Monday, July 04, 2005

Rant

On friday afternoon last week, some of my American colleagues persuaded me to take this test. It is really f*cking stupid, so don't take it, unless you want an illustration of a really f*cking stupid test. Apparently, the point of it is to place the person taking it within this Jungian typology of personalities, which is, frankly, also fairly f*cking stupid, if it is meant to be anything like a scientific theory. For example,

[i]n the extraverted attitude the energy flow is outward, and the preferred focus is on people and things, whereas in the introverted attitude the energy flow is inward, and the preferred focus is on thoughts and ideas

is simply an abstraction from any non-sociopathic personality to a degree which makes it utterly without any meaningful reference in the empirical world. Any half-decent epistemologist knows that the idea that there is a sharp separation between focus on the external world and focus on internal world is ridiculous, as our experience of things is directed by a set of concepts which structure that experience, just as our concepts are developed as a result of interactions with the external world. So, when individuals focus on 'people and things', it's not like they don't have thoughts or ideas which are vital to that focus, just as when individuals focus on 'thoughts and ideas', it's not like there aren't people and things which we would want to consider as in some sense causal agents in that event. When faced with this kind of dichotomy, the proper response is: what do you actually mean when you say 'people and things' and 'thoughts and ideas', because at the moment you're talking nonsensical sh*t.

It gets worse, as well. The next set of oppositions is 'sensing' and 'intuition', the preference to gather information either through the five senses, or through some weird and totally unclear mental faculty. You can imagine where I'm going to go with this - the dichotomy doesn't exist in any rigorous sense, because our perceptions are bound up with, constituted by, a whole set of conscious and unconscious structures, and so the sharp separation between the empirical and the ideational implied here is just a pile of crap. I refer you to the proper response above. The third set of oppositions is 'thinking' and 'feeling', as if some people were just rational calculators and others bundles of unrestrained emotion or something, and it was possible to experience the world in the absence of desires or sympathies or of instrumentality, as if rational calculators would have anything to calculate on, and the bundles of emotion would be anything recognisable as a persisting personality. Again, I refer you to the proper response above. Finally, we have judging and perceiving, because we all know that perception does not ever, ever, involve a form of judgement, I mean, it's just impossible that I would look at something and see it as a particular kind of thing, with particular features and purposes, which I judged favourably or unfavourably: that kind of thing never happens, never.

So, basically, the conceptual framework on which this test is founded is a tissue of fairly bloody serious mistakes, which basically involve creating dichotomies where any sustained thought about the matter would result in the realisation that the dichotomies, where sharp, have about as much purchase in the actual world as fingernails on the crumbling edge of a cliff, and hence aren't much use in a psychological theory aiming at rigour. I am prepared to admit that my total and utter scorn for this theory might have been partly created by the test itself, which asks questions as totally meaningless as [y]ou are strongly touched by the stories about people's troubles and [y]ou easily understand new theoretical principles, because, after all, my understanding of all new theoretical principles is identical in exactly the same way as my level of empathy with all other people is identical. How people answer these questions might tell you something about their self-perception, and perhaps even their conceptual framework - lots of the questions involve rating, quite transparently, one side of one of the dichotomies above in comparison with the other - but the idea that they would get at any core of a personality, whatever that might be anyway, and classify it in some scientific manner: please excuse me while I beat my own head into a bloody pulp at these people's stupidity.

What I find most shocking in the whole thing is that the three Americans I work with are all graduates. What I'm saying is hardly the product of some esoteric branch of philosophy, but perfectly mainstream epistemological and quasi-metaphysical observations, which anyone who's done anything in the methodology of the social sciences, for example, ought to be familiar. I suspect it's a cultural thing: all those standardised tests, which are rigorous and objective and totally fair and not, like, biased, random, ridiculous or totally without useful purchase in the world in any way.

I remember reading some essays of Tom Wolfe's four or five years ago - everyone was young and foolish once, alright - in which he tried to defend some form of brainwave testing in lieu of IQ tests. He got all excited that it was claimed that it could predict to within slightly less than a standard deviation - which is still bloody enormous at some points in a normal distribution - but it's only a f*cking ridiculous IQ test anyway, which has about as much worth as the fluff currently collecting in my belly-button as a predictor of a category as porous and wide-ranging as intelligence.

I was just baffled by this: these tests have about as much predictive value as the 'Does Your Man Cheat On You?' ones in women's magazines. When I made stumbling gestures of incredulity that Americans take this stuff remotely seriously - apparently, every American child takes one of these Myers-Briggs tests in high school, and human resources departments rely on them (actually, that explains rather a lot about what one hears about human resources departments) - one of the Americans said that the tests have been empirically verified as having significant results. This is, so far as I can see, impossible, because the categories are so vague, so utterly without proper scientific referrent, as to be totally unfalsifiable. God, or more likely some sophisticated cultural anthropologist, only knows why anyone takes this steaming pile of crap with any of the seriousness with which it is apparently invested.

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