On Beginnings: Part 20

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.


All I set out to examine is the highly connected, highly contingent, and insular type of dialogue that informs conventional knowledge – whether it’s science, pop culture, or technological trend – whose re-presentation as “truth” is doing some behind-the-curtain work. And to ask, then, if we should be mindful of the questions we pose, of the methods we use to frame the data we select, and the ends toward which we strive in analyzing that data?  In the case of these many articles and studies rating the worth of university education vis-à-vis any other course of life, is the question really fair?  Should we expect any choice we make to have some degree of intrinsic, immutable value?  Maybe “facts” have a more precarious existence than we like to believe, since they require continued corroboration to retain their reverent status as “fact,” and since countless bits of information so categorized we later brusquely tossed under the bus. The models we use to view certain issues in certain ways aren’t really stable – they’re formed and re-formed in the arenas of their respective discursive participants. Methodologies change constantly in light of new circumstances and cross-examinations. This may have been Baseball-Bill James’s point:  We assemble meaningful collections of data to respond to a question, which in turn will likely generate another question. This is the basic form of the peer-review process academics and researchers use to exchange the ideas that occupy them and affect the rest of us, if at all, with an aura of natural progression. But peer-review-style dialogue doesn’t reduce all submissions down to the “truth;” it’s just a mechanisms of conservation – an organized way to sustain the debates over the meanings of signs within shared paradigms.  My diversion into the issues I take with the Big Data trend stems from these distinctions, since large aggregates of data seem to be used to authorize certain assertions that – due to the fact that math is even employed – lends a degree of inscrutability that keeps people from challenging the associated narratives.  And why shouldn’t we challenge them?  In this regard, I love statistical analyses, not because they provide definitive or non-definitive answers, but because they often raise questions about answers we thought we had in the bag.  To return to the popular discourse on the real, imagined, spiritual or economic merits of a college education:  there likely is no inherent value to a degree whose usefulness you will not be able to predict. There is no correct path to a career you probably won’t plan.  It may not be helpful to assume people will have any definitive opinion of the usefulness of their degree – or any type of training, for that matter.  Many of us pursue whatever will occupy us for the moment, but we may very well change our minds in 6 months, 2 years, or, if you’re like me, I can’t remember what we were talking about.

Part 21 coming tomorrow morning…