Thursday, May 26, 2011

Should Anonymous Comments Be Allowed?

Lately, the question of the permissibility of anonymous comments has been raised on a number of threads on this and other blogs. While I understand that anonymity allows more "vulnerable" memebers of the philosophical community to express their views without fear of repercussions on their career and while I'm against moderating comments (readers often seem to mistake the approval of a comment for an endorsement of it), I feel that anonymity is too easily abused when the reputation of other people is at stake. I think we have seen some examples of this in the last month or so. So, I would like to hear from readers about whether they think anonymous comments should be allowed in these sorts of contexts, which we might call "sensitive". Please feel free to comment (whether anonymously or not) and/or vote in the poll.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

More on the Kanazawa Scandal at LSE

Satoshi Kanazawa
Further to our discussion last week, I emailed Add Health about the nature of the data that Kanazawa used in his scandalous post seeking explanation of the alleged finding that black women are "objectively" less attractive than women of other races. They sent me a statement this morning, which has obviously been sent to many others who enquired. Here are some excerpts:

"The data Kanazawa used for his research were drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a congressionally-mandated study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Add Health data are available in two forms: a “public use” data set, which includes data from a subset of participants, and a “contractual” or “restricted-use” data set, which includes the full set of variables and participants. The “restricted-use” data are available to researchers who have appropriate research credentials (e.g., post-graduate degree) and an Institutional Review Board in their research institution that ensures their use of data security procedures required by Add Health to protect data and participant privacy and confidentiality. Kanazawa applied for and was granted access to these restricted data, as have thousands of other researchers . . .
"Kanazawa based his blog post on data derived from interviewer ratings of the respondents that were recorded confidentially after the interview was completed and the interviewer had left the interview setting. It is a widely-used and accepted survey practice for interviewers and researchers to include such post-survey completion remarks. These remarks provide both an additional observation about the respondent and data on the context of the interview for researchers to assess data quality. . .
"Interviewer ratings of respondent attractiveness represent a subjective “societal” perception of the respondent’s attractiveness.  We included these items because there is a long line of research evidence that indicates that perceived attractiveness is related to important health and social outcomes, including access to health care, health education and instruction, job search, promotions, academic achievement, and social success in friendship and marriage.   For example, males who are rated more highly attractive tend to have higher wages, shorter periods of unemployment, and greater success in the job market . . .

"Because the interviewer’s perception is subjective, researchers need to account for the characteristics and life experiences of the interviewer in interpreting their ratings. A wealth of research on perceived attractiveness (that is, as perceived by others, not oneself) has shown that such ratings vary according to the characteristics of the rater. For example, a male interviewer might rate a female’s attractiveness according to different criteria than a female interviewer rating the same female’s attractiveness.  Other interviewer characteristics that are important to take into account are age, race, ethnicity, education, geographic location, and life experiences, in general."

Though some of us may have sussed out the main points, especially those contained in the final paragraph above, this statement clearly demonstrates the irresponsibility of Santoshi Kanazawa's "research". As somebody who was granted access to the restricted-use data-set, he would have been aware of the nature of the attractiveness rating. Yet, he gave no indication of this in his blog post.

Add Health Director, Dr. Kathleen Mullan Harris, a professor of sociology at UNC, Chapel Hill drove the point home in an interview with NPR, quoted in the email sent to me: "He's mischaracterizing the objectiveness of the data — that's wrong. It's subjective. The interviewers' data is subjective."

It is not unreasonable to ask that LSE investigate Kanazawa, and take appropriate action. I leave to others who are more experienced in this kind of action how this request could be prepared and communicated to LSE.

(This is cross posted at NewAPPS)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

How to Break the Synthese Stalemate: The Case for a Subscription Boycott

By now, it has become pretty obvious that, after the petition and the EiCs' response, the Synthese affair has reached a stalemate. On one side, the EiCs clearly have decided (or have been instructed) not to discuss the matter publicly (let alone retract the disclaimer or issue an apology). On the other, the boycott does not seem to have gained sufficient momentum yet. Brian Leiter recently posted a post asking for input from signatories to the petition on how to proceed and, with 16 comments so far, the response has been far from overwhelming. The poll Leiter ran also shows that only 20% of respondents are ready to boycott the journal (a much smaller poll run earlier on this blog showed that 32% of respondents were in favor of a boycott), while another 19% are "now less likely to submit to it or referee for it." The poll also shows that 71% now has a lower opinion of the journal.

