Philosophy, standardized testing, and women in philosophy

Most philosophers in the US are aware that philosophy majors regularly top the rankings for verbal GRE scores. This fact  seems to argue for the value of a philosophy degree in one’s preparation for graduate study, and is so advertised.

But does their performance really show what philosophy majors learn, or what they start with? It is a pretty well established principle in standardized testing that virtually all such tests of general aptitude, insofar as they are designed by people who know what they are doing, correlate very highly with each other. They all load heavily on the “g” factor, a construct in psychometrics related to IQ. And it likewise well established that, certainly past adolescence, performance on tests like this is little susceptible to change provided one has done a modicum of preparation; further preparation little avails.

Of course, as a factor in admission to philosophy programs, the value of the GRE has long been a contentious issue. (Curiously, the MIT program in philosophy, which has long stood the ground against the use of the GRE–one surmises largely for ideological reasons–has now chosen to require it. It would be interesting to know the backstory of that turn about.) I don’t think anyone believes that the GRE is a perfect index to one’s potential in philosophy. But it is impressive that the top programs in philosophy show very high average verbal GRE scores for their students. Thus, the average verbal GRE score in 2004-2006 for Princeton is 727, for NYU 701, for Rutgers 714. And it is remarkable how predictive the GREs seem to be in certain instances. Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside posted his findings on the relative merits of undergraduate GPA vs. GRE in predicting academic performance at UCR. He starts with UGPA:

I couldn’t make undergrad GPA predictive. [all bold from the original] I tried several different ways. I tried including undergrad GPA for all students and I tried excluding those who had done some master’s work before coming to UCR. When overall GPA didn’t work I asked the staff to recode the data with just senior-year GPA in philosophy courses. Still no correlation. Maybe on a much larger sample GPA would show up as predictive, but on this sample it’s not even close, not even close to close.

Then he turns to the GRE:

…[A]nnoyingly, given my biases, the verbal section of the GRE was highly predictive. (Math was not predictive.) Verbal GRE score correlates at .49 with graduate student GPA in Philosophy at UCR (p = .004). Our students’ median verbal GRE score is 680. Those who scored above median have a mean UCR GPA of 3.91. Those who scored median or below have a mean UCR GPA of 3.76 (t test, p = .001). (Yes, we mostly give our PhD students grades ranging from B+ to A. If you’re getting mostly A-minuses and B-pluses in our program, you’re “struggling”.) This shows up especially strikingly in a 2×2 split-half analysis. 11/14 (79%) of students with above-median verbal GREs have above-median GPAs in our program, while only 5/18 (28%) of students with at-or-below-median verbal GREs have above-median GPAs in our program (chi-square, p = .004).

There was also a trend for overall GRE score to predict sticking with the program: Dropouts had a mean GRE of 1243. Non-dropouts had a mean GRE of 1385. (This was not statistically significant, partly because the dropout group had much higher GRE variance, messing up straightforward application of the t test; p = .13, p = .01 assuming equal variances.)

And in the comments to that post, Dan Bonevac at University of Texas Austin says:

Very interesting! I did something similar for our graduate program at Texas in the 1990s, but covering a longer period of time. I came to similar conclusions. GREs were overall the most predictive factor; undergraduate GPA had a very low correlation.

I did find that this varied depending on the specialization of the student. Verbal GRE mattered for students working in continental and non-technical analytic fields. Quantitative mattered for students in technical areas and in ancient philosophy. GPA mattered some for non-technical analytic but not for continental, technical areas, or history.

Given the focus of this blog, the question immediately arises: is there any source of information as to the relative performance of men and women in philosophy programs on the GRE? This might constitute more objective evidence as to the relative abilities of men and women in philosophy.

Unfortunately, such information is too often suppressed, when it would be exceedingly easy for graduate programs and the testing services to make it available.

One of the more interesting sources of data regarding differences between women and men in non-mathematical, but abstract and logical areas is the LSAT. The LSAT, I would argue, tests for a number of skills and abilities that seem highly related to philosophical thinking. But critical details related to the gender gap appear to be kept out of public view, though they are apparently shared with law schools. A woman writing in the Daily Pennsylvanian says this:

Since my father is a law professor at the University of San Francisco, I asked him for some LSAT test data that he received from the school’s admissions office.

Upon analyzing the data from the Law School Admissions Council for 2001-2006, I found the percentage of women who score in the top percentile of test takers – the select students scoring 175 or above – is roughly a third of a percent.

Around three-fourths of a percent of males scored in the same category. Using this measure, women finally outpace men in scores below 150 – a score lower than at least 75 percent of those admitted to each Tier 1 and 2 school.

It’s worth noting that philo majors score very high on the LSAT, coming in at second place. At the top are mathematics/physics majors.   The LSAT does not include any items of mathematical or scientific content, but does include a number of items related to logic and reasoning from evidence. That mathematics, physics, and philosophy majors all come out at the top strongly suggests that there is some common component in ability they share. One may surmise that that component is very much akin to the talent or set of talents that make for an outstanding philosopher.

