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Advisor Influence vs Reliability

Summary:
In a previous post, I remarked that philosophers are probably strongly influence by their advisors, and then argued this should cause us to reduce our credence in our own work and our reliability. Irfan Khawaja finds the claim (that advisees significantly get pushed/influenced to believe what their advisors believe) implausible and wonders why I didn’t cite a study to prove it. Admittedly, I thought the claim was so obviously true and widely accepted that I didn’t need to argue for it; instead, I was exploring an implication of what I thought was a commonly accepted fact.I don’t know of a study that actually tests this empirically. It seems there is lots of correlation between what advisors and advisees think, but it’s hard to know how much is selection and how much treatment,

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In a previous post, I remarked that philosophers are probably strongly influence by their advisors, and then argued this should cause us to reduce our credence in our own work and our reliability. Irfan Khawaja finds the claim (that advisees significantly get pushed/influenced to believe what their advisors believe) implausible and wonders why I didn’t cite a study to prove it. Admittedly, I thought the claim was so obviously true and widely accepted that I didn’t need to argue for it; instead, I was exploring an implication of what I thought was a commonly accepted fact.

I don’t know of a study that actually tests this empirically. It seems there is lots of correlation between what advisors and advisees think, but it’s hard to know how much is selection and how much treatment, that is, influence.

However, I’m not sure it matters. Either way, it should make us worried about how reliable we are. Consider the options:

1. Selection effect: You form your view X while you still suck at philosophy. You then self-select an advisor who agrees, and/or choose to attend a program with people who agree. You then get trained by someone who shares your views to defend them better. Great job rationalizing what you believed anyways, before you really knew what you were talking about.

2. Treatment effect: You believe X because largely by a somewhat random processes you happen to be trained by a believer in X. You have social pressure to share their views, plus you tend to see good arguments for X and weaker arguments against it, just because of who happens to be in your program.

Either way, should reduce credence in X.

Further, one of my political theorist FB friends notes that advisors tend to write strong letters and work harder for disciples than for advisees with contrary points of view. So there is probably some pernicious selection involved in who ultimately gets a job and keeps publishing. Again, this is not a process that should inspire much confidence.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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