Women and the “Philosophical Personality” (guest post by Christina Easton)
“Research suggests that there is a cognitive task on which philosophers tend to perform better than non-philosophers and men tend to perform better than women.” Does this explain the gender gap in philosophy?
In the following guest post*, Christina Easton, a philosophy Ph.D. student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, takes up this question.
Women and the “Philosophical Personality”
by Christina Easton
Research suggests that there is a cognitive task on which philosophers tend to perform better than non-philosophers and men tend to perform better than women. In my open access article (forthcoming in Synthese), I discuss what we should make of this. Could the factors underlying the gender gap on this cognitive task partially explain the Philosophy gender gap, and if so, what are the implications for the discipline?
The Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), proposed by Shane Frederick in 2005, consists of 3 questions that invite an intuitive, wrong answer. Answering the questions correctly is said to indicate a disposition to overcome impulsive, intuitive thought with effortful, rational reflection. Performance on the CRT has been linked with the dual-process model of decision making. ‘System 1’ operates quickly and automatically, giving us the immediate, wrong answers to the CRT questions. ‘System 2’ involves slower, more deliberate and effortful thinking; it ‘supervises’ the thoughts and actions being ‘suggested’ by System 1. Thus, if System 2 is activated in response to a CRT question, it can override System 1 to give the right answer. According to Daniel Kahneman, performing poorly on the CRT indicates a “lazy” System 2 that relies on System 1 to do the work.
Since careful, rational reflection is what philosophers do as a day job, you would expect philosophers to do well on this test—and you’d be right. In a study involving 4472 participants, Livengood et al. (2010) found a positive correlation between CRT score and philosophical training. The authors suggest that the CRT tracks “an important facet of philosophical personality”; “philosophers are less likely to blindly accept their intuitions and more likely to submit those intuitions to scrutiny”.
More surprisingly—and awkwardly—it has been consistently found that women tend to do worse than men on this test. A 2016 study was typical in finding that women are more likely to answer all three questions incorrectly and that the average CRT score of men is significantly higher than women (1.12 vs. 0.58). Frederick suggests that the test maps “something that men have more of” and concludes that “men are more likely to reflect on their answers and less inclined to go with their intuitive responses”.
So, the research appears to be telling us two things: Women tend to perform worse on the CRT than men, and philosophers tend to perform better than non-philosophers. Confronted with a further fact—that there is a significant gender imbalance in Philosophy—a natural (perhaps ‘intuitive’!) conclusion might present itself: Perhaps women are less likely to possess the aspect of the ideal philosophical personality tracked by the CRT, and this contributes to the gender imbalance in Philosophy. Call this the ‘Quick Conclusion’.
Though unpalatable, the Quick Conclusion would help explain why Philosophy is less gender-balanced than most disciplines. It fits with the Livengood et al. finding that the opposite pattern can be found in Psychology (a field where women are significantly over-represented): those with more psychological training tend to exhibit lower CRT scores. A defender of the Quick Conclusion might hypothesize that whilst women trickled into Psychology as the negative effects of discrimination were gradually overcome, a matching trend did not happen in Philosophy because additional obstacles remained present. It also fits with the emphasis in Philosophy on careful use and scrutiny of intuitions. Perhaps we might see the practice of Philosophy as a kind of ‘hyper-exercise’ of System 2, in order to scrutinize, justify and in some cases, override the intuitions provided by System 1. In that case, if women are more inclined to go with their intuitions than employ System 2 processes, then perhaps this amounts to being less inclined to philosophical thinking.
Whether this is right has important implications. It’s become pretty much accepted that it is right to engage in actions aimed at re-balancing Philosophy. The Quick Conclusion might be seen to imply that this is at best misguided, and at worst, unjust.
I think that is false. In my paper, I discuss four reasons to question the Quick Conclusion:
Does the CRT track what it is claimed to track?
Firstly, we can ask whether the CRT tracks what it is claimed it tracks. Researchers talk about the CRT as measuring a kind of rationality—‘reflectivity’—a trait that seems key to the ideal philosophical personality. But there is good reason to think the CRT might measure other traits instead, such as mathematical abilities or confidence. Take confidence, for example. A 2016 study found that when controlling for different levels of ‘maths confidence’, gender differences on the CRT disappear. The researchers conclude that “men perform better on the CRT because they are more confident in their quantitative abilities”.