I expect to elaborate on that point in a later post. For now, observe that roughly 3 out of 4 of those who score in the top 1% of the LSAT are men. It is in the nature of these distributions that if they are extended further out the right tail, then the dominance of a group becomes even more extreme. The top 1% is roughly the average quality of a student at a top law school. But the number of professors at such a law school is in the neighborhood of two orders of magnitude fewer. That far out on the curve, it may be that closer to 9 out of 10 would be men. And this does not factor in any effect from relative levels of drive to do such work, which may also vary across genders.

At Yale Law School, according to a recent report,

…[A]lthough the current student body is close to 50/50 for men and women, the Yale Law faculty is far from 50/50 (in the 2011-12 school year, 21.2% of faculty were women).

Now if this applies to law and law schools, and the abilities and drives are very similar to those in philosophy, then one might reasonably expect similar numbers to apply to philosophy and philosophy programs. And of course one must bear in mind that even the relatively low numbers of women we are seeing in elite faculties are no doubt swollen via aggressive affirmative action; Yale Law School in particular supports a very active and focused program to “remedy” the gender disparity.

In any case, it would be very useful in drawing the same sorts of inferences if we could work from information regarding the relative performance of men and women on the GRE in philosophy programs. Such information seems, though, as I have suggested, always to be carefully hidden from public view. I know of no source that breaks down GRE data for philosophy in this fashion. One would rather expect that if there were gender parity on such scores, that fact would find the light of day to argue the case for the equivalence of men and women in philosophical talent. Since this dog isn’t barking, I am inclined to doubt we will get a fair reckoning of this information anytime soon.

Here there be witches

In case you may have harbored the fond hope that feminist thought has already reached its peak influence in the academy, or might even be in remission, we get an report that argues otherwise.

Looks like “triggering” is going bigtime: from the NY Times: Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm

I ask: how did it come about that literary works, which at one time were read regularly and uneventfully without “trigger warnings”, might now seem to require them? In what world is the imposition of more severe taboos a sign of a culture progressing toward greater openness and understanding, rather than in the opposite direction? Why does the solution of our societal problems seem to lie down the path of greater moral panic? Does anybody really believe that an ever more invasive and vigilant punishing of “bad thoughts” will make those thoughts disappear or even lose their potency?

But perhaps the real point of these taboos is not to change thoughts, but rather to satisfy a desire to reprove those who have them, because they aren’t as good as we are at suppressing or masking them.

A century or so ago, society employed the same strategy in an attempt to induce moral panic over thoughts about sex.

How’d that work out?

Has harsh suppression and stigmatizing of thought ever produced a happier, more harmonious society?

Some curious facts to ponder on the gender gap in achievement

In this post I’ll produce some odd facts with a little commentary on why they seem odd. I don’t intend to offer up detailed explanations for the facts. I’m not sure anyone has a good grip on just what the explanation might be, based on fairly direct evidence. But I expect that I will have occasion to refer to them, so I’d like to lay them out.

The standard line on the gap in women’s achievements is that it is most prominent in STEM disciplines. This is likely a fair assessment. But a more vexing problem is why it appears at all in a number of other disciplines where it might not be expected to crop up.

Amy Wax of UPenn Law School observes:

Consider magazine writing, book authorship, and journalism. These endeavors require proficiency in writing and reading literacy-areas in which women are widely thought to excel and consistently outscore men on standardized tests. Whether there are or ever will be equal numbers of men and women with the highest ability in math and science has been subject to vigorous debate, but few have suggested that women fall short of men in verbal skills. In light of these observations, the influence of gender stereotyping-and gender-based ST[Stereotype Threat] is not generally believed to depress women’s performance in these areas. Indeed, that women’s achievement drawing on verbal abilities is unaffected by ST is an oft-stated assumption behind ST research designed to demonstrate the selective influence of ST on women’s math and science performance.

Yet women’s “natural” verbal skills have not translated into dominance of fields drawing on these abilities. In particular, girls’ strength in writing at all educational levels is not reflected in women’s relative success in journalism or productivity in authorship of books and magazine articles. Among the books designated by the New York Times as the ten best of 2007, only two were written by women. Of the thirty additional books recommended by the editors of the New York Times for 2007, seven were by women authors. In addition, the thirty-one winners of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for writing and reporting included seven women. Likewise, a routine perusal of advertisements by prominent publishing houses and university presses reveals a consistent and pronounced predominance of male authors. A tally from recent publication lists confirms this impression. For books released by a sampling of scholarly publishers between January 2007 and March 2008 in history; philosophy; the social sciences (sociology; political science, psychology; economics, anthropology), public policy; and literature, men strongly outnumber women authors in all fields except literature. Finally, an informal survey of pieces published in leading journals of opinion over the past three years reveals a decidedly lopsided pattern of authorship across the board, with male to female ratios of 28 to 1 for Foreign Affairs, 6 to 1 for the New York Review of Books, 7 to 1 for the New Republic, 6 to 1 for the Atlantic Monthly, and 4 to 1 for the New Yorker.

The public editor of the NY Times reports:

* At the nation’s 10 most widely circulated newspapers, men had 63 percent of the bylines, nearly two for every one for a woman. (The study looked at bylines only in the first section of the papers.)

