Big Data Is The New Phrenology?



It happens I’ve been reading a lot lately about the assumption in social psychology and psychology in general that what they’re studying is measurable, quantifiable. Addressing the problem has been shelved to the back burner for decades thanks to some redefinitions of what it is to “measure” in psych (anything for which there’s a rule to pop out a number says Stevens–an operationalist in the naive positivist spirit). This at any rate is what I’m reading, thanks to papers sent by a colleague of Meehl’s (N. Waller).  (Here’s one by Mitchell.) I think it’s time to reopen the question.The measures I see of “severity of moral judgment”, “degree of self-esteem” and much else in psychology appear to fall into this behavior in a very non-self critical manner. No statistical window-dressing (nor banning of statistical inference) can help them become more scientific. So when I saw this on Math Babe’s twitter I decided to try the “reblog” function and see what happened. Here it is (with her F word included). The article to which she alludes is “Recruiting Better Talent Through Brain Games” )


Have you ever heard of phrenology? It was, once upon a time, the “science” of measuring someone’s skull to understand their intellectual capabilities.

This sounds totally idiotic but was a huge fucking deal in the mid-1800’s, and really didn’t stop getting some credit until much later. I know that because I happen to own the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was written by the top scholars of the time but is now horribly and fascinatingly outdated.

For example, the entry for “Negro” is famously racist. Wikipedia has an excerpt: “Mentally the negro is inferior to the white… the arrest or even deterioration of mental development [after adolescence] is no doubt very largely due to the fact that after puberty sexual matters take the first place in the negro’s life and thoughts.”

But really that one line doesn’t tell the whole story. Here’s the whole thing…

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Categories: msc kvetch, scientism, Statistics

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4 thoughts on “Big Data Is The New Phrenology?

  1. Of course one would have to look at the video games to see if they were relevant. After all, some claim to be able to measure IQ using “tapping”. I’m more concerned with the reification of ‘measurable’ entities on which statistical analysis is then performed, but curious about this as well.

  2. vl

    finally something we agree on.

    I do allow for the possibility that just as statistics arose out of the hot air that was eugenics, some useful methods/theory will probably yet arise from this big data stuff.

  3. Absolutely, you can’t finalize that Big Data is the new phrenological from this? All you can say is that “sure data analytics techniques count as magic”, right Which rarely comes as a wonder? But those head calculations are not to decide intelligence. They are a basic for future growth, and there are problems, like hydrocephalus, that correspond with unusually large or rapidly increasing skull sizes.

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