Saturday, March 05, 2016

Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite

... a new piece in the L.A. Times by Myisha Cherry and me.

Academic philosophy in the United States has a diversity problem.

No other discipline of comparable size in the humanities is as gender-skewed as philosophy. Women still receive only about 28% of philosophy PhDs in the United States, and are still only about 20% of full professors of philosophy — numbers that have hardly budged since the 1990s. And among U.S. citizens and permanent residents receiving philosophy PhDs in this country, 86% are non-Hispanic white. The only comparably-sized disciplines that are more white are the ones that explicitly focus on the European tradition, such as English literature.

Black people are especially difficult to find in academic philosophy. Black people or African Americans constitute 13% of the U.S. population, 7% of PhD recipients across all fields, 2% of PhD recipients in philosophy, and less than 0.5% of authors in the most prominent philosophy journals.

One of the main causes of homogeneity in philosophy, we believe, is subjectivity and bias in the evaluation of philosophical quality.

continued here

Some thoughts occasioned by the discussion I've seen of this piece since it went live last night:

(1.) Shelley Tremain pointed out that we don't mention the underrepresentation of disabled people in philosophy (some stats and discussion in her piece here). As Tremain has emphasized, discussions of diversity tend to focus on race and gender to the exclusion of other dimensions of diversity, and I think we fell too much into that standard mode of thinking. I would conjecture that the same "seeming smart" phenomenon disadvantages people with visible disabilities that are stereotypically culturally associated with low power and low academic skill, and that this might explain the underrepresentation of such people in the profession, regardless of actual skill levels.

(2.) I think one way to begin to address the issue (in addition to direct action to increase diversity) is to shift the culture of philosophy a bit more toward valuing plain-spoken philosophy, with minimal apparatus, which discusses issues that non-philosophers find interesting. I think this might have at least two positive effects: First it would make philosophy more attractive to people from a wide range of perspectives; and second it would improve our ability to evaluate quality, reducing the role of dazzling incomprehensible showmanship in the discipline. (This isn't to deny a role for highly technical philosophy, such as technical formal logic and detailed examination of the texts of historical figures. I would just advocate some shift in emphasis.)

(3.) Myisha and I didn't have a chance to discuss how these things play out in other disciplines. I am not expert in other disciplines (except psychology to some extent), but I do have some data-supported conjectures. The entire story will be complex and multi-factorial. Some things to note: Mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering are approximately as gender-skewed as philosophy. They are somewhat less race-skewed. (I don't know of class and disability data for these disciplines.) I suspect that this skew arises from a somewhat different confluence of factors (including associations of math and gender going back into childhood), though I think there's probably also substantial overlap since "seeming smart" is, I suspect, very important throughout academia, and the math-gender relationship also penetrates philosophy to some extent (especially philosophy of math and physics).

(4.) Another interesting disciplinary comparison is literature. Literature, I think, shares with philosophy a very high level of subjectivity and cultural variability in quality assessment. It is much less gender-skewed. The race skew story is complicated by the fact that many literature programs focus explicitly on the European tradition (e.g., English, French). Again, I don't know of disability data and economic-privilege data. I see at least two important differences between literature and philosophy: One is that cultural associations with beauty and artistic creativity are not as white-male-centric as are cultural associations with intelligence (think of the stereotypes of the beautiful woman and the creative black jazz musician) and assessments of beauty and creativity may play a proportionately larger role in literature than in philosophy. The other is that literature as a set of academic disciplines in our culture has made more effort to explicitly diversify its canon than has philosophy, and diversifying the canon might tend to lead toward the diversification of the professors teaching that canon, via a few different mechanisms.

(5.) Our brief discussion of this study didn't make the final cutdown for the op-ed, but we think it's important and supports our hypothesis. On Rate My Professors, undergraduate students are more likely to use the word "brilliant" to describe philosophy instructors -- especially male philosophy instructors -- than instructors in any of the other nine fields examined. These data fit both the gender skew in perceptions of "seeming smart" and our conjecture that seeming smart is a skill even more central to philosophy than other academic disciplines.

(6.) Four interesting, related papers on seeming smart in philosophy:
* Liam Kofi Bright "Against Candidate Quality";
* Katrina Hutchison "Sages and Cranks: The Difficulty of Identifying First-Rate Philosophers;
* Jennifer Saul "Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy";
* Dan Sperber "The Guru Effect".


Matt Weiner said...

The phenomena you're addressing in points 3 and 4 seem to me to put pressure on your original argument. The argument is that the white maleness of philosophy is explained by factors arising from the subjectivity of evaluation in philosophy, as opposed to math and the sciences where evaluation is less subjective. But as you point out, math and the physical sciences are as gender-skewed as philosophy,* and equally subjective disciplines such as literature programs are much less gender-skewed than philosophy. Prima facie this suggests that the issue is not subjectivity of evaluation.

