Sounding the scores

Tue 30 Jul 2013 12:56 PM

Branden Fitelson points to an article at Physics Central about how students in various disciplines perform on the GRE. The most recent figures have philosophy leading the pack in the Verbal Reasoning and Analytic Writing section. Philosophy comes out behind Math, Physics, Economics and other numbers-heavy fields in the Quantitative section but is ahead of the other humanities.

The article draws a happy conclusion for philosophers: "Philosophy departments focus heavily on logical reasoning and identifying logical fallacies, most likely leading to philosophy students' dominance of the verbal and analytical writing sections."

And that seems right to me. A training in philosophy does seem to help with clear, critical thinking; i.e., things that standardized tests at least try to measure.

A limitation that the article does not note: The figures do not include students who never consider graduate school seriously enough to take the GRE. Since graduate school in philosophy notoriously provides poor prospects career-wise, there is little incentive for students to go on unless they think they will do well. Students in what are perceived to be more remunerative fields may pursue a grad degree in a discipline even if they do not have an aptitude for it.

So GRE scores might reflect greater culling of the herd than other disciplines, and philosophy's supremacy might partly be the result of that sample selection bias.

But, aha! I noticed this problem with the figures because of my background in philosophy. So the discipline can deliver the goods on critical thinking, and it can't all be sample selection.