Sexism in philosophy and the ‘rigorous sciences’: What Happens When you think you are too smart for the rules to apply to you
The list owner of the list I was on posted some of these links circa the Colorado case, and more generally, the PR image of philosophy in-house and beyond. I did not read through everything in there since I have some real philosophy to wrestle with now, but there were inferences made there by some of the commentators in the links that there are those who made ‘hostile’ remarks about philosophy that are ignorant about philosophy and how it functions. Also in the laughingphilosophers’ blog, there is a woman philosopher who did point to the real problem with philosophy and the people in it, but I think subsequent comments below did not quite register what she was saying, being more incline to ‘talk philosophy’ that does not bring to bear on the real issue at hand. I am not reposting here, the comments that the list-owner had received and re-posted (with the poster’s name removed) that both supported and rebuked Rebecca Schuman‘s article, and all the other articles relating to the larger issue of sexism in philosophy (and sexual harassment more particularly). As you all know, when public accusations are made on sexual harassment by one person to another, other parties not in the direct line of fire tend to be reticent about stepping in because they fear, rightly or wrongly, that there will be public shaming based on he said, she said.
Sometimes, professional philosophers remind me of my physics professors: the former consider their form of thinking the most rigorous of everyone in the humanities. As someone who has to actually study analytic philosophy (like really study) because of the nature of my work (even though I am officially in a department that mostly do work in critical theory and continental philosophy, which I also work with), I have a taste of the thinking process involved. My physics professors had (have?) the same attitude towards anyone who is not doing physics (or mathematics), whereby all the other fields that are not in the hard physical sciences (biology, medical sciences, etc) are considered as ‘soft sciences,’ insufficiently rigorous, and the people in it as not that smart (and of course, there are more women in them). That attitude could be the reason why some of them behave the way they do, thinking that they are too brilliant for social niceties and awareness. Coming from such a background, I actually used to think that my physics professors were right, but by the time I started studying philosophy, I knew neither of the abovementioned principals are right. I let you be the judge.
A report on this in the Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/headlines/ci_25035043/cu-sexual-harassment-philosophy-department (see also http://www.dailycamera.com/cu-news/ci_25039305/cu-boulder-philosophy-faculty-shocked-by-decision-release).
A robust response to the Slate essay: http://laughingphilosopherblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/what-the-lay-public-thinks-it-knows-about-philosophy-today/
Brian Leiter’s brief blog on the subject: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2014/01/colorados-philosophy-department-put-into-a-kind-of-receivership.html
A report from an APA ad-hoc committee on sexual harassment: http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/resmgr/sexualharassmentreport.pdf
An open letter in response to the APA report, from members of the Colorado Dept: http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/a-post-from-colorado-climate-committee-co-chairs/ : “The strict rules of confidentiality that govern these matters make it impossible for us to know how many people have been accused of sexual harassment and how many, if any, have been sanctioned after a full inquiry. But from everything that we have been told by our administration, it is a relatively small number of individuals and this certainly coheres with our own experiences and understanding of the matter. We believe that the vast majority of our faculty are decent and highly professional people who care deeply about each other and the welfare of their students, and have not engaged in objectionable behavior of the sort that the report describes. We very much hope that the reputations of innocent people—especially faculty and graduate students in our department—will not be unfairly tarnished by the public release of the report. At the same time, we want to emphasize that the primary victims here are the people who have found themselves on the receiving end of unacceptable behavior and that our primary focus will remain—as it has been for the last several years—to do our best to improve the situation in our Department for them and for all of us. While we firmly believe that it is a relatively small number of individuals who have generated the problem, we are adamant in our belief that any number greater than zero is too many.”
An earlier essay relevant to the larger issue by Jennifer Saul (Sheffield): http://www.salon.com/2013/08/15/philosophy_has_a_sexual_harassment_problem/
If you want a more thorough understanding of what my dissertation project is about:
If you prefer a public friendly version (but you won’t get the full drift), try
So you see, I never got to be that lady who lunches.
More to come after March 21.
I wrote this up as an article initially as an outcome of a class I took on qualitative research. I see this project as connected to the larger goals of connecting science with the humanities, though it might not be so evident yet in this article. But I hope to produce a more extensive work, further down the road, for publication. Comments and thoughts welcomed.
