Critical Thinking Note 15: How Statistics Mislead, the case of the State of Washington Education Research and Data Center


Our state government has publicized data that misleadingly devalues Philosophy and the Humanities in general (see the first link below). My reply follows:


To Members of the Washington ERDC (Education Research and Data Center),

It would be nice to see what post degree earnings data look like when you disaggregate Philosophy and Religious Studies in your Earnings Dashboard ( Some religious institutions lump these together into single degree programs. But Philosophy and Religious Studies are not the same fields of study. Philosophy majors typically have no interest in Religious Studies. At institutions like UW, Philosophy majors are more likely to be interested in the natural sciences than in religion (a quick glance at UW’s Philosophy course listing shows nine courses in Philosophy of Science and only two in Philosophy of Religion, which still isn’t Religious Studies

Philosophy majors and Religious Studies students are also typically on very different career and life paths. Many Religious Studies students are preparing for seminary and the ministry, where very low initial pay will be partly offset by free housing and other benefits. Philosophy majors, on the other hand, are usually setting off into the great wide world where their ability to reason well and communicate complex ideas clearly will be highly valued by their employers. The resulting differences in compensation are reflected in the more detailed analysis of post degree earnings offered by Seattle based ( In this analysis, Philosophy majors earn in the top quarter of degree majors listed (mid-career), outperforming all humanities and social sciences with the single exception of economics. Religious Studies is over halfway down the list.

I’m also curious as to why your Earnings Dashboard displays only data from 2009. This looks like the first year for which you have raw data and as a result, your Earnings Dashboard looks only at earnings for newly minted degree holders. As your own raw data tracking subsequent years suggests, this builds a bias against the Liberal Arts into your most public presentation of earnings data. While starting pay in professions like IT and Health Care are significantly higher than for Liberal Arts majors, the earnings of Liberal Arts majors catches up significantly by mid-career. The reasons for this are not hard to divine. Students who study for more technical and professional degrees are aiming to fill jobs that already exist and are in high demand today. Liberal Arts students come out of college with a broader set of skills that render them less specialized but more adaptable. Higher initial pay goes to those who have trained specifically for the jobs we have today. While this is fine as it far as it goes, in our rapidly changing world we should also value those who are seeking educational goals that will prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow. Innovation is not a special strength of doctors and computer programs so much as a strength of creative and critical thinkers who are trained to be flexible life-long learners. This is the goal of a Liberal Arts education. (I’d recommend Michael Roth’s, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, for a more developed version of this line of argument


You may be accustomed to hearing college professors in the Arts and Humanities argue for the importance of their disciplines on other than purely economic grounds. But it looks like the state’s highly public Earnings Dashboard undervalues the Arts and Humanities generally and Philosophy specifically on purely economic grounds. I hope you’ll deem this matter worthy of corrective measures.


W. Russ Payne

Chair of Philosophy at Bellevue College
President, PLATO-WA (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization of Washington)
Bellevue College representative to the WaCLA (Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts)

June 12, 2015

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