want is not always what’s good for us. The reality is that standardized tests are actually useful tools for admissions.

A recently published New York Times article by David Leonhardt — which draws on research from Dartmouth’s own Richard S. Braddock 1963 economics professor Bruce Sacerdote ’90 and associate sociology professor Michele Tine — highlights evidence that standardized test scores are better indicators of predicting college grades, chances of graduation and post-college success than high school grades and may also increase diversity on college campuses.

WONDERFUL WORLD:

The Recovery of Wonder in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (Steve Soldi, 11/24/23, Voegelin View)


For Socrates and Aristotle, being a philosopher does not mean reading philosophy books or pursuing a career as a professional philosopher. Rather, a philosopher is someone who wonders and pursues truth “in order to know, and not for a utilitarian end.” On this view, schools should aim to produce philosophers. For example, John Senior, the renowned educator, cultivated in his students the idea that being culminated in wonder. His entire educational philosophy can be understood in terms of wonder. The motto of his self-designed Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas in the 1970s speaks to this proposition: Nascantur in admiratione – “Let them be born in wonder.” Senior wanted his students to renew their gaze upon an enchanted reality and delight with young-eyed zeal in its mystery and intelligibility. For Senior, wonder is natural to everyone and calls us to pursue truth and wisdom. As we know, the word philosophy means “love of wisdom.”


Wisdom and knowledge are mutually supportive. If wisdom is the means by which we discern and acquire our highest good, knowledge of the true and the good in turn frees us to live well and lead a happy life. How, then, do we obtain knowledge that frees us? The answer is a liberal education. The liberal arts free us from thinking about knowledge in terms of mere utility or practice. In this way, they are superior. The humanities include the highest disciplines—philosophy, theology, history, literature, music, and art—because they are subordinated to nothing outside of themselves. They are endowed with intrinsic value and exist for their own sake. They are to be differentiated from the servile arts, which exist for the sake of something else, namely, to produce practical things.

We are now in a position to appreciate why Ray Bradbury advocates for liberal education in his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451.