This fits with the wider picture given by research on confidence, which suggests that women tend to have lower levels of self-confidence than men. Confidence helps in Philosophy: exude conviction as you argue for your conclusion and ‘bat away’ your opponents, and you’re more likely to convince people. (Check out the posts by Weinberg and Larvor on this subject.) Perhaps women’s poorer performance on the CRT tracks their high anxiety and low confidence, and these traits affect their levels of participation in Philosophy?
Is the trait tracked by the CRT something we should value in philosophers?
Whatever the CRT tracks, this is something that women tend to have less of than men and philosophers tend to have in abundance. So, we can raise a second question asking why we should think that the CRT tracks something that we should value in philosophers. The Livengood study measured who philosophers are, not who they should be. The fact that some norm exists amongst philosophers does not, in itself, tell us that this trait is an asset to philosophizing. Imagine that there was evidence suggesting that philosophers are more likely to exhibit social awkwardness than non-philosophers (hard, I know!). It would be wrong to conclude from this that social awkwardness is part of the ideal philosophical personality! This trait is irrelevant (or even detrimental) to good philosophizing.
However, we probably shouldn’t press too hard with the idea that there is nothing of value in what is tested by the CRT: the person who does badly in the CRT gets the wrong answers, and philosophers are after right answers!
How important is this trait to good philosophizing?
So, as a third response, we might concede that the CRT tracks something of value, but argue that it is only one small part of the skills that contribute to good philosophizing. Imagine a test used to assess physical fitness for the military that has press-ups as the key element. Since women tend to have lower levels of arm strength than men, they might find it harder to pass this test. But it would be wrong to conclude that the women who fail this test are ‘physically unfit’, for arm strength is just one small part of physical fitness. In the same way, we might allow that the CRT tracks one aspect of rationality that women tend to have less of, but without drawing any conclusions about overall levels of rationality. Given the precise nature of the CRT questions, set against the range of virtues and skills that we might plausibly postulate as part of the ideal philosophical personality, we probably need not hang too much on whatever the CRT tracks.
How should we understand the causal story?
Lastly, even if we were to accept that women tend to lack some trait that is important for good philosophizing, this doesn’t mean we should shrug our shoulders and accept that there’s a natural imbalance in Philosophy that will always be present. Other factors will also contribute—perhaps sexist hiring practices, or negative stereotypes—leading to the ‘perfect storm’ that is the large gender imbalance. And it seems likely that if we altered some of these other factors, this would affect the CRT factor too.
Take as an example a stereotype designating women as ‘intuitive and illogical’. This stereotype might make women less likely to imagine themselves as philosophers, directly contributing to women leaving the discipline. But the stereotype might also contribute by a more indirect route. It might, for example, have the effect that adults are less likely to give girls toys that develop logic, with the consequence that girls have fewer opportunities to develop skills at whatever the CRT tracks.
If this were the case, women’s poorer performance on the CRT is indicative not of an innate difference in aptitude, but of contingent structural norms and cultural practices that would lessen or disappear in a fairer, more equal society. This suggests far more wide-reaching action is needed than simply making changes within the discipline of Philosophy. It points to the need for continued action to rectify entrenched structural injustices.
I conclude that the factor(s) underlying the gender gap in the CRT might have some explanatory power for the gender gap in Philosophy—but that will be one part of a bigger story. Importantly, even if the Quick Conclusion were true, it wouldn’t exonerate Philosophy departments of the need to put in place much-needed strategies for promoting gender diversity. Rather, we should continue to look at what obstacles are present to women’s participation in Philosophy. Even simple interventions, such as giving more explicit encouragement to undergraduates or emphasizing the importance of effort rather than ‘brilliance’, might partially stem the flow out of Philosophy’s leaky pipeline.