One stormy night, an English teenager was holed up in country villa together with her boyfriend and their friend. To rouse themselves from ennui, they exchanged gossips, and when that lost its entertainment value, began to read ghost stories to each other. Then, the guys started boasting over how they could each, probably, write better supernatural tales than the ones they had just read. The girl, had had enough and decided to call it a night. Unfortunately, her rest was waylaid by a vivid nightmare she could not shake off. That night, a tale of horror and scientific hubris was born; as was a nineteenth century German doctor she christened Frankenstein. The girl was Mary Godwin, her boyfriend Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend, the infamous Lord Byron.
Frankenstein went down in fictional history because it was the first time that science was galvanized to bring to life a creature assembled from human corpses; at least one story well-known to the reading and movie-watching public. The imagined possibility of such an act coincided with the philosophy of vitalism popular at the time, which sat at the intersection of the physical and the biological, and thus, of the biophysical. However, the point of the fictional example is to foreground the kind of scientific preparations and multiple technical skill-sets required to bring to fruition any physics experiment regardless of the consequence: an experimentalist who designs the test and determines the parameters for the experiment, an instrumentalist who develops the right combination of apparatuses needed for the experiment, and a theorist who conjures the theories for the experimentalist and instrumentalist to work with.
Since Frankenstein, the image of a scientist has undergone multiple rebranding and the scientist of today has risen to a degree of sophisticated portrayal unprecedented in popular culture. Physicists of various pedigrees have popped up in shows as diverse as the geek-fest Star Trek, the corny Back to the Future, and conspiratorial Angels and Demons. The latest incarnation takes the form of popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where four male and two female characters from different physical and life sciences backgrounds are representative embodiments of the experimentalists, theorists, and instrumentalists.
Even as the sitcom strikes a chord with its clever scripting featuring ingenuous, slick, and intelligent exchanges – with care paid to the ‘accurate’ description of physics theories emerging at any point during the conversations – the show does not sufficiently map the less than homogenous and complex cognitive world of a physicist at work, or of how a physicist tries to connect his/her work to the rest of the world. In the rare occasion that happens, the script tends to fall back into romantic stereotypes.
It was the desire to understand better how physicists think about concepts such as precision and ambiguity, the certain and uncertain, potentiality and constraints, theory and experiment; as well as the language used to articulate these dichotomous continuum; that brings about investigations into the sociology, history, and philosophy of physics to pierce the shroud of physics knowledge-construction. The fields of physics that generate the most interest have historically been in the big sciences, from space science and nuclear physics of the yesteryear to the particle physics of today. Big science, with the complexity of its socio-politics as well as potential for high-drama, is rich material for reality-TV science.
Recently, I conducted a survey with a small posse of physicists to assess their relationship to the Standard Model of particle physics through questions on the unification of forces, possibilities beyond the Standard Model, and the influence of external push-factors on their work with physics. Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize was not yet announced at the time of the survey so I could get their responses. Nevertheless, below are some items of interest from the bucket list of responses.
Foremost, language is very important to a physicist as it marks the main difference between new age spiel and scientific rigor. Physicists are particularly insistent that the choice of descriptors used to portray their thinking and work should present a physics that is delimited by the scientific method: a euphemism for the taming of unruly and capricious Nature. Just as we need rules and routines to give sufficient calm and order to an otherwise frenetic life, the physicists need to have the right language to organize the data they collect, and to work out the expanse of uncertainty in relation to what is known. They want precision in the terms used to deal with the malleability and ever-changeability of knowledge at the frontier. Moreover, they do not like to be perceived as ideologues, and are thus ambivalent over the use words such as “belief.” For at least one of the respondents, “belief” has a connotation of “faith” rather than “fact.”
Facts are produced of theoretical models proved to be the best predictor (and sometimes, description) of the latest knowledge based on the available methods for testing and falsifying these models. The Standard Model itself has proven rather resilient despite being put through multiple experimental wringers, and the confidence level for the existence of the Higgs Boson that would provide the final confirmation were found to be sufficiently high across the different direct and indirect searches for the boson. While ‘belief’ is applied philosophically to represent the degree of certainty validating the scientific value of a knowledge set, physicists would prefer using words that have strict mathematical and logical denotations, such as the statistical terms deployed for describing a particular physical property or state. However, when it comes to choices of verbal lexicon, physicists would fret over every word-choice, as they are aware of how open non-mathematical language is to possible misreading. This is evident by the close attention the respondents provided to the phrasing of my questions, particularly when the questions are aimed at elucidating their relationship to, and perception of, their science.