If we are to believe that the poll reflects the opinion of the philosophical community (and it is far from clear to what extent it does), this is arguably the worst possible outcome for those of us who (used to) read, submit to, and referee for Synthese on a regular basis. On the one hand, the journal's reputation seems to have suffered a significant blow and, although it is still hard to assess the extent of the damage, it seems pretty clear that some damage has been done and that there is no clear way to undo it to everyone's satisfaction. On the other hand, before this affair, the journal was almost unanimously considered one of the best-run philosophy journals and it is very likely that, if the EiCs were to resign, the journal would significantly suffer from it and would likely be not as well-run as it used to be for the foreseeable future.*

Having said that, at this point, nothing short of an official public retraction-cum-apology and a full disclosure of the events that led up to this situation would be able to salvage Synthese's reputation and, if a boycott is what it's going to take, then so be it! However, if (and I'm saying 'if') the buck ultimately stops with Springer, then a subscription boycott would be more effective, easier to implement, and fairer (both to the EiCs and to grad student and untenured faculty) than the submission/refereeing boycott that has been suggested so far.

The good people at Springer might want to keep in mind that most university libraries would be very happy to cancel their subscriptions to Synthese at the request of the faculty members who are most likely to use those subscriptions and that, once those subscriptions are cancelled, it would pretty hard to get the libraries to resubscribe, especially given the exorbitant cost of the annual subscription to Synthese (which, I believe, is about 3,000EUR or 4,200USD these days). So, as much as it would pain me to give up electronic access to Synthese, I'm afraid I would have to do so unless (Springer lets) the EiCs issue a statement to be published in print and on the journal website in which the EiCs:
  1. retract the disclaimer, 
  2. issue a public apology, and 
  3. fully disclose everything that went on (legal threats included). 
If (and, again, I'm saying 'if') Springer somehow pressured the EiCs into acting as they (uncharacteristically) did and is now gagging them for fear of the economic repercussions of legal action, then this may be a good time for the people at Springer to double-check their math and reconsider their decision, as a subscription boycott might end up costing Springer hundreds of thousands of dollars every year (if not more), which, in the long run, would, presumably, add up to more than any legal costs Springer would likely incur. And that is only if the we decide not to persuade our librarians to unsubscribe from a few other Springer journals.

As far as I am concerned, the ball is now on Springer's court. If you are interested in joining me, please feel free to say so in the comments. (I'd give Springer and the EiCs a month before contacting your library). In the meantime, I'm going to look for the e-mail address of the Reference Librarian for philosophy (in these times of financial austerity she will be delighted to be able to count on $4,200 more a year in her budget!)

Friday, May 20, 2011

More on the Kanazawa Affair

Here is the cached version of Dr Kanazawa's original post (see here for a bit of background and see here for my letter to the Director of LSE). It is such a mind-bogglingly bad piece of [pseudo-]"scientific research" (even by evolutionary psychology standards) that one would hope no respectable academic institution would employ its author. As far as I can see, this is not a matter of academic freedom, it's a matter of academic standards. And, I have to say, I now think my initial requests to the LSE Director were too mild, especially considering the guy was already well-known for his shock jock brand of "research".

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Evolutionary Psychology or Open Racism?

Those of you outside of the UK might not have followed this story. Satoshi Kanazawa, an "evolutionary psychologist" and Reader in Management at LSE, has posted a post titled 'Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women' on his Psychology Today blog (which, alarmingly, is titled 'The Scientific Fundamentalist'). The post has since been taken down but above is a screenshot of it.

I have just sent the following e-mail to Professor J Rees (LSE's new Director after the resignation of its previous director on the heels of the Lybia scandal):

Dear Professor Rees,

I am writing to express my outrage about Dr Kanazawa's post on his Psychology Today blog. As a former Master's and doctoral student of LSE and as a philosopher of science, I am very disappointed that my Alma Mater's name is associated with research that seems to be as unsound in its methods as it is inflammatory and divisive in its content.
As an academic, I fully understand the importance of and strongly support academic freedom, but I do not think that academics should be allowed to express openly racist ideas under that guise, especially if this is done while claiming a pretense of scientificity. Of course, as researchers, we should always follow our research wherever it leads us, but the problem with Dr Kanazawa's research is that it is not its conclusion that is racist but its premises (as you probably know, the title of Dr Kanazawa's post was "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?", which assumes the racist stereotype that they are).
The LSE's reputation has already been tarnished enough by recent events that led to the resignation of your predecessor. I hope you will prevent it from being tarnished even more by this incident and issue a statement to distance the school from the ideas expressed by Dr Kanazawa and an apology to all people (and especially to black female students, faculty and staff) who felt offended and outraged by the open racism professed by one of your academics.


