Sunday, 3 October 2010

women's intuition

According to a recent study, there may really be such a thing as women's intuition, but it isn't what we might have thought. Instead, it could help explain why there are so few women in academic philosophy.

The study (via Leiter) is by Wesley Buckwalter (CUNY) and Stephen Stich (Rutgers).

The paper presents a series of gender-differentiated intuitions from common philosophical thought experiments. Not every thought experiment produces a statistically significant gender difference, but in those that do, the effect is marked.

The authors argue for the strong conclusion that this gender difference in intuitions about thought experiments is implicated in the gender difference in academic philosophy. (They are clear that this is not the only cause.)

Consider the predicament of a young woman in a philosophy class, who (like 71% - 75% of women in the Starmans & Friedman study) does not find it obvious that the characters in Gettier vignettes do not have knowledge of the relevant proposition. Rather, her intuitions tell her that the Gettier characters do have knowledge, though her instructor, whether male or female, as well as a high percentage of her male classmates, clearly think she is mistaken. Different women will, of course, react to a situation like this in different ways. But it is plausible to suppose that some women facing this predicament will be puzzled or confused or uncomfortable or angry or just plain bored. Some women may become convinced that they aren’t any good at philosophy, since they do not have the intuitions that their professors and their male classmates insist are correct. If the experience engenders one or more of these alienating effects, a female student may be less likely to take another philosophy course than a male classmate who (like 59% - 64% of the men in the Starmans & Friedman study) has the “standard” intuitions that their instructor shares. That male student, unlike the majority of his female classmates, can actively participate in, and perhaps enjoy, the project of hunting for a theory that captures “our” intuitions.
It is enough to convince me that I should be careful in presenting thought experiments as evidence, since my intuitions won't predict those of other people. (It's likely that gender isn't the only bias in the "received" interpretation of thought experiments. See this post.)

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