* Among those papers, The Times had the biggest gender gap – with 69 percent of bylines going to men.

* Women are far more likely to cover health and lifestyle news. They’re less likely to cover crime, justice and world politics.

* At three major papers, including The Times, and four newspaper syndicates, male opinion-page writers outnumber female writers four to one.

Also, this from the Huffington Post:

A study released by Media Matters For America in June of this year found that women make up only 38 percent of newsroom staff — a figure that has remained the same for the past 14 years, and one that, according to Christy C. Bulkeley of the Nieman Foundation For Journalism at Harvard University, is a mere four percent higher than the percentage of female newspaper reporters 30 years ago.

So, as with philosophy, the movement toward parity in the newsroom has been rather minuscule.

This all the more remarkable because, as CNN reports: “Over the past 10 years, between 70 and 76% of all journalism and mass communications graduates have been women.”

Of course, these facts are typically marshaled out to gin up outrage over the gap (though not in Amy Wax’s case). All decent people, it is expected, must assume that gap is eliminable.

But my own inclination is to turn the argument on its head, and see the facts as being more likely evidence of something ineliminable. In my view, utter recalcitrance of a situation to change, despite massive pressure to do so, is perhaps the best possible evidence that that situation is based on something inherent.

Now I’m not going to make any strong claims about the detailed explanation of these facts. But I’d like to note that they are surprising indeed considering the supposed importance of such factors as Stereotype Threat. Surely it should be men and boys who might particularly experience such a threat in endeavors related to writing. Surely they would have been the ones to pick up on conscious and unconscious clues from teachers, parents, and peers as to the greater skill of girls at writing. Surely they would have seen girls excel in the classroom at writing, leaving most boys in their dust. Yet at the very upper end, it is males who predominate, sometimes dramatically. How magical must the effect of Stereotype Threat be, to engender such a weird pattern of relative failure and success?

Looked at from a purely statistical point of view as a distribution, the levels of achievement for men and women would seem to follow two bell curves. The curve for women would have a higher mean than that of men, but the standard deviation of the curve for men would seem to be distinctly greater. The effect of these two curves when superimposed on each other is that, for the vast majority of the distribution of achievement, more women do better than men. Only at the very upper end, well into the right tail, do the numbers of men start to exceed those of women. And at the very topmost spots, men predominate considerably in most such endeavors. This is again the story of the greater standard deviation of men’s achievements, which one sees as well in mathematical and scientific domains, except that in such areas men also do better on average.

(It’s worth thinking about terms such as “essentialist” and “sexist”, as well as the terms “inferiority” and “superiority” in this context. Is one an “essentialist” if one believes that, due largely to genetics, the mean of women is greater than that of men in writing skill, but that at the upper end more men excel? Is one a “sexist”? Is one’s belief in the “inferiority” or “superiority” of men? How do we even understand the crude, simplistic concepts of “essentialist” and “sexist”, as well as even more dubious terms as “inferiority” and “superiority”, given such complex kinds of possibilities?)

The best way to understand the phenomena of women’s relative achievements in these areas (and more generally) is as the product of many highly local decisions as to who is the best person for a given job. It is very easy from a distance to look at the compiled statistics and declare that something is obviously awry because it falls short of an expected number. But if each local decision is correct, or at least reasonable, the injustice of the overall outcome is difficult to discern. What one typically sees on the local level is a relatively small set of individuals competing for the job, and some pretty clear evidence and instinct as to who might be best. And it’s very often quite hard indeed to see how that evidence and instinct are themselves far off-base in the particular cases.

Thus, for example, one may deplore the dearth of women at high positions in journalism — as, say, does the NY Times in the article linked above. But if one is, say, a member of the NY Times staff or management, it’s likely obvious enough why Jill Abramson, in the concrete, is just bad news as executive editor, and needs to be fired, and that there’s nobody else in the management pool who’s a woman who seems like a plausible candidate to replace her.

Likewise one can deplore that women are very far from parity in philosophy. But if one is asked to make the “local” decision as to who might be the top five most important philosophers in the last thirty years, no woman philosopher passes the laugh test when proposed for this distinction. We compare the individual cases we know well side-by-side, and we can’t make a decision that would counter the overall outcome.

Of course one might say that some form of implicit bias lies behind these local decisions, suppressing women’s numbers. But one wonders where this implicit bias comes from in professions such as writing and journalism. In those domains, women are recognized as on average distinctly more skilled than men throughout their training, and the numbers of women in the pipeline are at many levels quite high, often exceeding parity. Moreover, given the overarching pressure to bring up the proportion of women, it is surprising indeed that this cannot overcome whatever implicit bias might exist. Does anyone really believe that the NY Times wouldn’t infinitely prefer to show the world better numbers than it does?

I expect I’ll return to these facts and ruminations in some later post.

Another deplorable failure of my cynicism to keep up

When I had started this blog I had certainly expected a lot of stupidity thrown my way; it just comes with the territory. But it has become evident that I was clearly mistaken as to the rankness of the stupidity, and the direction from which it would disgorge.