Related: “In Philosophy Departments, More Women Faculty Means More Women Students Earning PhDs“; “Visualization of Gender Distribution in Philosophy Research Topics“; “What Proportion of Philosophy Majors Are Women?“; “Why Women Choose To Continue Studying Philosophy — Or Not“; “Are Women Philosophers Underrepresented in Top Ethics Journals?“; “Women in Philosophy Journals: New Data“; “Why Do Undergraduate Women Stop Studying Philosophy?“; “Is Philosophy Too “Stupid” For Women?“; “Women in Philosophy: A Case for Optimism”
“Other factors will also contribute—perhaps sexist hiring practices, or negative stereotypes—leading to the ‘perfect storm’ that is the large gender imbalance. And it seems likely that if we altered some of these other factors, this would affect the CRT factor too.”
academia has maxed out how much it can correct for sexist hiring practices. as jonathan haidt and others have repeatedly pointed out, academia is “systemically anti-sexist” and this is a somewhat euphemistic way of saying that there is a bias *in favor of* – not against – hiring women faculty.
Oh, if Jon Haidt says it in a youtube video, that definitely makes it true. Thanks!Report
Oh, if Mark Alfano is snarky about it in a Daily Nous thread, that definitely makes it not worth following up on. Thanks!Report
Justin, do you have a policy against people using humor in Daily Nous comments?Report
Happy to put it in a non-snarky way, if that helps:
Jon Haidt is a mediocre researcher and a blight on the academy. He became famous for studies that were never properly peer-reviewed (e.g., the stuff on incidental disgust). He increased his fame with a model (moral foundations) that has severe empirical and psychometric problems; lots of his results don’t replicate, and no one has been able to demonstrate that his five- or six-factor foundations model is psychometrically acceptable (generally, a two-factor model fits the data better, though there is a ton of variance).
Even more recently, he has transformed from a mediocre academic with an undeserved reputation into a sort of guru who makes pronouncements about areas far beyond his narrow expertise. One of the main topics on which he mouths off is diversity in academia. He complains about the lack of “viewpoint” diversity in psychology, when there is basically no evidence that there is a problem there (https://www.slideshare.net/JayVanBavel/is-there-ideological-bias-in-psychology). His main arguments about viewpoint diversity in psychology have been reproduced by several philosophers about our own field — again, with basically no evidence. By contrast, Haidt seems very sure that demographic diversity is either unneeded, overemphasized, or even dangerous. His arguments for this (e.g., in his _Coddling_ book) mostly rely on tendentiously-interpreted anecdotes.
So yeah, when he circumvents peer-review again by repeating his talking points in a youtube video, I tend to think that there’s not much reason to follow-up.Report
Re “circumventing peer review”
I recall a Facebook discussion a few years back, Mark, in which you contended that peer review is a broken system, in the course of justifying deviation from some of its norms. Have you changed your mind about this?Report
Unblock me and maybe we can talk.Report
I won’t be responding to this at further length, but it’s remarkable that Dave Baker thinks that mentioning that I’ve complained about peer-review as it’s currently implemented is somehow a response to my detailed criticism of Haidt. hasn’t complained about the way peer-review is currently implemented?
Perhaps he’s referring to the fact that I sign almost all of my referee reports. I have no shame about that. I do it to force myself to be nice(r than I might otherwise be).Report
I was under the impression that Baker’s point was this: (1) you don’t think peer review works; yet (2) you criticize Haidt’s work partly (but not mainly) on the grounds that it hasn’t passed peer review. So, if peer review is problematic, why is the fact that Haidt’s work hasn’t been subjected to it itself a reason to doubt it?
Now, I don’t know your stance on peer review, and you have a number of replies available to you (e.g., it could be that you think peer review is too lax; thus, if someone passes peer review then it doesn’t mean the work is good, but if it fails peer review, then it’s likely that it’s bad). I’m just pointing out that that’s how I read Baker’s point. (I also get the sense that you think Baker’s question was not asked in good faith; that hadn’t occurred to me when I read it, but you and he obviously have a history of communication that probably allows you more insight into Baker’s motives than I have).Report
FYI: A forthcoming study in Philosophical Psychology “Reasons for concern: Ideological homogeneity, bias, and discrimination in philosophy. Philosophical Psychology”, a draft of which is available from co-author Lee Jussim’s web page.
