Guest post: Now you have lots of cases coming to light

Guest post by Dan Bye, originally a comment on Not prepared for what happened.

Everyone agrees there is “a” problem, and nobody is claiming that philosophy’s problem is the worst of all academic fields. So what’s left is whether philosophy has a *bad* problem.

Massimo points out that there is no evidence that philosophy has a particularly bad problem, and leaves it at that. And it’s also true that the existence of male majorities can be the result of societal pressures (i.e. sexist attitudes in the world at large) rather than sexist hiring practice, which Massimo also leaves there.

What we’ve got here is a lecture about the nature of evidence. Thanks very much. The implication, of course, is that since there is no evidence that philosophy has a particularly bad problem, then nothing special need be done about it except deal with individual cases if they come up and wait umpteen generations for the old men of the academy to die off and be replaced by a few more women.

But Massimo is overlooking something crucial. Saul has been surprised by the feedback she’s got on this. Surprise indicates that the problem is worse than suspected. It means that it’s a hidden, invisible problem. There’s more of it than expected. Where before you might have encountered the odd case over decades, sometimes well handled, sometimes badly, now you have lots of cases coming to light – some of which have never been dealt with.

That ought to be pause for thought. It ought to make some in a position of power think, “hmm, I didn’t expect to see all of this, this needs a bit more attention”.

Confronted with a new set of surprising information, it is not enough to resort to the “no evidence of a particular problem” line. The correct response is “ooh, this is evidence of a surprisingly widespread and hitherto invisible problem, this needs investigating”. In other words, there is enough there that if you don’t have any data then you ought to be getting some data rather than merely pointing out that the data doesn’t exist.

If you’re out having a picnic and someone says “there’s a wasp! I don’t want to sit here!”, then you can say, “I’ll deal with the wasp, but it’s just one wasp, we don’t need to move.” If someone shouts “argh there’s a veritable cloud of wasps come out of nowhere!  we’ve got to move!”, then rather than saying, “there is no evidence that there are more wasps here than anywhere else”, you should be checking whether you’re sitting on a wasp’s nest. Alternatively, insert a better analogy here.


  1. says

    Confronted with a new set of surprising information, it is not enough to resort to the “no evidence of a particular problem” line. 

    Hey, if it’s good enough for the Catholic church…

  2. Robert B. says

    If something surprises you, the way you were thinking about the world before is not sufficient to explain it. When you are surprised, you need to update your assumptions. Every time.

    If surprising facts about sexual harassment come to light and your reaction is “There’s no evidence this is particularly bad,” there are three possibilities:

    1) You are unskilled at reasoning. A common complaint, but a bit of an impediment for a professional philosopher.
    2) You weren’t really surprised. You already knew it was at least this bad and you weren’t saying anything. You are the patriarchy, it is you.
    3) You are lying. Your response to this situation is to take active steps to cover the asses of people like you and maintain the status quo. Fuck you, sexist asshole.

  3. says

    Right on!

    I found Massimo’s arguments so head-desk-ingly disengaged from the actual problem that I couldn’t respond calmly in his comments but took it to Twitter instead. There, my response was:

    Why assume “Field X has a problem w/sexual harassment” or “Movement X has a problem w/racism” means that X is WORSE than society generally? If we think sexual harassment & racism are bad, can’t we view them as problems for our communities even if our they’re no worse than others? Even having 50% less dog crap on my lawn than the neighbors, I can still view dog crap on my lawn as a problem. Racism, sexism are problems! And, “We’re no worse on racism/sexism than society at large” is a pretty low bar to set for one’s community.

    Seriously, if his thousands of words can be succinctly answered in four 140-character bites, one wonders how much effort he is devoting to Not Getting It. (Then again, maybe he’s relying on muscle-memory.)

  4. says

    Prior probability would argue that we should assume that any male-dominated field has a sexism problem. After all, why otherwise would males dominate it? Power has no value except in its abuse.

    Waiting for the men to give up control over time, as the old guys die off, is a losing strategy because male dominance in a field got that way because men chose successor men of the same mindset, etc, ad infinitum. A male-dominated field is going to hire men that want to dominate the field. See? There’s still hope for Justin Vacula.

  5. dmcclean says

    Another analogy, but it only works if you’ve seen a movie:

    The line in Apollo 13 where Ed Harris says “[T]hese guys are talking about bangs and shimmies up there; doesn’t sound like [an] instrumentation [problem] to me.”

    The word choice of “guys” and the fact that every character in the scene is a man might also be an opportunity to reiterate what some of the glaringly obvious–but seemingly invisible to some people–problems with ‘ambient’ and incumbent sexism are.

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    Any such problem is ‘bad’ and worthy of attention. That even a little attention reveals an enormous scale of unacknowledged, pre-existing, ‘badness’ of the same kind makes attempts at scaling or comparison look silly.

    One communist under the bed is too many. ANY abuser/harraser sheltered by a complaisant community is too many. Wondering how many communists are under the neighbor’s bed is a legitimate curiosity, but not if it justifies failing to peek under one’s own.

  7. doubtthat says

    Everyone agrees there is “a” problem, and nobody is claiming that philosophy’s problem is the worst of all academic fields. So what’s left is whether philosophy has a *bad* problem.

    I think the issue in philosophy is more or less the same as it is in the skeptic/atheist community: namely the targets of the harassment are a self-selected group of people who are intelligent and trained to notice and dismantle bullshit arguments, and additionally are accustomed to and often court controversy. They aren’t afraid to cast away the religion of their parents and community, and they are practiced with the tools of philosophy and skepticism.

    In other words, the problem seems worse because the targets are less likely to keep quiet and allow the awful behavior to continue unchallenged. This, of course, causes a backlash among the population of abusers and excusers, thereby making the whole situation impossible to ignore.

    This is, incidentally, a powerful argument in favor of teaching skeptical principles. It teaches people to be unafraid of challenging bad ideas and empowers them with the ability to do so rationally.

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