It had seemed a reasonable belief that I would catch holy fiery hell from the feminists. Of course my argument that there was likely an important biological basis to the small numbers of women in philosophy would “trigger” them in chain reaction. By the logic of such things, my views would have to be denounced and my character impugned.

What I didn’t expect is what I have seen in a number of comments here, on threads on Philosophers Anonymous, and now on Philosophy Metablog. There, I have been treated to bizarre abuse by a number of people who themselves declare that the feminists are wildly out of control.

Now I get that, for political purposes, my views may be regarded as too far out, so that some who oppose feminism in its current incarnation may wish not to be associated with them.

But why would I anticipate that some of these people who claim feminism has lost its bearings would treat me and my views in the same ugly fashion which they denounce in feminists?

If they regard smear attacks from feminists as a problem, then how do they justify their smear attacks on me? If the tribalistic attitude of feminists is bad, how might they excuse their own attempts to stir up their tribe against me and my views? If thought-policing and suppression of inconvenient views is a perverse wrong of current feminism, how is it right when they do it with the views I’ve been setting forth?

Are these people incapable utterly of looking in the mirror?

And do they really think that I should not protest the smears they throw my way?

In a way this is all particularly bizarre to me because of a simple point: one day – not too many years from now – it’s going to be established beyond serious dispute whether, based on biology, women differ from men in their distribution of traits that relate to achievement in various fields. The science is progressing, and won’t be stopped. When that day arrives, either my side will be vindicated, or that of my opponents will be. It requires no genius to figure out which side I believe will almost certainly prevail.

The point is, this isn’t a moral or political argument in the end. It’s an argument about fact and science. If you choose wrong, and insist you are right, you will be exposed someday as a fool. Your only excuse will be that you were in a wide company of fools. So you may comfort yourself that are sheep instead – a proud honor of course for a philosopher.

Now I’m not going to assert that every aspect of what I’m claiming must turn out to be true. I have argued that in philosophy in particular the numbers of women is low importantly because of poorer representation of women in the upper regions of talent for abstraction, and that that is due to biology. I regard this as a natural extrapolation from the primarily biological bases of the gender gap in mathematics at the upper end, which, again in my view, are well established. But if others don’t agree with this, and wish to get more direct evidence on the point (I do believe there’s some, but it is harder to come by), then I’m fine with that. On the other hand, I don’t see any serious argument that it shouldn’t be so. And, if the direct evidence in terms of biology on ability at abstraction is less strong than such evidence for ability at mathematics, it’s likewise true that any evidence of cultural explanations, such as “stereotype threat”, for gaps in achievement in an abstract, but almost entirely verbal, field like philosophy is utterly lacking as well. And, as I argued in my previous post, it’s the acceptance of the viability of the genetic hypothesis that’s most important from a moral and political point of view.

But I do think that there is not even the slightest hope that the standard view about the relation of gender to achievement will hold up. That view is based on the almost absurd notion that gender is nothing more than a social construct. The amount of evidence that biological processes derived from gender affect behavioral traits is already overwhelming. It could scarcely be more natural and inevitable than to extrapolate from such traits to those that would affect choices to pursue one kind of human endeavor rather than other kinds—which by itself might go a good distance to explain shortfalls from parity in women in philosophy. Only overweening ideology might incline one to believe otherwise.

The view that biology, as related to gender, has no important effect on achievement, as common it is, and as much as it clearly motivates even my opponents who declare their outrage over the behavior of feminists, is simply doomed to failure; only the date of reckoning is uncertain. And be prepared: when biology gets its nose in under the tent, don’t expect it will stay at the edge in deference to our feelings.

Among the sorts of things my opponents have been saying about my views is that they are “crackpot” – that the resemble belief in homeopathy, or Nazi ideas about race. I find myself aghast that such ignorance, and the irrepressible need to express it, could be found within the discipline of philosophy. The sorts of views I’ve argued for have been espoused by such well known figures as Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge and Stephen Pinker of Harvard. Cordelia Fine wrote an entire book, Delusions of Gender, in an attempt to “refute” the host of scientists who hold these sorts of views. She did so precisely because these views represent, if anything, the default position among working scientists who study gender and have a background in biology. One might disagree with the views, but to dismiss them as “crackpot” is itself, demonstrably, crackpot.

I must say that in general the treatment my views have received at the hands of a number of philosophers only furthers my belief that philosophy, rather than fostering the capacity for independent thought, seems far more often in practice  to diminish it. One would think that, for example, philosophers of biology would rise to the defense of the many working scientists who pursue the question of the biology of gender, and other controversial topics, at least with respect to their right as scientists to investigate these topics and come to whatever conclusions they might. Philosophers of biology are, instead, nowhere to be found on this issue except, of course, on the other side, effectively undermining and attempting to discredit such work.

These scientists will nonetheless pursue their work, the evidence will mount, and finally the popular tide will turn against the purely cultural explanations. I am persuaded by now that philosophers in general, and philosophers of biology in particular, will be the last to know. Even education departments may well figure it out before philosophy departments do. Our ability to think independently of ideology is impaired, not enhanced, by our training in argument.