Gabriele Contessa

PS I thought I'd let you know that I shall post this letter on the philosophy of science blog that I administer and contribute to. I'd be happy to also post a link to an apology statement from LSE when and if you decide to issue one.

I hope you'll join me in expressing your outrage at open racism being passed as science by e-mailing Professor Rees's PA at (You'll receive a silly stock e-mail in return).

UPDATE: From the Guardian:
  • "The University of London [Student] Union Senate, the union's legislative body, which represents more than 120,000 students, to vote unanimously for the dismissal of Kanazawa, and to condemn his research." You can read the full article here.
  • "The LSE launched an internal investigation into Kanazawa's comments after senior academics at the school, including the new director, Judith Rees, received letters of complaint over the remarks."
You can read the full article here.

UPDATE #2: Here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Synthese poll

As followers of this blog know by now, a petition signed by about 450 philosophers was presented to the Editors of Synthese, asking them to retract their disclaimers regarding two articles published in their journal (in a special issue, edited by guest editors). There was extensive discussion of their actions here, on NewAPPS (, on Leiter Reports, and elsewhere. The editors posted a response to this petition on a website that was constructed for the sole purpose of posting their response; their response was posted as a jpeg image, presumably so that it would stay out of sight of web-crawlers, etc.

Now Brian Leiter is conducting a poll to gauge how philosophers have responded to the Synthese affair. The poll is here:

Please consider participating in this poll.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

General Philosophy of Science: What is it Now?

Further to my comment earlier about Scepticism and Philosophy of Science, some further thoughts about General Philosophy of Science:

General Philosophy of Science was almost entirely a twentieth century phenomenon. Before the 20th century, there was scientifically informed metaphysics and epistemology—I am thinking of Descartes, Locke, Kant and their intellectual heirs, philosophers who believed that science could teach us something about the structure of reality. The central problem of twentieth century GPOS, however, was new. What is the status of unobservable theoretical entities? What are they? And how can we know them? The problem was urgent because theoretical entities were increasingly a feature of nineteenth century (and later) physical science--atoms, fields, etc.

The idea that drove GPOS was that theoretical entities could be constructed from (or alternatively eliminated in favour of) sense data. This idea, which was also the founding idea of analytic philosophy, began its long decline in the 1960s, when Hilary Putnam introduced ways of talking about unobservables that did not rely on these constructive techniques. Putnam’s work was particularly attractive to philosophers because it showed a way out of the incommensurability problem that arose from Kuhn’s work, for incommensurability sounded to many like a reductio of the whole analytic programme. Now, a decade into the 21st century, the problem of unobservables is no longer at the centre of analytic philosophy, and anti-sense-datum realism has become the norm. (In the PhilPapers survey, 82% of respondents leaned toward non-sceptical realism, and only 4% to idealism; 75% to scientific realism, and 75% to correspondence or deflationary theories of truth. The percentages don't change much when you look at self-identified GPOSers.)

Accordingly, GPOS has declined. How many top-twenty departments have hired GPOSers in the last decade? Very few, I venture: the assistant and associate professors who list themselves as philosophers of science are either philosophers-of-X (POXers?), GPOSers having given way to formal epistemologists or analytic metaphysicians.

GPOS does, however, live on, mostly in satellite departments devoted to History and Philosophy of Science—there are such units in Cambridge, Sydney, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Paris, Toronto—and also in a few philosophy departments that have chosen to develop specializations in philosophy of science—Bristol, the University of Washington, the University of British Columbia are examples that come to mind. In these departments, there are usually POXers devoted to physics and biology and social science, and a GPOSer who is viewed as providing support for the foundations. But the question that I think has not been resolved is how GPOS lives in an HPS environment. Has GPOS become, roughly, Kuhnian? Feminist? Is there a viable path for development that traces back to the Viennese origins of GPOS?

(Cross-posted at NewAPPS)

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Experiment Month Initiative

The Experiment Month Initiative is a project organized by Joshua Knobe, Tamar Gendler, and Mark Phelan and run by Yale Cognitive Science with a grant from the American Philosophical Association. It hosts 17 different experimental philosophy studies designed by 29 philosophers, each working on illuminating a different philosophical question.

If you are interested in taking part to any of these studies please go to the Experiment Month website, where you will be able to fill out a brief questionnaire.