September 05, 2005

Stump the Philosopher

Fontana Labs notes this from Alex Tabarrok: At the 2005 meetings of the American Economic Association, 78% of economists gave the wrong answer to a simple question about opportunity costs. Labs wonders if there's an equivalent question for philosophers.

I gave an in-joke answer at the comments there, but in all seriousness I do think something like it is the rough equivalent. Taking out the in-joke:

Fred argues that abortion is murder, because it stops a beating heart. What sort of case would undermine Fred's argument?
(a) A case of a kind of murder other than abortion that stops a beating heart.
(b) A case of a kind of murder that doesn't stop a beating heart.
(c) A case of something other than abortion that stops a beating heart but isn't murder.
(d) A case of something other than abortion that doesn't stop a beating heart but isn't murder.

Maybe the question isn't the clearest, but I still think this gets at a key philosophical skill of evaluating arguments, and the answer won't be dead obvious to everyone.

(It's (c). But lots of people seem to convert the minor premise, or whatever it is, and say (b). At least, you see that kind of argument a lot.)

Several of Tabarrok's commentators complain that the economics test question is poorly worded, but I find the most convincing case against the survey to be this:

I was one of the subjects of this study at the 2005 AEA meetings. I was on the job market and had gone to the 4th floor of the hotel to check on where my interviews were going to be. As you might imagine, I was incredibly stressed out and distracted. I was then approached by somebody who wanted me to fill out this form. I can't remember what I answered (hopefully, the right answer!), but I do remember thinking (a) this seems like a trick question, so the obvious answer is probably not the right answer, and (b) this is the last thing I want to be doing right now.

Indeed. If someone had asked me the philosophy test question at the APA Eastern when I was on the market, I would have given them a zombie stare and said, "My dissertation is about testimony...."

Posted by Matt Weiner at September 5, 2005 01:33 PM

I got both questions right! Yee-HAW!

I think people (and maybe economists too) could be confused by the econ question because (a) they are trying to decide the "real world" problem of whether to see the Clapton concert or the Dylan concert, although that is not the question posed; (b) they cannot compute an answer to the "real world" problem because the value of a Clapton concert is not stated; (c) nevertheless the Dylan concert is described as the 'next best' alternative, suggesting the answer to that problem has already been decided.

Posted by: Richard Mason at September 6, 2005 10:28 AM

Philip Johnson-Laird has done some empirical research on people's evaluation of syllogisms. He wrote a book (as I recall) called "Mental Models" accounting for which forms of syllogism people found hard and which not. Modus tollens is hard. There's a literature in cognitive psychology about various kinds of reasoning problems and how contexts make them harder or easier. (As you probably know.)

Posted by: Matt's mom at September 7, 2005 09:19 AM

I think it's (a), but it has to be a special case, viz. you have to kill Fred for giving such a bad argument. Very undermining. And a definite case of a kind of murder other than abortion that stops a beating heart. Poor devil.

Posted by: Allan Hazlett at September 19, 2005 10:48 PM

ooh, i got it right. and i'm not even a philosopher. do i get bonus points for that?

my dissertation is about variability. and i should be writing it now instead of playing philosopher.

Posted by: corey at September 25, 2005 08:17 PM