Philosophers like to posture as possessing some particular insight into methods of argument, scientific and otherwise. How do you think people outside the discipline will regard philosophers when the truth breaks through the dam of obfuscation?

What did you do in The War, Daddy and Mommy?

Out and about with the thought that dare not speak its name

You come too!

One of the most curious things about the operation of political correctness is how certain obvious thoughts go missing from public view. They do so not because any evidence or considerations have turned up that a sensible person would take as refutation. Rather, they disappear because to believe them is held out to be so offensive that they are deemed unworthy of public discussion. The unmistakable sign of this is that no talk of these ideas–on those rare occasions it takes place–can go on without disparagement of the motives of those who might entertain them. Whatever logic and evidence may stand against the suggestions is never regarded as sufficient unto itself to address them. The moral angle is urgent, and is required for proper social closure.

So it is with the hypothesis that women don’t appear in the same numbers as men in a variety of settings largely because of biological differences. Immediately upon bringing up the possibility, one is greeted, not with real argument, but rather with terms like “sexist”, “essentialist”, comparisons with reviled groups (I’ve even heard Nazi comparisons— was Godwin’s Law discovered in vain?), and the ordnance of smears devised and perfected to squelch opposition.

But, the thing is, I just like to entertain ideas. I can take entire days out of my life to consider whether I might be a brain in a vat, and suppose my time satisfactorily spent. If that is an idea not too outlandish to ponder, why not the proposition that women and men may differ in their distributions of talents and interests based on biology?

So here I am. And not only do I entertain the proposition, I now believe it is strongly warranted.

Perhaps a little history on how I came to hold it is in order. A number of years back, I didn’t really believe in it. I was aware, as is most everybody, of the standard explanations of the gap in women’s achievements at the upper end across a number of endeavors: bias, explicit and implicit, stereotype threat, enculturation into constrained roles, etc. If someone proposed that perhaps biology was at work, I was a quick as anyone to point to these alternative explanations. But what always struck and bothered me, even back then, was that that was all I could do: produce alternative explanations. I could find no compelling argument against an importantly genetic explanation. Nor could I make out an argument that the cultural explanations might be adequate; at most, I could suppose that they might be so. And one thing that just bugged me more and more over the years is how, in certain domains, women rose in their numbers to parity, and in other domains, those numbers seemed to be going nowhere. Why no women mathematicians at the Fields Medal level? Why no ideas from women philosophers which struck me as interesting as those from the best male philosophers? Why virtually no women Nobel winners in physics and economics, or, as best I could make out, recent theories or experiments by women that might someday win a Nobel? Why so few high level achievements (although certainly there are some) from women even in biology and medicine, where their numbers are otherwise considerable?

At some point, these sorts of strains, along with a developing interest in biology and evolution, inclined me to investigate the genetic hypothesis more seriously. I can only report that walking a mile in the shoes of the genetic hypothesis was, for me, fatal to my belief in the dominantly environmental hypothesis. When one beholds the world through the eyes of the dominantly genetic hypothesis, virtually all that was a conundrum and a tribulation to explain clicks right into place.

I certainly appreciate the difficulty of this sort of transition for most people. The notion of perfect equality in aptitudes and interests across genders is the water in which we swim. In much of the academy, virtually everybody who’s anybody believes it. I found my own experience overthrowing this belief to be much akin to the period of my adolescence in which I came to overthrow my belief in God. Everybody I had known through all of my youth believed in God—or at least had said that they did. Seeing through the poor arguments for God’s existence, realizing that people I knew professed the belief only because all others around them professed it, and coming to reject it, was no easy matter. But the logic was what it was, and repudiate it I did.

Now I don’t intend in this post to convince anyone as to the strong evidence for the genetic hypothesis. Rather, I want to persuade people simply that it is an hypothesis we must take seriously. We must do so not only for rational, scientific reasons, but for social and moral reasons.

Certainly today’s larger culture regards the genetic hypothesis as obviously false — so obviously so indeed that we need not act in any way as if it might turn out to be true. If the number of women in a given domain falls well below 50%, then, in all mainstream media outlets, in the halls of the academy, in the courts, and even in Fortune 500 boardrooms, it is regarded as a problem that can be fixed by proper cultural adjustment. This is presumed even though the nature and location of that adjustment may be speculation at most.

It always seems to me a very strange fact that in the discipline of philosophy as well this attitude reigns supreme. Is there any other discipline more fully committed on principle and in tradition to the probing of authority and assumptions?

One would think that a belief held so vehemently by so many – that the cultural explanation is the only acceptable one – would have some overwhelming argument it must be true, either on theory or on evidence. Yet even the briefest foray into the matter shows otherwise. There exists no serious theoretical ground on which to eliminate the genetic hypothesis. Certainly women and men have been subjected to differing selection pressures in evolution. Cognitive and emotional traits may well have – and on the evidence would seem to have — a biological, genetic component. And so evolution may easily have altered the distributions of men and women on these traits in response to differing selection pressures. So on a priori grounds it is a perfectly plausible hypothesis.