When queried about the range of speculative contingencies, for most of the physicists, the points where knowledge is speculative merely assert the need for more direct evidence to justify the available theories, including corrections that are to be added to the original theories for closer approximation to ‘real’ data. The accounts of the speculative, and the multiple experimental triggers that are the outcome of significant choices, are all wrapped around the symbolic signification, and delimitations, produced by telling the story of the particles of the Standard Model through abstract algebra and algebraic geometry (group theory included): what mathematical terms get extended and what get dropped whenever physicists consider what it is to move ‘beyond’ the Standard Model. Even the new physics they envision is shaped by the status of the mathematics deployed for representational purposes, including the resurrection of particular mathematical subfields for resolving long-standing paradoxes or unresolved cul-de-sacs. If the foundational cornerstones of mathematics were unimportant, there would not be so many hand-wrangling over the correspondence between physical realism and mathematical narratives, nor the multiple papers and books written on that subject.
Additionally, physicists are not always the most united when it comes to believing what is possible among the not-yet-existing, even if they might possess the same basic knowledge of their fields. This lack of unity can be explained by a difference between applying models, rules, and laws to solve a problem (and we know solutions to the same problem are far from uniform), and thinking philosophically about that problem. For example, when asked about the meaning of subjectivity, one gets answers ranging from interpretational preferences, expectation biases, forms of contextualization, to decision-making that are governed by external factors rather than the science. Seldom do physicists consider the data they work with as inherently subjective (even if the constitution of the data itself is not) despite the preference for the logic of one model over that of another due to myriad circumstances that are not always clear.
But, in the case of objectivity, most of the answers appear standard on the surface until one digs deeper; they range from the application of clear and inclusive criteria to the acceptance or rejection of data before applying it to the testing of a hypothesis, the repeatability (or as some philosophers would say, the cycle of falsification and justification) and duplication of that experiment, as well as the exclusion of bias in the decision-making process. The attainment of objectivity is a recursive move for the first two instances, even if their starting points can have a range of subjective possibilities. As for the third instance, one finds that there is no clear way for measuring bias other than, perhaps, by tracing the entire process from hypothesis to the final interpretation of analysis. However one might reason, bias does not cease to exist even after an experimental fit with theory, nor after an experimental setup is found to be replicable. The issue of how bias functions is illustrated in Trevor Pinch and Harry Collins’s The Golem: What You Should Know About Science, through their series of case studies spanning different subfields of science.
Finally, there are the different backgrounds and trainings of the physicists, especially when it boils down to whether they are experimentalists, theoreticians, or phenomenologists (the ones who attempt to bridge the divide). While both are grounded on finding empirical evidence to support whatever predictive theories there are, they do not necessarily have the same level of investment when dealing with more speculative forms of physical theories. While a theoretician is more willing to wait until the boundaries of knowledge open while continuing to work on theories without experimental counterparts, experimentalists tend to be more skeptical, even if not necessarily dismissive, because of the need for attention to expediency and practicability in order to succeed in everyday science. However, both sides agree that experimentalists and theoreticians are able to find middle ground from which to work.
If you are a fan or merely interested, here is an archive of the notebook drafts to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein < http://shelleygodwinarchive.org/contents/frankenstein>.
However, it is not Santa Claus who is making the list(s), since the celebration of year end is not only a time of list-making introspection of what has happened and forecasts of what are to come, but a desire to maintain the appearance of productiveness in that year. If the public existence of these lists used to be constraint by what we see on media (web or paper), they are transmitted like memes via social media and personal/institutional email-based newsletters.
We have had university rankings, top hits in the music charts or radio, lists of people who qualified based on certain achievements accomplished by a certain age, lists of prize-winning or ‘great’ books that we should read this year if we have not done so, and lists of memorable (maybe historical) events that publications and media outlets want their specific audience to commemorate. Some of these lists are created out of empirical data that determined their rankings (statistics of particular categories, sales figures, level of demand, direct public votes) and some are by the adjudication of select individuals/committee. If you are a reader of anthologies such as yours truly, you will always find, in the editorial remarks, why certain pieces (or personages) are included in the list of not-completely-definitive these lists may have meaning while others would pass you by without further remark.
