Sunday, May 25, 2008

21st Century sophistry: The use of the opinions of social scientists as empirical fact.

There has been a tendency in philosophy to take some piece of research from social psychology to prove beyond doubt some point in favour of the philosopher’s favourite theory. Through a kind of slight of hand, the general maxim that one must not doubt hard empirical fact just because it conflicts with cherished beliefs, seems to forbid a questioning of the often highly subjective and biased interpretations of the evidence by the scientists who conducted the study. Whereas often, even a cursory examination of the original case study shows the results to be open to a number of equally valid interpretations. There is no general argument against this unhealthy philosophical strategy. It is incumbent on us all to remain vigilant against this pervasive bit of twenty first century sophistry.

In “Knowledge and its Place in Nature”, Kornblith develops an argument against the epistemic good of reflection by referring to some social psychology data about the “position effect”. The position effect is the tendency to select things to the right when asked to choose the most preferable out of a selection of similar consumer goods. Kornblith quoted an account of a study by Nisbett and Wilson.

“Passers-by in a shopping mall were invited to examine an array of consumer goods (four nightgowns in one study, four identical nylon panty-hose in another) and to rate their quality. There was a pronounced position effect on their evaluations, such that the right-most garments were heavily preferred to the left-most garments. When questioned about the effect of the garments’ position on their choices, virtually all subjects denied such an influence (usually with a tone of annoyance or of concern for the experimenter’s sanity)”

First let me point out that really we should ignore the parenthesis at the end. It must be annoying enough to be asked to rate the relative quality of identical panty hose. To then be asked whether you chose on a different basis from the one you were asked to choose upon just is annoying, and a peeved tone should be expected. The perceived tone of annoyance and concern for the experimenters sanity cannot be counted as data. It is Nisbett and Wilson’s interpretation of the subjects unspoken conversational intentions, which is already influenced by their hypothesis.

Kornblith explains the position effect by claiming that the subjects reconstruct the reasons for their choice after the event on the assumption that they made their choices on a rational basis. Kornblith asks the rhetorical question:

“How else could we possibly explain that those who are influenced by the position effect in judging the quality of consumer goods explain the source of their judgements as lying in objective features of the goods whose quality they judge?”

What would be the effect in the dialectic of giving a good answer to this question? Would it show that Kornblith’s theory of knowledge was false? Far from it. All it would show is that his use of empirical data is irrelevant to his argument. It merely has a rhetorical effect of luring the reader into thinking his arguments are supported somehow by hard psychological fact (if there is such a thing).
Here is how I answer Kornblith’s rhetorical question: the source of their judgements do actually lie in objective features of the goods whose quality they judge. The reason that the subjects deny the influence of the position in their decision is because the position didn’t influence their decision. This explanation has the wonderful bonus of fitting in with the first person reports of the people under investigation. Whereas Nisbett and Wilson’s bizarre hypothesis requires that they ignore this strong disconfirmatory evidence, claiming instead that the subjects are lying, or otherwise falsely reporting their own reasons and preferences.
But hang on, didn’t they prove empirically that the position influenced the subject’s preferences? No, all their results showed was that people tended to choose the far right item more often that the far left item. This is a lesser and distinct proposition from that the position of the item was a reason for their preference. This latter exciting hypothesis requires further argument. But the skewed preferences still need explaining. So here goes: people in general read from left to right and will survey a range of choices left to right. Nisbett and Wilson’s passers by had to make a single best choice out of 4 items. Let’s call them 1, 2, 3 and 4. A good cognitively efficient and time efficient strategy is to compare each one to its immediate predecessor. If you are by and large indifferent then there is no need to track back when you get to the end of your sequence. So you just choose the last one. This is making a selection as required over an issue that is of no importance when there really is no clear winner. It is not making a decision on the basis of position, but it does have the consequence that people will tend to choose 4 much more often than 1.
Perhaps this does not seem very convincing, so here is another problem. Which man do you settle down with and have a family? If you choose too early then you may settle for someone who is not as ideal as a later choice. If you wait too long, you may let the real love of your life go. It shouldn’t surprise a naturalist if human beings were very adept at solving this particular problem, since it is *the* problem of sex selection. With a little idealisation the problem can be solved mathematically. What you do is to estimate the number of eligible men you are likely to meet and think of them as a sequence. So let us suppose you are likely to meet 30 men in a life time if you keep breaking up after a year. What strategy will help you find the best man to marry? Well, we just need two values: best yet and over all ranking. Man 1, your first love, is clearly bound to be best yet, however much of an oaf he is. Man 2 has a 50% chance of being best yet, Man 3 has 33.3% of being best yet, etc. Now we can calculate the probability of any best yet being the best over all. The best yet Man 1 is 1 in 30, if Man 2 is best yet then he has 1/15 chance of being the best over all, etc. Given this model, it can be worked out that you should settle for any best yet after Man 11. This model assumes that you can’t go back to a previous relationship. In real life its obviously much more messy and complicated, but for a given socio economic climate we mind find that women tend to settle down with the next best yet man they meet when they reach a particular age, say, 28. If this were the case, would it be evidence that people’s selection of their beloved is based on or influenced by the age at which they met? Well, kind of, but you can expect some pretty hostile and annoyed looks if you were to tell somebody that the reason they married their husband was not because of his great beauty, wit, kindness or anything like that, but just because she was 28 when they met. This inference is absurd, and there would be some doubt as to the rationality of someone who thought that they had somehow established this as fact.
In selecting nylon pantyhose for the amusement of an on looking psychologist, the stakes are obviously not that high. In a tie situation the current choice may as well count as the best yet since it has the advantage of being fresher in your mind and nearer to hand. But because of the fact that in the panty hose experiment, you can go back, there is no disincentive to going to the end of the sequence. The result being that we should expect people with no pressing interest in the matter to tend to select the item on the furthest to the right if the qualities that inform the judgement of whether an item is the best yet are fairly uniform. (When I made the final decision, the last one I looked at came to mind most strongly) This is perfectly consistent with a denial that the position of the pantyhose influenced the decision. (I just love things that are furthest to the right).
How would I introspectively report how I had come to my decision if I used this strategy on four identical pantyhose?

I looked at the first one and it seemed ok, I looked at the second one and it seemed no different, maybe slightly better if anything, I looked at the third and again, no real difference, but perhaps slightly better, then I looked at the fourth, and really, I had no basis to prefer any but the last one did seem slightly better that the previous one. So I chose number 4.

This is what I would predict would be most peoples reflective assessment of their decision process. The seeming progressive improvement would be just on account of preferring the present choice to a previous one in tie situations to allow for the slight disutility of going back for another look. How often have you heard people saying that the book they are reading is the best book they have ever read? Americans in my experience have a tendency to be emphatic, and anyone with half a brain will not change their preferences on what looks like the prompting of a sales person. So a bit of “No way, number four is by way the best pair of pantyhose I have ever seen in my life,” is to be expected. But this verbal emphasis may be reduced somewhat if you offered them number 1, 2 or 3 for free, or 4 at the recommended retail price. The preferences that were so strong in the subjunctive tense would soon evaporate. That’s my prediction, test it if you like. I have no intention on wasting people’s time getting them to give a preference ordering over identical pantyhose. Whatever the results, they cannot possibly allow me to accept the conclusion that a good meditative reflection on difficult philosophical issues is not the best epistemic practice we have.
Jonny Blamey

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