But is there empirical evidence against it? If such direct evidence of its inadequacy exists, I just don’t know what it is. And this is not because there’s nothing realistic that would count as such direct evidence. The general claim about the genetic hypothesis here is that women, in their aptitudes for and inclinations toward abstract or deeply mathematical subjects, follow a very different distribution from that of men at the extreme right tail. That tail for women approaches zero distinctly faster, becoming far thinner than that for men. If in these domains considerable numbers of women came to exist at this extreme right tail, that would count as substantial evidence of the failure of the genetic hypothesis. Indeed even a single woman at the topmost level – say a woman in philosophy every bit the equal of Kripke or Quine or David Lewis – would seriously call into question the hypothesis. But these women don’t exist–not a single one at the very top in any such area. As easy as it would seem to be to undermine the genetic hypothesis, even by a single counterexample, it just hasn’t happened. (This is actually quite remarkable, given how much encouragement talented girls and women in such areas receive today. The world sees to it that it is their oyster. They are invited to every prestigious program and showered with every honor. They are placed first in line for the best research opportunities. Yet all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t manage to lift any woman into the Pantheon of any of these disciplines.)

So if there’s nothing either in theory or in empirical evidence to undercut the genetic hypothesis, it should on rational grounds be accorded some real respectability as an hypothesis. Only one issue remains: does the competing environmental hypothesis offer a much more compelling and complete explanation? If the genetic hypothesis decisively loses the competition, it may be rejected.

Yet no one can seriously claim that the environmental explanation in its current form neatly ties up all loose ends. The case of philosophy is on point. Some people claim the explanation is sexual harassment, or some other aspect of “climate”. Some people claim it’s something in our culture prior to university. Some people say it’s stereotype threat. And of course a number of people assert it’s some combination of all these factors. As explanations go, this is simply a mess. No one really knows how much any of these factors might contribute. Nor is there any kind of argument that, taken together, they exactly suffice to explain what we see. The environmental explanation is at best a work in progress. As an hypothesis trying to explain data, it entirely lacks the precise predictive power and simplicity of the genetic hypothesis. The genetic hypothesis produces bell curves of achievement for these areas based on simple parameters of means and standard deviations. And what we see are data that fit these curves as exactly as data might ever do.

The behavior on these extreme tails is not one strand of evidence among many. It is precisely where one would expect to see the environmental and genetic hypotheses most clearly diverge in their predictions. Who can reasonably assert that the genetic account of this behavior fares far worse than does the environmental account?

Now again my point here is not that one is obliged to accept the genetic hypothesis. It is rather that one is obliged to accept the viability of the genetic hypothesis.

As I have said, we have reached a point in our culture in which aspersions are routinely cast on those who come forward to suggest merely that there might be something to the genetic hypothesis. Yet those who actually study the phenomena relevant to the gap, even when they are strong advocates for a largely environmental explanation of that gap, are, with rare exception, quick to acknowledge that genetics may play a role. Such a concession appears to be requisite for credibility as a scientist in their domain. They of course go on to assert that that role is relatively small – though it must be said they virtually never offer a convincing reason that it should be small rather than substantial.

Now why my insistence here on the viability or plausibility of the genetic hypothesis?

Because it has everything to do with how we all proceed as a society and philosophy as a discipline. If it may very well be that the number of women in an endeavor, and at various levels of an endeavor, has an important genetic base, then a failure to achieve parity is not a presumptive case of injustice.

The crucial question at stake here is: what sort of measures to improve the prospects of women are we obliged to take? If we hold that it is obvious that women should achieve 50% in every domain, then, in domains where there is a great shortfall from that number, and in which little or no progress has been made to date, the measures must be radical indeed compared to what has taken place so far. Given the injustice now borne by women, these measures may reasonably come at great expense to men, and perhaps in some cases even to ordinary rights including some due process considerations. If we do not hold that it’s obvious, and grant that genetics may play a role, we can only justify far more moderate responses. We must factor the expense to men and to ordinary rights of a measure into the decision to adopt it.

Now one may argue that even if we are agnostic about whether the gap is based in part on genetics, we must consider the great harm to women if it is not, and only radical environmental measures will correct the problem. This argument has some merit, even weighing into the balance the harm that will come to men and ordinary rights if those radical measures are adopted. But here I think we really must at minimum take into account the history and outcomes of measures already adopted to improve prospects for women across activities. One simply can’t discount the plain fact that, in some domains, those measures have proved sufficient to bring women to parity and more. It becomes, then, a difficult argument to make that things in other domains are so very different that only radical measures will suffice in these domains when nothing of the sort was required in the domains now at full parity. Certainly the difficulty of that argument must tell against the adoption of radical measures that exact harm on men and ordinary rights. I think we must defer to the rule: extraordinary measures require extraordinary evidence.

This leaves us in the following situation. We should continue to eliminate or reduce as best we can any impediments to success that seem likely on their merits to present a real drag on women achieving to their potential. But we cannot argue that the lack of parity itself can only be explained by environmental influences that must exist, and must be corrected. So we can’t simply declare that, say, philosophy to this very day has a “climate problem” undermining the success of women, even though there exist genuine abuses in how women are sometimes treated in philosophy (and in the academy more generally). Sexual harassment and sexual predation are cases in point. It is one thing to say that something is inherently wrong and should be reduced. It is quite another to say that the full burden of the oppression of a group rests upon eliminating that thing—for that we have no good reason to believe.