There is a real history out there about list-making which, I am sure, coincide with the rise of the leisured class and development of the publishing/public relations/advertising industry. But that is not what this post is exploring. Instead, all I aspire to do is to understand the cultural significance of list-making in how we define our value system through what accomplishments are valued within different subcultures that are, at some levels, beholden to the superstructure of mainstream acknowledgement unavoidable in this global age.
But even as one sees the embracing of greater diversity at some levels, such as Nature’s list of 10 people who mattered, see a level of diversity in terms of who they include (and the acknowledgement of the diverse accomplishments of these people that is not oblivious to the impact of external factors to the production of science), or even the award of top science writings that do not pretend to be universal representative of all good science writing but are meant to highlight considered opinions of what good science writing is (a good thing in itself), the lists sometimes become the shortcut for us to categorize our priorities when we are short of time and overloaded beyond our ability to manage. As a scholar and graduate student, I often scan lists in journals or media of the subject I am researching as a way into getting more on the subject. The lists formed are not unlike bibliographies, with the more serious among them containing annotations describing the rationale for inclusion. If I am new to the field, such lists, with all the implications of being the best representation in that area, appear promising in guiding the clueless on how to get started. But as all lists go, the caveats are always present. Among them, the lists could potentially reinforce the status-quo of values without consideration of the problematics behind them, they reinforce particular privilege and dominant voices, and exclude from consideration what is considered too eclectic, eccentric or undefinable. More perniciously, these lists can reinforce the ghetto-image of particular accomplishments without addressing the imbalance that led to the need for creating a separate list from the mainstream.
In mulling over these lists, and all the other lists I have visited over the year, and years before, I began to question the intentionality behind the list-making, and our consciousness as consumers of these lists. Moreover, the dominance and status of the list-maker are critical to imbuing certain categories of lists with more prestige than others, at multiple levels. Even if these lists appear in the media outlets or publications that are located in specific countries, their universal reach (or appeal) already provided them with unequivocal authority. The lists attribute capital to a particular achievement of accomplishment: the production of time capsules created through choices (arbitrary or otherwise), as a representative member of a particular segment of society, of what are deemed worthy of attention. While there is greater consciousness these days when it comes to including the accomplishment of those who might not be operating from advantage, they tend to be lone tokens on the list, if only because it takes time for them to be seen, if they ever are. Often, the token inclusion are serendipitious rather than intentional, and could be attributed to sufficient level of media hype.
In the US for instance, the usual lack of diversity in the voices of those included in the lists have led to particular communities making their own lists of worthy achievements, with the African American community being the particular leader here. Some countries and regions, to counteract the invisibility of their particular achievements in the universal media of western countries (and this happens even in intra-regions of the metaphorical ‘West’), have made their own lists and produced their own awards. The study of the particular lists within particular political and sociological contexts could provide evidence for deconstructing the capital and political preoccupations of any society under focus in terms of how they see themselves through the word’s eyes, while highlighting their points of confidence and diffidence.
At the end of the day, when we look at list, we should bear in mind that they are but a manifestation of our own personal evaluation of our own worth, and how we measure that worth. After all, the lists are non-subjective versions of the subject-oriented act of creating a CV. Short-cuts to an otherwise convoluted narrative, but a narrative that must not be occluded by the short-cuts.
Just tonight, I read in The Chronicle, a Duke student-run newspaper, about a walkout staged by some undergrads at the beginning of a talk by Charles Murray, in protest of what they consider him to stand for and of the national policies he had influenced. Murray had co-authored the infamous The Bell Curve Richard J Herrnstein, with the book published in 1994, that reviews had stated as an attempt to correlate the IQ with socio-economic and racial classes (I must say this as I have not read the book). While the students who participated in the walkout did not resent Murray’s presence on campus, they claimed the need of such acts to make their voices heard. Some of Murray’s audiences who stayed put expressed disappointment with the attendees who participated in the walkout, claiming that the latter had passed on an opportunity to debate openly with Murray. However, the main organizer of the walkout, the senior Kamalakanthan, argued that the walkout was necessary given how the event was not conducive to a real debate, and that “…the walkout is sort of an attempt to turn back the relations in power that Charles Murray exerts over our bodies by using our bodies as a symbol of protest.”