Now, in points 3 and 4 you've proposed explanations for this, but even if those explanations are somewhat plausible as just-so storie, do we have any evidence that there's a connection between subjectivity of evaluation and gender-skew (at least)? If anything the current evidence seems to point the other way. And frankly, I don't find the argument about stereotypes of beauty and creativity to be plausible. The fact that women are stereotyped as more beautiful doesn't mean that people who study beauty will be stereotyped as women (if anything it leads to a stereotype of a woman as a muse and a man as an artist), and the black jazz musician is just one tiny case in which a black person might be stereotyped as more creative. Look at something like this list of creative people and how they spent their days, and you won't see any jazz musicians (in fact only one black person and one Asian person, if I'm not mistaken).

It seems to me as though the simplest explanation for the problems with diversity in philosophy is not that something to do with the way subjective evaluation causes us to focus on characteristics that are associated with white maleness (augmented with hypotheses to explain why in other disciplines subjective evaluation is correlated with diversity), but that we are actually directly being sexist and racist in our evaluations. That we evaluate white males more positively because they're white males, not because white men do stuff that makes them seem smart. As Jessica Wilson said at Daily Nous, elite white males present themselves in all sorts of different ways, but no matter how they present themselves they'll be evaluated more charitably than non-elite/non-white/non-males.

*On the question of the race skew, I'm interested in the exact data that show that the physical sciences are less race-skewed; on a cursory search the percentage of black faculty specifically in math and physics doesn't seem to be much higher than in philosophy, but the cursory search didn't turn up any very good data.

Rob said...

Browsing Saul's paper, to which you've provided a link, makes me wonder if philosophers are as up to speed as they should be on the problems within social psychology surrounding the "stereotype threat" literature, the Implicit Association Test, and stereotyping itself. Here's some of what I'm referring to:

"Is Stereotype Threat Overcooked, Overstated, and Oversold?" (Also, see comment thread.)

"Stereotype Accuracy is One of the Largest and Most Replicable Effects in All of Social Psychology" (Jussim has a forthcoming target article on this topic appearing in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.)

"I edited an entire book on stereotype threat, I have signed my name to an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of the United States citing stereotype threat, yet now I am not as certain as I once was about the robustness of the effect."

In this 2014 talk (circa 75 mins.), cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin characterizes the IAT as "a completely bogus test":

He also refers to his withering WSJ review of the IAT creators' 2013 book 'Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People':

"Does the IAT measure what its proponents claim it does?":

For research challenging the significance attributed to the low levels of implicit-explicit correlation produced by the IAT, see pp. 28-29 for Hahn & Gawronski's commentary ("Do implicit evaluations reflect unconscious attitudes?") and pp. 52-53 for Newell & Shanks' agreement with it:

chinaphil said...

A comment on this part:
"..shift the culture of philosophy a bit more toward valuing plain-spoken philosophy...which discusses issues that non-philosophers find interesting...First it would make philosophy more attractive to people from a wide range of perspectives; and second it would improve our ability to evaluate quality..."

I don't really agree with this, and I think it's interesting to tease out the assumptions.

I have a problem with the "issues that non-philosophers find interesting". I don't really see how that can be done without dumbing down; in fact, I'm not sure what it means other than dumbing down.

Then the "more attractive" part: it's not obvious what would be more attractive. Arguing about religion? Very popular, certainly. But arguing about religion with rigour takes all the fun out of it. I dunno, I'm just not seeing what these under-developed fields of highly attractive and yet still rigorous topics are. Particularly if we're trying to appeal to people with wide ranges of perspectives - wouldn't they all be interested in different things by definition?

But I most disagree with the evaluating quality part. The assumptions here must be: (1) that at present at least a portion of philosophers fool people by saying fancy words when in fact there is not much substance to what they say; (2) if everyone did plainer language philosophy, there would be less fooling because there would be fewer fancy words.

But neither of those claims seem very true to me. The number of people who will give credence to a person because they sound fancy is small, these days. I mean, even the French don't go in for it like they used to! And (2) seems even worse, see: politics. Using plain language doesn't make it harder to fool people.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

chinaphil: Thanks for your interesting pushback on this.

I actually do favor "dumbing down". We philosophers aren't as smart as we think! At exactly the point we think we are being cleverest -- that probably tends to be the point of our greatest stupidity. So I think we need to dumb down for our *own* sakes. Try to get things simple enough so that we can really see them with our limited cognitive capacities. If your argument is complex, it is almost certainly wrong somewhere. (This is *not* true in math -- but I think it is true in philosophy.)

On the "fancy words" business: My hunch is that we are currently in a *comparatively* good space in 21st century Anglophone philosophy on this matter -- where the comparison points include, say, the Daoist and Buddhist traditions and the 19th-20th century German and French traditions. But we're not as fully there yet, I think, as I would like us to be. It is certainly possible to fool people with plain language, but you seem to be saying that it's *just* as easy. I'm not inclined to think that's true. For a very different sort of evidence: Orwell on language and politics, Arendt on Nazi "language rules".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Rob, sorry for the slow approval of that comment -- lost in the flurry of email I got this weekend! Those are important issues. I realize that there have been some worries about the stereotype threat literature, and there are questions about how predictive the IAT is of racist behavior. These are starting to get some attention in philosophy, but at a delay as you might expect.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Matt -- Sorry of the slow approval on that too. Rushing to get out today and out of town tomorrow, but the data I'm talking about there are from the Survey of Earned Doctorates. You can for example compare their aggregate 2002-2012 data by race with the SED data from philosophy which I summarized in a blog post earlier this year. For example math is 3.2% black or African-American in that period, which though small is still higher than the 2% in Philosophy. And Asians are better represented in the sciences than in Philosophy.