The only sensible position we can take as a society and a discipline is that we just don’t and can’t know a priori where the proportion of women in various domains should settle. In a given domain, it may be 90% women, or 10% (or even fewer). We should remove or ameliorate the things for which there are good arguments that they are genuine obstacles. We should, in my view – which differs markedly from the libertarian view — also compensate for such things as implicit (or other) bias by some measure of Affirmative Action. The degree of Affirmative Action should be calibrated to the degree of implicit (or other) bias one can measure objectively. It should not be calibrated to compensate for the shortfall from 50%, which may be great. To do so can easily engender great injustices on an individual basis, undermine the standards by which achievement is evaluated, and, potentially, corrupt the standards of quality in the discipline itself.

Adopting a neutral stand on the degree to which genetics may play a role in women’s achievements is also paramount for another reason. We likely will never be able to predict with any accuracy just how many women might come to the fore in various activities, and disciplines and subdisciplines. A priori, it was not obvious that women might become 80% or more of clinical psychologists, or 50% of physicians and molecular biologists. A priori, it was not obvious that women might become roughly 40% of moral philosophers or historians of philosophy. Only by removing the barriers to entry that had been put in place was this potential uncovered.

Yet it is already becoming evident that in certain areas there is now relatively little movement in the numbers of women, suggesting we are at point of diminishing returns. In philosophy, the number of women in metaphysics, philosophy of logic, philosophy of language, and epistemology seems to be largely stuck at about 10%. This appears to be true as well for the variety of pure or theoretical branches of other disciplines, including mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, economics, and even biology.

In general, in any discipline or subdiscipline, I think that what we need to look at for guidance is the asymptote to which the numbers are approaching. That asymptote likely captures well what we should anticipate going forward, and we should adjust our expectations and corrective actions to those asymptotic numbers. This is likely the only way we will converge on fair proportions. We may attempt to project fair numbers based on what we may come to know about the distribution of aptitudes and interests of women vs. men via psychological and other studies. But it is unlikely that those numbers will tell us something very useful at the level of detail of all subdisciplines. How, for example, might it predict that 40% of moral philosophers would be women, when the exact characterization of moral philosophy on the features of possible relevance – perhaps level of abstraction and engagement with human beings — would be almost impossible to settle on?

Here I conclude my post. Even though I am myself quite convinced of the genetic hypothesis, I think an agnostic view regarding the genetic vs. environmental question is the only sensible way to proceed as a society and a discipline, until the issue is more definitively settled. Such a view allows us to keep intact the ordinary rights, processes, and freedoms we have come to expect, staving off revolutionary moves of dubious merit.

Sexual harassment in medicine, and the lesson for philosophy

I’m now in the midst of reading Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine. I had read some sizable chunks of it in the past, but felt an obligation to clean my plate. I’m reading it so you don’t have to–all the while wishing that someone would read it so I didn’t have to.

Mostly it’s been quite predictable in its polemics and not as amusing as all its gushing blurbs might lead one to believe. (Do people get the distinction between wit and sarcasm anymore?)

Anyway, Fine, in one of her loose cannon jeremiads against the Patriarchy, really ends up shooting her larger argument in the foot. Evidence she brings up regarding sexual harassment actually undercuts the usual feminist explanations of supposed shortfalls in numbers of women in various settings.

She describes sexual harassment in medicine, as of the date 1992:

[A]lmost all of the ninety-nine female medical residents at Southern University interviewed by sociologist Susan Hinze reported experiencing “sexual harassment that makes the workplace intimidating, hostile, or offensive.” Surgery, the most prestigious branch of medicine, offered by far the most hostile environment to women. Yet the recurring theme in Hinze’s follow-up interviews was not anger, or even victimhood, but whether women were being overly sensitive to sexist and demeaning treatment. For example, a woman who was repeatedly patted on the behind by an anesthesiology attending physician wondered whether the discomfort this caused her was a sign she was being too sensitive. She deliberated on whether, if she mentioned it, her colleagues would say “whooa, she’s a real bitch, she’s sure uptight, she’s sure sensitive.” Another resident was furious when a male faculty member, seeing her shivering, said “Oh, I wish I could just take you in my lap like I would my little girl, and hold you tight and warm you up.” As she angrily pointed out to the interviewer, “I’m not here to remind him of his daughter. I’ve gotten this far in life and I remind him of his little daughter?” But other people reassured her that there was nothing objectionable about his comment. And female medical students offended by one surgeon’s habit of referring to them as ‘little girl’ were denounced as ‘hypersensitive’ by a male peer who suggested that women’s ‘nerve endings’ are ‘absolutely naked’ and thus primed to take offense.

