Argument about pop psychology understanding vs psychometric construct
August 13, 2021 4:20 AM   Subscribe

Psychologists, philosophers & geeks! Is an argument I had about emotional intelligence’s existence & definition semantic or ontological? I argued there’s a difference between colloquial pop-psychology definitions of a psychological ‘thing’ & specific scientific definitions of that ‘thing’ by an ‘operationalization’ process making abstract ‘things’ real by inferences from evidence of other ‘things’. E.g. Empathetic people w/ soft skills vs abstract measurable attributes that can predict outcomes. I was accused of arguing semantics. I don’t believe it was about differences between lay meanings & proof of existence – arguments from different universes. See inside.

I hope that this is clear. I am a bit confused about many philosophical and metaphysical terms and their exact meanings.

Here is the setup: It started earlier this week when a well-known psychologist and contentious personality that I will refer to as, HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED (HWSNBN), tweeted that emotional intelligence (EI) was “No such thing. Period. The end.” This was put up on opposing Reddit subforums. I made an argument as an applied psychologist to both forums of HWSNBN’s fans and to the forum of HWSNBN’s detractors, that HWSNBN wasn’t exactly wrong, there is evidence that it exists, it’s just very weak evidence and not a very useful concept. Based on that, maybe he just thought EI was worthless. That argument can be reasonably made. I further suggested that HWSNBN was just being intellectually dishonest because It’s highly unlikely that HWSNBN doesn’t know that weak evidence of EI exists. He was probably just trying to be provocative as he does. His fans and haters went on the attack. One side attacked me for criticizing HWSNBN and the other side, the side that was theoretically mine, attacked me because I said he wasn't exactly wrong. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Odd subcultures. But, all that is not that important. It’s only for context and the EI debate has already been had this week. I’d prefer not to go back there.

I should note that the attacks on my argument, and me personally, demonstrated how strong belief in pop-psychology is as well as misunderstanding of mainstream psychology. By saying scientific measures of EI are weak, I was accused of being a sociopath because I didn't believe in empathy. People thought I was denying the existence of emotions. There were accusations that I believed people could be rank-ordered on their intrinsic value based on psychometric scores. Phrenology came up. There were some strong opinions and possibly emotional ones. I got excoriated for things I never said. It was clear that we were talking across purposes from different universes.

Getting down to it: This is not about psychometric theory per se, my purpose here is that I’m trying to understand whether I was correct in that we were not just arguing over semantics, but something else related to meaning, existence, or reality. I'm not terribly fluent or articulate in these terms and topics. That's why I'm asking you all. I’m not exactly sure what kind of misunderstanding and argument we were actually having, but I believe this was ultimately about proof of something's existence (EI) and ‘being’ so this is ontology, right? This is what I’d like help understanding. I’m pretty sure I might be missing something here.

Using psychometric and statistical methods to Infer the existence of an unobservable abstract thing by the existence and measures of other things, whether abstract, clearly observable or tangible is the subject of ontology, correct?

In the discussion, to keep away from jargon, I mostly used the blanket term “psychological definition” or “to define psychologically” in place of the technical term “to operationalize” which is kind of synonymous with ‘to define” In scientific terms and research, both terms are used somewhat interchangeably, but in psychometrics a construct is “defined” (operationally) by its relationships specifically to other constructs and not by specific words or a declarative manner. To operationally define a construct is a scientific process resulting in descriptive definitions created by the researchers based on the successfully inferred existence of the construct in the web of relationships with other things studied by the scientists. In turn, the everyday understanding of “to define” is instead an explanation or description that carries descriptive meaning. I can see where one might argue that I was playing semantics, but the two definitions of “definition” are qualitatively different things, so this is not a case of semantics, correct?

Also, HWSNBN and I were talking in psychometric terms, but I was trying to bridge the gap between psychometrics and everyday meaning of pop-psychology EI and explain the difference that just because you know people with perceived EI abilities anecdotally, that doesn’t mean the psychological construct is meaningful in a measurable scientific way. Apparently, I wasn't able to explain that very well.

Is it possible that this was both a semantic and ontological argument? Where might epistemology, pragmatism, etc. fit in that I’m not considering?

What might I not be understanding or knowling about all of this?

Full transparency: after investigating ontology vs. semantics and the nature of meaning vs. existence, I’ve really confused myself. I knew that epistemology was probably in play on this, but philosophical terms such as pragmatics, lexical vs. conceptual semantics, realism and so many other things I can’t remember and am only vaguely aware of and don’t completely understand. I guess this is metaphysics? I’m will be laying out relevant definitions of terms as I understand them below in italics.

Psychological terms from Wikipedia:

psychometrics refers to psychological measurement. Generally, it refers to the specialist fields within psychology and education devoted to testing, measurement, assessment, and related activities.

