Monday, September 30, 2013

On the Merits of Underwater Basket Weaving

I remember thinking awhile back that I wanted to post once a week. Well, here’s me trying for once a month. I really do intend to post more frequently, and if a certain political event comes to pass I just might have quite a bit of free time. We’ll see.

Anywho, today we’re going to talk about underwater basket weaving and its part in the End Times. There’s been a great deal of hubbub recently about education, about how it’s too expensive, or how our students are getting dumber by the minute, or how our universities are liberal brainwashing factories. You’ve heard it all. These are complex subjects without easy answers (which is kind of the point of this post), and I won’t presume to know what to do about them.

But there’s another talking point I’ve heard recently that I’d like to delve into a bit more deeply. You see, some people are taking the wrong classes. Not only that, but some people are majoring in the wrong subjects! Yes, that’s right, some people go to school for English, art history, philosophy, gender studies, or worse. What makes these the wrong subjects? Well, I’m a STEM major, and those are not STEM subjects, so clearly they are incorrect.

Wait, no, I’m sure there has to be more to it than that. Oh yes, it’s about money. Those other majors, you know, are a bit lacking in the career prospects department. You can’t major in underwater basket weaving and expect to have a six-figure underwater basket weaving job waiting for you on the other side of your diploma. Which is all well and good and none of my concern except that you’ve probably got five-figure student loans from the government that you’re not paying off, so you’re nothing but a parasitic leach on the meaty thighs of America.

And that brings us to the McNamara fallacy. This fallacy is best summed up in a quote about it from some guy named Daniel Yankelovich: 
The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can't be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.
Now, you can look on Wikipedia, see that this is poorly sourced, wonder whether it’s really a fallacy, and point out that this fallacy is used by purveyors of pseudoscience to avoid having to prove their claims, but I want you to stick with me anyway. The gist of the argument is that it’s unwise to believe that easily measured variables are more important than not so easily measured variables. Historically, this is definitively true.

Historically, it was far easier to measure the sun’s apparent motion around the Earth than to measure the changing phases of Venus. The result: people believed the Earth was the center of the universe.

Historically, it was far easier to measure an object’s apparently natural deceleration than to measure the effects of friction. The result: people erroneously believed Aristotelian physics until Galileo and Newton came along.

There are plenty of other examples throughout history where insufficient means of observation led to incorrect conclusions. We cannot fault our ancestors for not having the tools we have, but we can fault ourselves for not heeding this lesson.

What am I getting at here? Well, it’s relatively easy to measure the economic potential of a particular educational choice. We can say with a fair degree of certainty that a mechanical engineer or computer scientist is very often going to make a good deal more money than a historian or poet. And by making more money, said individual will be a positive return on the investment that is the college loan.

Is that important? Probably. Wealthier nations tend to have greater scientific progress, less poverty, more freedom, etc. There are definitely some strong correlations between wealth and general awesomeness. But if all we measure is economic output, then we’re falling prey to the McNamara fallacy. What other measurements could we be performing?

I’m clearly not the only person to question the singular importance of STEM. Proponents of the humanities and liberal arts have written a great deal about the value of a less mathy education. A liberal arts education teaches you to be a better citizen, to be moral, to ask big questions, etc. And that all sounds good, but to a STEM major like me, it also sounds thoroughly unquantifiable.

There are two issues here. The first is that there may be hard to measure variables more strongly correlated with being awesome than economic output is. The second is that our definition of awesome may be based on our measure of economic productivity, leading us to miss other ways of being.

If the former is true, then we need to figure out ways to measure the value of an education in the humanities. Rather than simply studying philosophy or literature or art, we need to study the effects these subjects have on the brain, both neurologically and psychologically. One of the mantras of the humanities is that truth is discovered within the human mind. Well, I don’t presume to know what truth is, but I do know that science has made more discoveries than any other human endeavor ever has, so perhaps it can find the mind’s hidden truths.

If the latter case is true, and what we think of as the good life and success are not the end all be all (this and the former issue are not mutually exclusive, by the way), then it’s a bit harder to say what comes next. I have my own ideas, personally. I have an entire philosophical framework that underlies what I believe is important and meaningful, but there’s no particular reason why anyone should subscribe to my crazy ideas.

I can say this, however. We’ve been doing roughly the same thing for several thousand years now. Your average schmuck struggles to get by, to raise a family and live a fulfilling life, while toiling away at whatever job is required. But maybe that’s not the only way things can be. How else might we live a life? Well, let’s figure that out. Let's experiment and gather data. Instead of just studying philosophy, instead of reading about it in books and discussing what others have said, let’s do philosophy. Let’s make understanding life, morality, and knowledge central parts of being a citizen, and then we can see what sort of lives we end up living.