But contrary to this opinion, the female residents actually seemed to be working hard to, as Hinze suggests, ‘downplay the incidents and view them as a “normal” part of a bruising training experience’…and to either ignore it (‘I’m in surgery; I can’t sweat the small stuff’) or see the need for change in themselves rather than in those who harassed them. As one resident warned, “if you blow up every little comment that somebody makes to you…you’re too sensitive.” One surgery resident described the experience of discovering in the restrooms an explicit cartoon of herself, bent over, and her mentor engaged in sexual intercourse. Another resident had added an arrow and the comment that he wished he could be in the latter’s position. The woman recalled to Hinze:

“I thought, this just really sums up…my position in the department of [name removed] surgery, something I’ve worked for for a lot of years, not my whole life, but a lot of years, and they reduce all my hard work and all my sacrifice and my brains and my technical abilities and everything that I’ve done to this, you know, like this is how they perceive, you know, me. [R becomes visibly upset, begins crying]”

She filed no complaint but looked to herself to adapt to the hostile environment (“I might as well just get over it”) without any expectation that she should not have to deal with this kind of treatment at work (“that’s just how men are”).

Now that’s pretty horrible, right? Essentially all ninety-nine of the female residents report sexual harassment. The examples are nasty indeed. (Here’s Hinze’s original research on which Fine bases her observations.)

But here’s the thing. If this is representative of the degree of sexual harassment in medicine in 1992 – and one can only presume it was no better and likely worse in earlier years – then how explain the following graph?

Note that in 1992 the number of women medical school graduates was very close to 40%, having risen from 5.5% in 1961—and the numbers march on to basic parity in 2005.

Fine depicts pervasive and almost scurrilous sexual harassment in medicine in 1992. Does that harassment appear to have put any crimp in the dramatic and seemingly relentless increase in the number of women?

Which brings us to the moral of the story. Consider sexual harassment in philosophy today. Does it seem worse than, or even as bad as, what Fine describes for medicine? I think most of us would find such a claim a tad hard to support. And yet the number of women in philosophy is low and scarcely increasing, utterly unlike what we see in medicine.

Pursuers of Truth might conclude that sexual harassment is not the likely cause of the dearth of women in philosophy.

This is an excellent insight. We all owe a tip of the hat to Cordelia Fine!

There they go again

I had hoped not to write about the latest scandal in philosophy, in the expectation (or was it the wish?) that it would quickly pass into the mists.

According to the author of this piece, she had a sexual relationship with a famous philosopher of global justice who at some point lied to her about his relationship status and whether she was his one and only mistress. She was not his student, and met him by sending him on her own initiative an admiring email. The two met, talked philosophy for a couple of hours, the author propositioned him, and he accepted. Neither she nor he brought up the issue of his or her other entanglements at this point. The affair continued, the author then pressed these questions, and Professor Famous gave answers which seemed pretty sketchy.

This sort of story seems mind-numbingly common, vulgar, and predictable. It also seems far removed from the usual concerns of sexual harassment and sexual predation within institutions. One would ordinarily think that it could have no legs as an issue for philosophy as a discipline.

Oh, but it does! Not only has Feminist Philosophers jumped all over it, it has been taken up in a long, insufferably pompous and moralizing comment thread at Daily Nous. By the usual stretches, strains, and mob hysteria of feminism, the story depicts an egregious abuse of power by Professor Famous. After all, he is in a position of power in his particular field, a field shared by the student – what if she wants a letter of reference from him some day, or he speaks ill of her to others? For this, he must be exposed and held accountable to the full profession.

But here’s the thing. Let’s suppose that the feminists are right about this case, and that Professor Famous needs to have his name dragged through the mud as appropriate punishment and deterrent to others. As good Kantians, we need to ask ourselves: how can this episode be generalized upon? Are such cases to be tried on the internet, by anonymous authors, and decided by the weight of rumor? No doubt there are a number of such cases, but also an indeterminate number of greatly distorted or fabricated stories exactly resembling them, and deliberately so. How many possible men are in the doorway?

But what’s the alternative to trial by anonymous rumor? To set up a discipline wide authority that might take such accusations and adjudicate them?

I just don’t know which of these two possibilities is worse. It seems nothing could be worse than to encourage anonymous accusations and rumor mongering to determine whether an individual is “guilty” of some sexual impropriety with someone else in the profession. But to set up an official discipline-wide authority seems only more invasive, oppressive, arbitrary, and Orwellian. Who can possibly answer the question as to which individuals are supposedly crossing power boundaries, and whether the relationship is appropriate under the circumstances? What number of sexual partners counts as sexual predation? How big does the age difference have to be? Does lying count, as it seems to for the feminists in this case? Is a kink beyond acceptable creepiness if all the women are young virginal Asians?

You know, I remember too well having these sorts of sordid discussions with right-wingers back in the day when Clinton was President. Ken Starr and his merry crew of panty sniffers couldn’t stop talking about how predatory Clinton had been with young women. I found their uncontrollable need to intrude on consensual private sexual affairs repugnant and perverted. Yet they had a far more compelling case than the feminist sniffers of today. At least it could be said that Monica Lewinsky was indeed a young WH intern, albeit eager as they come.

I don’t know how philosophy as a discipline goes forward if we respond to this latest round of feminist hectoring and sermonizing and bullying by rolling over.

Things have been really bad. But things will get really, really worse.