Construct validity is "the degree to which a test measures what it claims, or purports, to be measuring or the overarching concern of validity research, subsuming all other types of validity evidence. It is the appropriateness of inferences made on the basis of observations or measurements (often test scores), specifically whether a test measures the intended construct. Constructs are abstractions that are deliberately created by researchers in order to conceptualize the latent variable, which is correlated with scores on a given measure (although it is not directly observable). Construct validity examines the question: Does the measure behave like the theory says a measure of that construct should behave? Evaluation of construct validity requires that the correlations of the measure be examined in regard to variables that are known to be related to the construct (purportedly measured by the instrument being evaluated or for which there are theoretical grounds for expecting it to be related)

In research design, especially in psychology, social sciences, life sciences and physics, operationalization or operationalisation is a process of defining the measurement of a phenomenon that is not directly measurable, though its existence is inferred by other phenomena. Operationalization thus defines a fuzzy concept so as to make it clearly distinguishable, measurable, and understandable by empirical observation. In a broader sense, it defines the extension of a concept—describing what is and is not an instance of that concept.

Below is an official psychological descriptive definition that would most likely fit the common descriptive definition and common understanding of EI in the media, corporations and people.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is most often defined as the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions. People with high emotional intelligence can recognize their own emotions and those of others, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, and adjust emotions to adapt to environments

I know thanks to Wikipepdia that in philosophy:

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies concepts such as existence, being, becoming, and reality. It includes the questions of how entities are grouped into basic categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level.

Semantics is the study of meaning, reference, or truth. I think that the lexical ‘meaning’ part is what is most relevant here.

Other terms confounding to me and potentially relevant:

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Epistemologists study the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues.

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers words and thought as tools and instruments for prediction, problem solving, and action, and rejects the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality. Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics—such as the nature of knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science—are all best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes.
posted by Che boludo! to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I once worked with a psych researcher to develop a questionnaire on something similar--emotional engagement--and I found it frustrating that they weren't really concerned with what emotional engagement is ontologically but just wanted to know how people differed in response to the probe/questionnaire ostensibly to do with emotional engagement. I think that's the kind of thing you mean?

Ultimately I was fine with saying maybe the results of this questionnaire had something to do with emotional engagement, but I was also pretty sure it was confusing and trended towards an implicit petitio principii argument that the questionnaire proved something about the nature of emotional engagement though all it really proved was how people responded to somewhat careless questions full of presuppositions.

Maybe there's a counterargument that everyday realism about social/psychological phenomena isn't much more ontologically sound either, but count me among folks who'd mostly want to say either the matter under study clearly exists or else what you want to talk about are details of the research ('we asked 1000 people to do X and ...').
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:46 AM on August 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

> Using psychometric and statistical methods to Infer the existence of an unobservable abstract thing by the existence and measures of other things, whether abstract, clearly observable or tangible is the subject of ontology, correct?

I want to say... not exactly correct? Maybe preferable to say that such psychometric & statistical methods themselves are (only) valid given a specific set of prior ontological commitments. Which themselves underlie a bunch of other semantic rules about how to describe the things that you're ontologically committed to.

> Is it possible that this was both a semantic and ontological argument?

Yes. Entirely possible. I didn't really understand your previous paragraph about "operationalise" vs "define", but I feel like it's quite likely that you were using specific terminology from a given field (psychometrics I guess?) that carries with it (= relies on for its comprehensibility) a whole set of semantic AND ontological priors. And further - I feel like the conversation strayed outside or maybe attracted participants from outside that field, hence all the cross-purposes & accusations of bad faith. All because the participants didn't share those semantic & ontological priors.

Obviously there's a massive cross-over in basic subject matter between one end of psychology & the corresponding branch of philosophy - but they don't really share a common language or even conceptual framework IME. So philosophical questions about semantics vs. ontology (let alone specific philosophical approaches such as pragmatism) are going to be quite hard to map onto all of this in a general-audience kind of conversation. Could easily lead to misunderstandings.

tldr - it's hard to make subtle points on the internet
posted by rd45 at 4:49 AM on August 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

All concepts are constructs; science is an attempt to develop a body of constructs that meet certain standards for repeatability and explanatory power. In the case of psychology, it's usually about identifying defined behaviors that correlate and have some plausible explanation as to how they might be connected.

In the end, it's not reality in and of itself; it is the ever-evolving (evolution itself being a scientific construct) human attempt to describe, explain and control the world.
posted by tivalasvegas at 4:52 AM on August 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

Etymology is not destiny, but it's telling that the very words 'psychology" and "psychiatry' come from the Greek 'psyche', soul. Humans have been trying to understand and affect our internal states for as long as we've been human. But the science of psychology is an attempt (with so far mixed results) to understand, to get inside consciousness in a way that I don't think it actually can.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not anti-science. If we can figure out that a given drug makes people feel better, great - but we might also figure out how to make you love Big Brother. The point is, neither of those things actually gets at the other question, of what it is to be happy or to love, from the inside.