Hi Mark – thanks for the non-snarky reply. Putting aside accusations of mediocrity and blight, I found the slideshow you linked to an interesting contribution to the discussion about the BBS essay (Duarte et al). But I don’t think the slideshow is all that strong as a refutation of the essay. As slide 51 notes, the authors propose that these biases are likely localized to a small set of taboo topics of research. And of the 33 responses to the article that BBS solicited, everyone agreed with claim 2: “The Lack of Political Diversity Sometimes Harms Our Science”. See the discussion here:
The slideshow does a good job showing that, overall, social scientific studies are probably not suffering from biases induced by lack of political diversity. But that wasn’t under contention, and there appears to be widespread agreement on the actual position of the authors of the essay concerning the harms of ideological capture in the social sciences.
Anyway, what do you think about the stuff Haidt mentions concerning differences in interest that are correlated with sex at the start of the video? That’s a position in this debate that I would like to see more people considering. It’s my understanding that when the “gender equality paradox” studies came out, nobody expected to find what they did – namely, that the more gender-equitable a country is the more likely we are to see sex-based differences in representation across disciplines with, e.g., more women in psychology and social work and more men in STEM fields. This interpretation of the data is up for debate, of course, but it’s very much a live interpretation.
One explanation for this ‘discovery’ is that when you give people the opportunity to live in an egalitarian society of the sort you find in Scandinavia, you’ll see distributions across professions that represent an equitable sorting based on preferences. And the research coming from Morgan Thompson and her colleagues appears to show that women are more likely than men not to be interested in philosophy right at the outset of their exposure to it.
That’s not to say there may not be reasons to want to change things, and all the quantitative data I’ve seen show that a shift is underway – and I’ve seen some very good data. But I take it that there is nothing inherently unjust about women and men tending to want different things in life, if that’s what’s going on. I had a great conversation with a guy at a Hungarian metal show last night about digit ratio, and I’d be curious to see whether there were any correlations between prenatal testosterone exposure and interests in play and study across education (of the sort one finds, for instance, in chimpanzees, bonobos, and human infants concerning play preferences for dolls or trucks). But in any event it would be a good start just to see these kinds of considerations represented in the conversation, it seems to me.Report
Thanks for this detailed repose, Preston. There’s a lot here, so I won’t respond to all of it.
On the “lack of political diversity sometimes harms our science” item: I would strongly agree with this item. For example, there are almost no Marxists in prestigious positions within Economics departments or Business Schools, and I think that this hinders their scientific inquiry. Perhaps someone would respond, “No, they obviously mean that all professors are leftists, which is a problem.” Well, I disagree, and unless more fine-grained items are developed and used systematically in research, we just can’t know. (I’d love to see such studies… maybe the Heterodox Academy could fund/conduct them.)
The gender-equity paradox stuff is interesting; I don’t have a fully-formed view on it yet. As you say, the “more gender-equitable a country is the more likely we are to see sex-based differences in representation across disciplines with, e.g., more women in psychology and social work and more men in STEM fields.” I currently live in the Netherlands, which, while not as equitable as the Nordic countries, is in some obvious ways more equitable than the USA and many other places. One interesting thing here is that a “normal” family is typically considered to be a heterosexual couple in which both partners work full-time until the wife has a baby, at which point she switches to (partially-subsidized) part-time work plus childcare, while the husband continues to work full-time. Some couples defy this trend, for instance by having both partners work four days per week. But even here there are very strong expectations that women do the majority of domestic labor. And of course, that trend may interact with the fields of study and career choices of men and women. My impression is that this gendered division of labor is less common in the Nordic countries, but I can’t speak from experience. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that even in these alleged socialist utopias, there are plenty of problems. For instance, the Nordics have extremely high wealth inequality, despite having relatively low income inequality. We inevitably have to compare some imperfect systems with other imperfect systems; we never get to compare real, imperfect systems with some sort of ideal system. What this suggests to me is that the paradox may not be about outright equity but about how social dynamics respond to decreased-but-still-present-inequity.
I would caution against drawing inferences from contemporary practices *anywhere* to what men and women somehow naturally or innately prefer. There are just too many confounds to make that sort of inference soundly.Report
“I would caution against drawing inferences from contemporary practices *anywhere* to what men and women somehow naturally or innately prefer. There are just too many confounds to make that sort of inference soundly.”
