Saturday, February 11, 2012

A brief thought on the way Bryan Caplan constructs arguments: Education Edition

Disclaimer: I haven't really been following the argument.

My thought: Does anyone think it's all a matter of human capital or all a matter of signalling? Most people I come across think signalling is very real and human capital investment is very real. This tendency to think of things in terms of "signalling vs. human capital" (or for that matter "rational voter vs. irrational voter") is a little strange to me. These theories have currency because there's evidence of both, and the maintain that currency usually because we have a pretty good sense of the balance between the two - i.e., when signalling is more and less important and when human capital is more and less important, or how people are irrational and how they are irrational and what sorts of trade-offs there are between the two.

Approaching this by saying something like "the human capital theory is wrong" or "the signalling model is right" seems like a funny way of approaching it. Of course the signalling model is right. Of course the human capital model is not wrong. This is all pretty interesting stuff without the contrived sense of conflict between the two.

It's like raging battles between nature and nurture. Meh.


  1. Can you please provide us with a link to Bryan Caplan's post?

  2. Some things persist merely because they are evocative - especially dichotomies ("free" and "everybody else" is a favorite 'round these parts, of course!). Wiser academics have decided that "nature vs. nurture" is a false dichotomy (i.e. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has said this). Ditto the left brain / right brain dichotomy. It doesn't mean that there isn't a "nature component" or a "nurture component."

    Even the reading suggested by the phrasing of the dichotomy, that a system can be more the result of "nature" than intellectual systems, is ignoring that while the two are factors, their effects may actually be amplified by each other. If a child is born into a poor household, and their intellectual upbringing constantly reminds them of this fact, it is pretty meaningless to say that it was nature's fault they became a radical (I'm just using that term as a placeholder for the range of possibilities). It is also meaningless to say that radicalization was the result of socialization, and act as if the socialization is a process that happens in a vacuum.

    Instead, it might be helpful to try to 'trace back' the process to see if one factor is more basic than another (specifically or generally), happening earlier on the causal chain, and so taking the blame if need be.

    This is, actually, one of the major problems scientists and some atheists have - it's very hard to say a given factor is more central (or more ethical, etc.) when they cannot test for it, which is a good sign a scientist should shy away from it, and just let the data do the talking. Unfortunately, they also feel the need to fight ways the data will be interpreted by a person who takes for granted premises our scientist might see as probably bogus, but not provably so. Any time you have an empiricist vs. rationalist (or theist / atheist) angle to things, this will come up.

    I don't know enough about the signalling vs. human capital debate to take a guess if this pattern holds, but it seems that it should, at least to some degree.


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