Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Code, Weinberg, Nichols, and Stich

A quick story to relate, then out of town for a few days. Several weeks ago we read Lorraine Code's "Taking Subjectivity Into Account" in my epistemology class. The reception, to put it nicely, was frosty. Many students took exception to her claim that mainstream epistemology represents the biases of wealthy white males (which is pretty much the wording she uses).

Then a couple of weeks ago we read this article by Jonathan Winberg, Shaun Nichols, and Stephen Stich. It's entitled "Normativity and Epistemic Intuitions" and it's received a lot of attention. I like the article a lot, too.

The last sentence of their article is:
We think that the best reaction to the High-SES [High-SocioEconomic Status], Western philosophy professor who tries to draw normative conclusions from the facts about “our” intuitions is to ask: What do you mean “we”?
That it pretty much exactly what Code was arguing about 20 years ago. So you'd think there would be a similar outcry in class -- but there wasn't. Why not? Well, part of it might be rhetoric: Weinberg et al. conducted surveys to arrive at their conclusion; Code didn't. But that didn't seem to be a factor for my students. A few of them said they thought the surveys were either poorly designed or just foolish: of course people will have different epistemic intuitions.

Maybe people had come around to what Code was saying in the intervening weeks. I think that might be possible. But I think the real reason was that people responded with hostility to a piece that was clearly in the vein of feminist epistemology. They were much more receptive, even blase, about a more straightforward, apparently value-neutral article.

Of course I don't mean to single out my students. What goes for them goes for the philosophical profession as a whole. I like both of these articles, but it's sort of dismaying to see the same point made 20 years later, and receive a lot of attention, when it was made just as well by Lorraine Code.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Bishop and Trout: Epistemology and The Psychology of Human Judgment

We've started reading the above book in my epistemology course. I'm quite a fan of it, liking the authors' discussion of "Standard Analytic Epistemology" and their replacement project which can be called either "ameliorative psychology" or "applied epistemology." It's a really good book, and a complete breath of fresh air.

Bishop and Trout make a big deal of "Statistical Prediction Rules" or SPRs that, they argue, outperform experts on particular tasks. So, for instance, there's an SPR that tells you whether a convict is likely to commit another crime. And these SPRs are usually better at these kinds of questions than the experts.

Of course, no one likes to hear this. We like to think we're better than a stupid rule, and we'd like to think that we have special insights that make us more reliable than, say, a neophyte who follows a rule, but doesn't really understand. Sadly, we may be wrong about this. As Bishop and Trout argue, when people deviate from an SPR (thinking they have additional knowledge that undermines its validity in a particular case) they usually do worse than if they'd continued following the SPR.

But several good ideas did come out of our discussion. One was this: while we may not object to SPRs on epistemic grounds, we may object to them on other grounds. Consider this: perhaps there's an SPR that will tell you who's most likely to hijack an airplane. And that SPR may say that you should use racial profiling: don't waste your time on the grandmothers; instead focus on the young unmarried men of Arab descent. Would we be justified in using the SPR? The thought in class was that there would be other considerations that would trump the epistemic value of using the SPR: specifically, considerations of justice and fairness. That seems like a fair point to me.

Thus, while we may be wrong to defect from an SPR on epistemic grounds, we may be justified defecting on other grounds, including grounds of justice and ethics.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Back to Blogging

It's been a busy month, and blogging has been low priority. So I'm hoping to get back in the swing with a few short posts. This one struck me just a few days ago:

The Leiter Report (always a source of ideas) has been previewing the results of the latest Gourmet report. Last week, it reported the rankings of departments in the history of philosophy. The link is here.

According to the Leiter report, "History of Philosophy" refers to the following:

Ancient Philosophy; Medieval Philosophy; Early Modern Philosophy: 17th Century; Early Modern Philosophy: 18th Century (excluding Kant); Kant and German Idealism; 19th-Century Continental Philosophy After Hegel; History of Analytic Philosophy (including Wittgenstein); 20th-Century Continental Philosophy.
I was sorry to see that "American Philosophy" appeared nowhere on that list. It's a special shame since some of the departments listed do have strengths in American Philosophy (Toronto, e.g., but others, too).

It's a shame on a number of levels: first, that we don't appreciate our own philosophical heritage; second, because American Philosophy isn't included in the rankings, there's no incentive for departments to emphasize it in hope of moving up a notch or two. In short, there's no penalty for completely ignoring American Philosophy -- when it actually has a lot to offer in contemporary philosophical debates.