The other issues are complicated -- hopefully I can return to them again soon -- I do think that your perspective is reasonable, though obviously my best-guess opinion is different. As I said to Jessica (not on Daily Nous but elsewhere) I think it's a both-and story. There are probably direct sexism and racism effects as well as ones mediated by 'seeming smart'.

Anonymous said...

Re 'seeming smart,' have you read this piece?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Yes, I've seen that piece. I do think that genuine ability and perceived ability are related. However, I am highly doubtful of the idea that differences in innate ability between men and women or between white and black people explain any difference in their pursuit of or success within academic philosophy in the U.S. The Leslie et al. only supports the conclusions it is normally interpreted as supporting, I think, if one accepts equality of innate capacity as a background assumption, which the author of that post does not.

Of course the issue of innate differences in academic skill is empirically and politically fraught! Stephen Jay Gould's _Mismeasure of Man_ is an interesting starting point on those issues, I think.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Following up just a little bit, Matt -- There is some evidence that assessments that involve subjective weightings are more prone to race and gender skew than assessments that are more straightforward. We mention in the piece, for example, the well-known resume studies (which don't tend to show effects when the resume is clearly terrific or clearly weak) and studies on race and assessments of intelligence in the context of interviews with candidates who are similar by objective measures (and in one study who give exactly the same verbal answers).

I don't think that the explanation of race and gender skew in philosophy is likely to be simple. One piece of evidence for this is the fact that race and gender skew divide very differently in different disciplines, and the philosophy in particular breaks away from most of the humanities in gender skew (but not in race skew if the European-tradition focused humanities are included). Since engineering, physics, and math show gender skews similar to philosophy but are otherwise very dissimilar to philosophy, and since philosophy is different than other more closely allied disciplines, it seems unlikely that the same story is going on in philosophy as in those other disciplines (though I think there's some overlap).

Myisha's and my conclusions are based primarily in our knowledge of the discipline of philosophy and our knowledge of the social science of bias. We think that our hypothesis is consistent with data from other disciplines, but I am willing to admit that it is only *consistent* with them, not *driven* by them in the sense that it would pop out as the most obvious explanation if all you were doing was looking at the SED data across disciplines.

On beauty, creativity, and intelligence in its relation to literature professors: I see at least two mechanisms here. One is that the race and gender biases work differently in evaluating work like poetry than in evaluating philosophical work -- this is speculative but I hope plausible (I haven't searched for empirical work specifically on this question) -- and those biases don't favor white men as starkly as in philosophy. The other mechanism is that my sense is that literature has been more proactive in attempting to diversify the curriculum than philosophy has. Via either means, once diversity is increased in the syllabus, there are then two plausible further means by which diversity could increase in the faculty. One is that scholars might come to associate women and racial minorities more with their discipline (as targets of analysis) and that might decrease bias against them as professors of their discipline. Another is that women and minorities might be specially sought out as, or judged to be especially well suited as, experts on interpretation of works written by people in their social categories. All of this is speculative, of course. But my thought that it is plausible is behind my thought that Myisha's and my claims about philosophy are consistent with the data from literature. These thoughts are not entirely empirically vacuous: One prediction of this model is that women and minorities would first appear on the syllabus and then only later appear among the faculty and that their slowest penetration into the field might be in the role of "great, synthesizing theorists". My unsystematic sense is that that is in fact the case.

Sarah said...

A quick question about the statistics you're summarizing, because I was surprised by the following statement: "The only comparably-sized disciplines that are more white are the ones that explicitly focus on the European tradition, such as English literature."

Would this still be true if we substituted "LESS African-American and Hispanic" for "MORE white"? In other words if we set aside the degree to which Asians (e.g.) are represented in a field? Many Asians in a field would affect your formulation but not the suggested replacement (which might possibly be more relevant to the issue you are exploring in the piece).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sarah --

I haven't looked field-by-field at that. It's true that the stereotypical perceptions differ by minority group. It's not an entirely simple matter to aggregate the numbers or to look only at, say, Black or African American across fields, partly because the numbers are low and thus statistically unstable in many fields, so it requires pulling together data from multiple documents to aggregate over years, and it's not clear exactly what the analytic criteria should be. I am working now on comparisons with a few target comparison disciplines. One of them is math. In the 2010s, among US citizens and permanent residents, 129 mathematics PhDs reported being both "not Hispanic" and "Black or African American" to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, out of 4072 who either reported being Hispanic or reported being non-Hispanic and either American Indian, Asian, Black, or White -- that's 3.2%. A small percentage. But more than half again the comparable percentage in philosophy, which was 34/1723, or 2.0% (statistically significant at z = 2.8, p = .006).