Okay. But then, it seems we also shouldn’t draw other inferences with any more confidence. We see that the ratios of various demographics in Philosophy are different from the ratios of those same demographics in the general population. Perhaps this can be explained entirely, or almost entirely, by innate preferences, etc., or perhaps it can be explained by something else. We just don’t know, and it would be unwise to speculate confidently without good evidence, especially considering how many confounds there are. Right? Because, as everyone agrees in other contexts, the mere relative overabundance of one demographic in one domain is not grounds for drawing conclusions about the reasons for that overabundance.Report
Thanks Mark. Regarding Heterodox Academy, my sense is that they’re pretty egalitarian when it comes to documenting problems on the right and on the left (Musa al-Gharbi has some stuff at their site on that front). The issue is that the professoriate in the social sciences and the humanities has shifted much farther leftward than the rest of the country since the 1980s, and because the people who founded the organization come from those disciplines, most of the attention has been directed toward that quarter of the academy. But I agree, a wider examination of these trends would be to the good.
As for drawing inferences from the gender equity paradox, I’d want to frame things a bit differently. First, it seems to me that we ought to be in the business of drawing defeasible suppositions about what *might* be a contributing factor to demographic differences in, say, engineering and social work. On that basis we can then frame precise hypotheses and look for more evidence. As Justin Kalef rightly points out, I don’t think anyone’s in a position to draw firm conclusions about what’s going on just yet. When I discussed this material with someone working in feminist philosophy at a conference earlier this year, she appealed to the patriarchy as an explanation for the gender disparity in philosophy. She also appealed to the existence of the patriarchy as a justification for certain patterns in hiring practices that I’m aware of. But she wasn’t familiar with the gender equity paradox, prenatal testosterone exposure, studies of play preferences in primates and human infants, etc.
So this point cuts both ways: *no one* should be drawing conclusive inferences about what’s going on just yet. Nevertheless, there is good reason to draw some probative suppositions about what *might* be going on and then, on the basis of a precise articulation of these suppositions, trying to find evidence that supports or undercuts them. That works for both the ‘patriarchy’ and the ‘preferences’ suppositions. And my point has been to suggest that we pay more attention to the ‘preferences’ supposition, because right now I don’t think it’s getting the attention it deserves.
Second, and more substantively, the support for the drawing of the ‘preferences’ defeasible supposition turns on more than the gender equity paradox. That’s why I asked about what you thought of Haidt’s discussion of prenatal testosterone exposure at the start of that video. It’s my understanding that the “men prefer to work with things and women prefer to work with people” thesis is pretty robust. It’s also my understanding that there’s a consensus that prenatal testosterone exposure is correlated with behavior differences in humans and non-human animals, and that this shows up in things like, for instance, whether chimpanzees, bonobos, or human infants prefer to play with dolls or trucks. When I bring this up, sometimes I get people who say that the presence of these preferences in human infants is evidence of the need for gender reengineering at infancy. But no one thinks we need gender studies courses in primate enclosures. Furthermore, as Haidt points out, affirmative action policies have been in place for decades while disciplines like engineering and social psychology continue to show the demographic differences they do. So there’s not just one source of data for drawing the ‘preferences’ supposition as a possible explanation and a basis for further research, and that’s an important part of what’s keeping it epistemically viable.
There’s plenty of space to explore more than just the ‘patriarchy’ explanation, it seems to me, and I’m hoping more people consider the alternatives. That’s why I asked what you thought about the stuff on testosterone at the start of Haidt’s video. The digit ratio research sounds a bit like phrenology, and I don’t know what to make of it, but digit ratio is apparently fixed by prenatal testosterone exposure and it does appear to be correlated with different traits (check out correlations between digit ratio, homosexuality, and different kinds of trans identities). Personally, I’d like to see students across the academy start drawing outlines of their hands on the back of student evaluations. Not because there’s anything in particular I think we’d find, but just because I’m interested in having the data.Report
Thanks for this, it’s very interesting and important stuff. I do have a question about this argument:
“There is good reason to think the CRT might measure other traits instead… A 2016 study found that when controlling for different levels of ‘maths confidence’, gender differences on the CRT disappear. The researchers conclude that “men perform better on the CRT because they are more confident in their quantitative abilities”.