Were one to scroll down the article (something not possible with the print copy from whence I have first discovered the story), you will find, well, the kind of stuff you usually encounter online, a mixture of trolls and those with a sincere desire to chime in. Whether one actually is able to generate discursive conversations that could lead to a productive end, through a handful of comments among the haystack of rants, raves, fawns, and insults, are themselves telling of how discourse usually takes place in public space (even if this space is mediated by the digital), which was one of the reasons leading to Popular Science deciding to shut down its comments section (a move that was generative its own series of debates within the science communication and social media world).
That said, let’s return to the story at hand. In this case, the talk was student-organized with the profiled speaker giving his one hour, or perhaps more than an hour of lecture, such as the practice. Towards the end, the floor is open to the audience, and one might have, probably, about 30 minutes for Q&A, and that depends on how busy the speaker’s schedule is and the time for which they have been paid for their appearance – time is money. If the speaker is known to be a crowd-puller, the more expensive he/she will be, and it is unlikely that the organizers can keep him/her for too long. I have not attended too many talks by super-famous speakers, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered, but I have had attended sufficient number of talks, forums, symposiums, colloquiums and roundtables on campus and beyond to get an idea as to what usually transpire in such sessions. Most graduate students remain silent even in events that are suppose to get them talking (especially if the event has a huge audience with a few bold souls scrambling to get their two-pennies in). Unless one comes prepared with questions that one is determined to get answered, whatever it takes (and regardless of what the speaker is saying), or if the speaker has said something that struck such a chord that yours is the first hand up (or the first set of feet to the mic) even before the applause has died down, the ordinary audience member usually requires time to cogitate before any ‘smart questions’ can emerge. Unless the speaker is willing to spend time actually talking to the students before or after his/her talk, the power relations that are already imbalanced from the beginning will just deepened. The very physical setting of an organized talk, with such power differentials at play, makes any form of critical engagement neigh impossible, as in any real dialog. You can ask a question and the speaker has as much right now to answer it, or to skirt around it. Unless you have the starring role as an interlocutor, respondent or interviewer, you are unlikely to have the chance to press on without hogging valuable time and appearing a douchebag.
Hence, the walkout is the loudest form of an opinion that one can form, regardless of what one might think of it. On the other hand, one might ask if it would make a difference whether they decided to walk out 5 minutes into his talk, or more than halfway through. Maybe leaving the hall half-empty in the beginning is meant to rattle the speaker by showing him their displeasure. However, it may also not be effective within the larger landscape, if only because, at the end of the day, the power of discourse lies in the hands of the likes of people such as Murray, who are considered the opinion-makers that powerful decision-makers listen to. But maybe that is not the point.
Therefore, this brings us to how the power of discourse operate within the capital market. While the advent of social media and blogs is supposed to democratize participation from other voices, allowing those without the network and access to the gatekeepers a way to make their opinions visible. But then, you are only as well-known as the readers you have. In the day before professional publications made their digital leap, a semi-professional blogger can achieve a level of fame even if he/she is blogging about the most mundane life events, if only because he/she has the novelty of writing from a different platform and to a demographics increasingly immersed in an online world. But now, even bloggers are trying to get themselves linked to established, or ‘hot’ and coming digital publications, because it spurs their social capital, and this might mean writing on topics that their new patrons would like them to write on (which brings to question the notion of intellectual freedom).
Therefore, while college and school teachers may think of their classroom as a ‘safe’ space for engaging in a multitude of conversations (or as far as the school board or the political powers-that-be allow), where their students could voice their dissent, support, and even cautious critique of an issue, the idea of the safety (though this is not completely true) is also related to impotence. The student may voice strong disagreement with a policy that almost everyone in his/her milieu does, including the policy-makers, and he/she might not be able to affect change immediately. However, if he or she is determined, he/she may be able to explore various alternatives that could command attention to his or her course. Nonetheless, that, in itself, is not an engagement with discourse. A video or blog post or whatever content it is that goes viral is not discourse. Discourse only happens when all participants are willing to commit themselves to keeping an open mind and be equal participants. Discourse is not about deciding which interlocutor has the greater value, but for each participant to contribute to creating new values through exchanges.
Are the students losing the opportunity for a discursive intervention when they walked out? Not necessarily. In fact, the walkout itself might be the starting point for discursive strategies that lays the gauntlet on everyone’s feet. How one picks that up remains to be seen, including the organization of events purported to be of an intellectual nature.