For that you need a different toolkit - religion, or philosophy, or art.
posted by tivalasvegas at 5:07 AM on August 13, 2021

I don't believe it was just an argument over semantics, it sounds like it was more over the question of, to put it in the simplest terms, belief versus evidence, where those who are absolutely certain EI is a thing will hold to that even if there is no other proof of its existence beyond what they hold as known truth, while the argument for evidence, even if just in strong suggestion of correlation in how different individuals process and respond to what is considered primarily emotion driven signals, would be something different that would require some consistent ability to measure or data supporting that take. But in practical internet terms, that latter desire is gonna face a lot of push back since strongly held beliefs are easier to convey and are obviously "felt" more powerfully than distanced consideration of data.

From what I get out of the described arguments would be that there is gonna be an epistemological element involved, hard for there not to be with questions of personhood and perception involved in this way, but that shouldn't directly affect an interest in looking for evidence versus deeply held conviction, at least to someone who is willing to accept that such evidence could potentially be found, there could be arguments that EI doesn't fit that kind of parameter as the tools potentially used for measure are themselves flawed in how they seek their "proof", but that's just speculation on a possible point of contention.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:42 AM on August 13, 2021

Oh, and there's also liable to be some difficulty in how people understand the concepts being discussed, which may well seem like a semantic argument, but could be something different, with the subject being, as you suggest, tied to pop psychology and the terms it uses, making it harder to communicate. The belief isn't the same as the lack of language to capture it though, which can lead to frustration and over-reaction when people talk past each other. That part would definitely feel like a semantic argument, but likely couldn't be fixed without a lot of effort in seeking agreement over terms, which just ain't gonna happen on the internet.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:56 AM on August 13, 2021

This is both an ontological AND semantic question, because what you're seeing in the comments is a difference between enactive and abstract-conceptual epistemological strategies, and commenters (and humans in general IME) don't know how to resolve these differences. Bear with me here, I'm not trying to condescend to you personally, but building off the "map is not the territory" analogy might make it easier for you to argue in reddit comments if that's really what you want to do. Let's call the elements of the argument the map (semantics), the territory (ontology), and the surveying equipment (epistemology).

There's some territory, a lot of people explore it and successfully get from point A to point B within it (surveying equipment = their own eyes), and a small group of nerds goes out and surveys the territory with some fancy tools they've got and produce a map that they share, which they think represents the territory as accurately as possible. Thing is, only other nerds have the skills to even copy the map accurately, and due to advances in surveying technology, the map is not actually that accurate for some usages. Non-nerds have been living in the territory and maybe even made their own copies of the map which have helped them navigate the territory, even if their map copy is wildly inaccurate. They believe that their copy of the map accurately represents the territory, and (crucially) without the map, they would get lost. Other people try to use their copy of the map and find that it fails to represent things to the degree of granularity that would be useful to them, or completely leaves out entire categories of data (elevation, say, or political boundaries).

HWSNBN tweets, "this map is wrong and represents something that is in no way part of the actual territory, and everyone who has a copy of this map should throw it out immediately, this map should not be used." Maybe this person has new super-accurate GPS surveying equipment and is in the process of constructing a new map. Maybe they just got lost one too many times and are angry. Some people who have map copies they have used successfully for years are NOT going to let this dude come for their maps! Some people (you, in this allegory) have thought for a while that the map could be a lot more accurate, and that most of its contents are reductive conveniences that end up obscuring the important nuances of the territory. Maybe the most popular/reproduced copy of the map failed to represent a dangerous ravine that has claimed the lives of several hikers. However, people who need the map and have relied on the map to get through the territory until now are not nerds and do not have all the latest surveying equipment - but they DO have SOME surveying equipment, namely their own eyes and feet, and the map they have is accurate enough for their purposes. Telling people who have an inaccurate map that they should stop using it is only going to be successful if you (A) have a different map to show them (B) which works as well or better than the original, and (C) is usable when copied at the degree of accuracy their equipment allows. If my surveying equipment is my eyes (anecdata) and my mapmaking equipment is colored pencils on an A4 sheet of paper, but I only need to traverse a few relatively flat kilometers between my house and the beach, hell no I am not going to let you tell me my map is wrong! You're just trying to sell me a new map ( = arguing semantics) that doesn't even have DANGER: BEARS marked in the right places!

tl;dr: social scientists largely have an abstract-conceptual epistemological strategy that leads them to spend most of their time not in the territory at all, but nerding out about the latest surveying equipment (operationalizing their conceptual frameworks). People who aren't social scientists are mostly using an enactive epistemological strategy that is about usefulness, because they live and move in the territory itself and the map helps them find their way around. HWSNBN's mistake was saying "this abstract-conceptual representation is dead wrong, end of story" in a way that could be taken to mean "if you find this tool useful, you are deluded about reality."
posted by All hands bury the dead at 11:14 AM on August 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

The problem is that there's never one map that exactly defines the territory: if there were, it would be the territory. If I want to get from one particular point to another, a google map with directions will be fine but if I want to know how high the terrain is, I'll need another, and if I want to know how to find every good spot to watch the sunset I'll need a third. Ultimately, every way-of-knowing is determined by the questions being asked, and the meaning of the map is located not in the map itself but in the interaction between the territory and the cartographer.
posted by tivalasvegas at 1:13 PM on August 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

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