I’ve read that study, but I’m not an expert so I very well could be screwing this up, forgive me if that is so. Suppose we tested cooking abilities, and found that men are worse cooks than women. Suppose that these group-based differences in cooking ability disappeared once we controlled for something like “cooking confidence”, as measured by self-reported confidence. Would we conclude that the original correlation was entirely explained by this distinct variable, “confidence”? No, because we’d need to also establish that people’s confidence isn’t influenced by their actual ability. But this is prima facie unlikely to be true: people who cook well will probably develop confidence and people who cook poorly tend to lose confidence. So in this case, how does the fact that [the correlation between CRT and sex disappears when we control for “maths confidence”] show that, in your words, “CRT might be measuring *other* traits”? This would only be true if these are really distinct variables, yes?Report
This is a good point and a nice example I talk about this in the paper. I say:
“However, a concern with this line of reasoning is that Zhang et al.’s study, like many others, does not account for the possibility that people’s beliefs about ability are accurate (Lemoine 2017; Jussim 2012). That is, the self-report measure of quantitative self-efficacy may track numeracy, because the people that lack confidence in their quantitative abilities do so because they are, as a matter of fact, less competent at numeracy. This is consistent with research by Primi et al. (2018: 273), which found a direct link between maths anxiety and cognitive reflection, but found that the effect of maths anxiety on cognitive reflection was partially mediated by mathematical reasoning.
If quantitative self-efficacy is strongly linked with actual mathematical ability, then we are back to our unanswered question of whether numeracy is relevant to success in Philosophy.”
Sorry if it was misleading not saying this here. I was trying to keep word length down but wanted to still include this as I do think confidence is a factor in crt performance, and that it’s a factor in success in Philosophy – so didn’t want to omit talk of confidence.Report
Ah, thank you, I should have gone through the whole paper first before commenting (and damn these word counts!). The absence of this fairly straightforward point in the Zhang paper is odd!
I think you’re right that the real question here concerns these oddly mathematical CRT-questions and their relevance to philosophical ability. It’s telling that in a less purely mathematical test of rational reflection (which you do cite in your paper), differences between men and women dropped dramatically: http://journal.sjdm.org/15/151029/jdm151029.html.
Finally, I’d just like to point out that an attack on the innate-CRT hypothesis does not constitute a defense of the “it’s all conditioning and structural injustice” hypotheses. Those claims–for example, concerning the effects of hiring practices, stereotype threat and implicit bias–are also in very serious empirical trouble, and while many philosophers love to cite the Perfect Storm stuff because it accords with what appears to be their a priori (that this all must be due to social factors and conditioning), it’s not as though those ideas constitute a strong consensus among the peer-reviewed science. Suspension of belief and further investigation is still a live option!Report
Will reply to other comments later, but just realised I should have said, as I do in the paper, that Livengood et al. absolutely do not draw the Quick Conclusion!
Just for the avoidance of doubt, in case anyone accidentally took this from the above.Report
I’m quite surprised by the comment that academia is systematically anti-sexist. I’d like to suggest trying a more contextual perspective.
Neuroscience and psychology seem to concur that the the phenomenon of personality is constructionist, it arises through the intersection of self and society. Operationally, I am who we agree I am.
From my perspective in urban ethnography and somatic psychology, the importance of integrated mind-body thinking-experiencing is what we want to educate for moving into the future.Report
So why think that my personality is what society and I agree on? Perhaps I’m not smart enough to understand, but that seems like there are obvious counterexamples to that theory. And if so, not sure why I should care that that’s how psychologists talk about personality.Report
There exists overall in human history the common tendency to blame the oppressed for their oppression and I highly suppose this is the case when we think that women’s “personalities” explain the gender gap.
