Friday, January 05, 2007

On-Line Tests - A Warning

So, it appears that there has been an outbreak of bloggers taking on-line psychometric tests, then reporting and commenting upon their results. Examples can be seen here, and here. There were a bunch of other bloggers that took tests and posted results, but I cannot remember where I saw them.

Now, for the most part, these tests are just a little bit of fun. Provided these tests are treated this way, then they are a harmless amusement. What is more problematic though are cases where people take the results of these tests seriously, or interpret them as revealing anything real, or true about them. To take such tests seriously in this way is a serious mistake.

The first thing to realise is that most of these on-line tests are written and scored by people who have no real training in the relevant disciplines. Of course, if the test is served out an impressive sounding domain name, then people are more likely to be fooled. There are deeper reasons though why these tests can only be seen on par with fortune cookies.

The whole idea of being able to measure psychological and personality properties falls under the general heading of psychometric. The are a whole host of psychometric tests that have been proposed and used. These tests at least have the advantage of being designed and tested by experts in the relevant fields, rather than random people on the Internet. They still should be treated with suspicion though.

One of the reasons that tests such as these (and even more so on-line tests) should be treated with suspicion has to do with the underlying philosophical position of operationalism. Although on the face of it, this sounds like a plausible position, it is in fact a method that suffers from deep flaws, despite it's popularity. A detailed discussion of the perils of operationalism can be found here (note, this is in .pdf format). In somewhat simplified philosophical terms, these tests just measure your ability to take the tests, not the underlying 'phenomena', or traits that they claim to identify.

Even the widely known and deployed IQ tests have been the subject of considerable controversy. Famously, Cyril Burt was shown to have perpetrated scientific fraud, using IQ tests.

The moral here is simple. Taking on-line tests as a bit of fun is fine. Thinking that they lead to any real or significant insights, is a mistake. I'm glad to say that the cases of bloggers taking tests mentioned earlier are all pretty blameless and harmless. However, I have seen cases where bloggers take the results seriously.

The CP

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