I don’t say that we couldn’t find symptoms in women’s behavior that explains somewhat how they are treated or their professional experience, but maybe we should first into other directions, especially given that we are a discipline that can’t a year without a public sexual harassment scandal (and I’m only talking about the public ones).Report
It seems like it is quite common in philosophy to identify structural factors that might explain the gender imbalance. See for example, much of what the APA funds. So, it seems that your advice has already been heeded, and perhaps, although not instead of, we should also consider alternative explanations.Report
I think this is a model of how to reason about this sort of question. Tentative, charitable to opposing views, based on systematic empirical information instead of just anecdotes, careful to distinguish speculation from strongly supported conclusions… Bravo.Report
Thanks for taking the time to give positive feedback – much appreciated.Report
The author writes:
“So, as a third response, we might concede that the CRT tracks something of value, but argue that it is only one small part of the skills that contribute to good philosophizing. Imagine a test used to assess physical fitness for the military that has press-ups as the key element. Since women tend to have lower levels of arm strength than men, they might find it harder to pass this test. But it would be wrong to conclude that the women who fail this test are ‘physically unfit’, for arm strength is just one small part of physical fitness. In the same way, we might allow that the CRT tracks one aspect of rationality that women tend to have less of, but without drawing any conclusions about overall levels of rationality. Given the precise nature of the CRT questions, set against the range of virtues and skills that we might plausibly postulate as part of the ideal philosophical personality, we probably need not hang too much on whatever the CRT tracks.”
I found the analogy with military fitness test amusing because it seems to backfire. In the army and navy tests I’m familiar with, pushups are one third of the test, and failing any category fails the test. So this isn’t “one small part” of the test. (There are lower standards for women in all categories as well as allowances for age differences in both sexes. Women who pass the female standards are deemed fit, but fitness has been defined so as not to exclude too many potential female recruits). So if we take the analogy seriously, then what the CRT tests measure are very significant to the overall philosophical ability that we want to know about.
The author writes:
“In the same way, we might allow that the CRT tracks one aspect of rationality that women tend to have less of, but without drawing any conclusions about overall levels of rationality.”
Without drawing *any* conclusions about overall levels of rationality? Not even provisional ones? I don’t see how that could be rational. Surely, if you have a reliable indicator of some aspect of rationality that favors one candidate over another, and no further information, it’s rational to rely on that indicator.
“Given the precise nature of the CRT questions, set against the range of virtues and skills that we might plausibly postulate as part of the ideal philosophical personality, we probably need not hang too much on whatever the CRT tracks.”
What are the range of virtues and skills that *aren’t* correlated with whatever CRT tracks? Would we agree on a list? And how do we reliably measure them? If we can’t nail this down, it seems reasonable to rely on whatever the CRT tracks so long as it’s a fairly reliable indicator of something we care about. Maybe it isn’t, but the author seems to be conceding that for the third reply.Report
It’s not rational to rely on a single indicator if, for example, you don’t know whether the trait indicated is independent of other relevant traits, you don’t know how important the measured trait is with respect to the composite you care about (in this case, overall rationality), and you don’t know about the variability in estimates of the trait you’re measuring. Focusing on the first limitation, suppose there are three traits that matter for overall rationality: R, S, and T. Suppose T sets the baseline, and suppose that R’s influence on overall rationality is regulated by S. If you have S, then having R means you’ll be *more* rational than baseline. But if you lack S, then having R means you’ll be *less* rational than baseline. Now, suppose that in the population, most people lack S, but the positive benefit of R when you do have S is much, much larger than the cost when you have R and lack S. There will be many parameter settings for which at the level of the population, having R is positively associated with overall rationality. And yet, if you have two people and *all* you know is that one has R and one does not, it would be a bad idea to bet that the one with R is more rational than the one without. (And that’s true even if everyone has the same baseline and the baseline isn’t related in any way to having or lacking R and S.) There’s no reason to think the real world is *less* messy than this. Given how little we know in this area, it seems to me that we shouldn’t say, even provisionally, that the CRT tells us anything about overall rationality.
On your third point: Your questions are important and interesting. I was surprised, though, that your conclusion went in the direction it did, rather than in the opposite direction. We think there are lots of things that matter for philosophical ability. There probably isn’t a unique constellation of traits that is maximally good for doing philosophy. But, as in philosophy itself, there are probable lots of equilibria. Given how little we know about what exactly the CRT measures and how the trait(s) it measures relate to other traits that matter for philosophical ability, why would you think it’s reasonable to rely on the CRT?Report
I wrestle with the problem of how we could tell the difference between a subset of people tending not to be as good at philosophy and philosophy being too narrow. After all, all we have to measure the quality of philosophy by are the opinions of people currently employed as philosophers. I find it hard to imagine what evidence would make me believe, for instance, that women tend not to be as good at philosophy as men.Report
Great work, Christina. Thanks for thinking about this stuff and bringing to my attention an unintended and (stupidly) unanticipated consequence of my work. As I see it, the argument that you’re attacking runs something like this:
 The CRT tracks something that is valuable for philosophers to have.
 If so, then any demographic group that tends to perform worse on the CRT and is under-represented in philosophy is under-represented in philosophy for good reasons.
 Women tend to perform worse on the CRT and are under-represented in philosophy.
 Women are under-represented in philosophy for good reasons.
 If a demographic group is under-represented in philosophy for good reasons, then institutions do not need to address that under-representation.
 Institutions do not need to address the under-representation of women in philosophy.
Do you think that’s a fair reconstruction of the argument? On my reading, in this write-up at least, you give reasons for doubting  and . I share many of your concerns, especially about , which is (I think) the weakest part of the argument. I’m curious what you think about . I think it’s probably false, but I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought, so I don’t have a clear idea of why I think it’s false or an argument against it.Report
5 is problematic because it disregards good reasons why under-represented groups should be in Philosophy. You can have good reasons for as well as against something.
Like, okra is a healthy vegetable with many important nutrients is a good reason to eat it. I happen to hate okra and imagine that’s what raw slugs taste like, so that’s a good reason not to eat it.
I imagine many feminist-inclined scholars (or just generally, out-of-the box thinkers) would suggest that a diversity of approaches to philosophy, including those that champion intuition, are useful in tackling complex questions.
Or that the ability to see through tricky questions quickly is not necessarily all that interesting for philosophers, instead it is the ability to persist and learn despite a lack of confidence, etc.Report
Question: is the study kind of based on a post hoc ergo propter hoc assumption?
So, the study says that people who have (past tense) studied philosophy are exceptionally good at the CRT. But does that mean they had these skills from day 1? What if philosophers are really good at CRT because that’s what philosophy instills in you?
Yes, being naturally able to see through the CRT might put you at a slight advantage early on, but put most people to work studying enough logic questions, and I wonder if they’ll get the same abilities? Like, some people might be naturally good at shooting hoops, but most people can figure it out if they just spend enough time on the court.
Maybe such people wind up being even better at the skills the CRT measures, precisely because they know how and why they failed at that kind of thing before.Report
On the basis of our data, we couldn’t distinguish between the hypothesis that philosophical training makes people perform better on the CRT and the hypothesis that philosophy selects for people who are better at whatever the CRT measures. We were explicit about not being able to draw either conclusion in the paper.Report
So then would you agree that you really can’t begin making claims about what “personalities” of people go into philosophy in the first place?Report
Yes, I agree. I think we know essentially nothing about the personality traits of philosophers, or about what sorts of people decide to go into philosophy, or about why people decide to go into philosophy, or about what makes somebody a good philosopher. I regard my own work as a tiny contribution to beginning to understand some of what’s going on with philosophical temperament. But there is so much that we don’t know, and the little bit of systematic research that has been done so far is so limited, it would be spectacular overreach to think we actually *understand* anything really interesting on its basis.Report
This post seems entirely over-generous to me. I cannot recall ever seeing discussion of research that seriously documents a explores a psychological or personality trait that implies women are better suited for a particular job. And yet defenses against studies like this, explaining why women are ill-suited for job X, are a dime a dozen.
Clearly, detailed, careful analyses and/or rebuttals like the one in this post can be made. But for the casual observer, it would take a truly massive evidence base to shift my prior of “it’s the sexism, stupid”. And a three question test is… kinda laughable as an evidence base, isn’t it?Report
FWIW, there’s an updated, longer CRT. It’s still fewer than 10 items though.Report
On the GRE and similar tests, there are (or were) two ways of evaluating analytical reasoning. One way involved questions similar to the CRT ones in that they test abstract logical reasoning, though I’m not sure if any have an immediate intuitive- seeming wrong answer. The other s in volvier reading a short argumentative essay. I found the first sort of questions hard, the second incredibly easy. I think this mapson to the kind of philosophy I’ tend to be good at. Reading the critique of pure reason, while not easy, is much more congenial to my intellectual skills than mathematical logic and I almost always prefer natural language over logical symbolism as a way of clearly expressing an argument. I’m a male philosopher, btwReport
of Course there is not just the essay, but questions about its logical structure, what, if true, would constitute a good objection etc.Report