I wonder if I could persuade you to write a blog post that would help European letter writers do well by their students? (Please don't identify me though - not least because I don't want my student to be able to identify herself.)
I recently wrote my first round of letters for the US PhD applications market, for a student whom I rate very highly. Since I am working at a major European university, the standard of students that I teach is outstanding; and among this cohort the student for whom I wrote is one of the best. I thought that I had represented this fact accurately when, in the sections of the reference letters asking me to rank students relative to their cohort, I rated her in the top 10%-25% for most of the areas asked (and in top 1% for one or two others). Given that our graduate students are likely as good as those at most major US universities, I thought this was high praise indeed. However, an American colleague has recently told me that any ranking outside the top 5% is generally likely to kill the application of a student.
This strikes me as both crazy and unfair, but since I want to do the best by my students, I'll reluctantly play whatever games it takes to see that they get the chances they deserve. For the benefit of non-US letter writers, though, perhaps it would be good to canvas opinions here. How highly must students be ranked to be considered by strong programs? And what percentages of competitive applications are described as being in the top 1% of even very strong MA or undergraduate programs?
Some guidance here would be very much appreciated!
What do readers think? If you post anonymously, at least indicate something about your experience in these matters (e.g., faculty member at a PhD program, recommender, etc.).
With almost 725 responses to our earlier poll, here are the ten most pressing issues in the profession identified by readers:
1. Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
2. Declining state support for higher education loses to Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts by 460–158
3. Hyper-specialization and/or increasing irrelevance of philosophy to public/culture at large loses to Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts by 552–104, loses to Declining state support for higher education by 451–176
4. Erosion of tenure loses to Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts by 597–35, loses to Hyper-specialization and/or increasing irrelevance of philosophy to public/culture at large by 301–294
5. Prestige bias in hiring and/or publication decisions loses to Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts by 569–66, loses to Erosion of tenure by 307–264
6. Sexual harassment and discrimination against women loses to Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts by 584–60, loses to Prestige bias in hiring and/or publication decisions by 300–233
7. Lack of appreciation for academic freedom outside and sometimes inside the academy loses to Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts by 581–54, loses to Sexual harassment and discrimination against women by 274–262
8. Underrepresentation of ethnic and racial minorities in the profession loses to Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts by 582–60, loses to Lack of appreciation for academic freedom outside and sometimes inside the academy by 272–262
9. Vindictive, intolerant "groupthink" mentality in parts of the profession loses to Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts by 556–83, loses to Underrepresentation of ethnic and racial minorities in the profession by 276–272
10. Underrepresentation of women in the profession loses to Bad job market, decline of tenure-track faculty positions, increasing reliance on adjuncts by 587–55, loses to Vindictive, intolerant "groupthink" mentality in parts of the profession by 280–269
Just outside the top ten were "erosion of intellectual standards in the field for political reasons," which lost to "underrepresentation of women in the profession" 281 to 245; and "implicit bias," which lost to "erosion of intellectual standards" by 261 to 239.
Overall, not an unreasonable list. I was struck that quite general issues that affect everyone--e.g., the state of the job market, and erosion of tenure and of support for public universities--were rated more highly than the diversity issues we hear a lot about on the blogs, though those were recognized as well. The strong showing of worries about "prestige bias" surprised me since whether it is a "bias" or a sensible proxy is debatable, but it's clear many readers are in the former camp.
I was surprised to see that you did not include any reference to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise part of the LGBTQ community. This surprised me for three reasons. First, like the aforementioned issues in our profession, these are pressing. Second, in the country at large, LGBTQ equality is among the most important civil rights issues of our time. Third, you have repeatedly gone to bat for LGBTQ equality on your blog--something that I and many other readers have truly appreciated.
This is a fair point, and was clearly an oversight on my part, due in some degree to the fact that (1) LGBTQ philosophers have been less vocal about continuing discrimination on social media in my experience, and (2) my sense that the profession has done better by LGBTQ philosophers than some other groups (for example). But it should have been included as a category for voting purposes, for which my apologies.
IHE has the details. The averages understate the possible differentias, obviously. Most state university salary data is now on-line via newspapers in most states, if one wants to do even more specific comparisons.
MOVING TO FRONT FROM LAST YEAR (SINCE TIMELY AGAIN--originanlly posted March 6, 2009)
Applicants to PhD and MA programs are now receiving offers of admission and, if they are lucky, are beginning to weigh choices between different departments. I want to reiterate a point made in the PGR, namely, that students are well-advised to talk to current students at the programs they are considering. There are often things you will want to know that you won't glean from familiarity with the excellence of the faculty's work, even if that remains the most important, if defeasible, reason for choosing a particular department. Here are some examples of information that no ranking, no departmental brochure, and no "official" departmental representive will tell you about; all of these are drawn from stories I've heard from students over the last few years about ranked departments (the departments will remain unnamed, obviously). You can think of them as representing "types" of problems you should be aware of before enrolling. I've tweaked some of the details to protect identities.
The Absent Faculty: Are the faculty who look so good on paper actually around and interested in working with students? I heard a story about a key senior person in one department who is an alcoholic, and who simply ignores his students. In another department, almost all the graduate students had to sign an open letter to the faculty a few years ago protesting the failure of faculty to return graded papers and their general lack of interest in mentoring the students. In yet another department, a well-known senior member of the faculty spent so much time travelling and lecturing around the world, that he rarely had time to review or discuss work carefully with students.
The Sexual Predator Faculty: Are women treated as young philosophers and aspiring professionals, or do faculty regularly view them as a potential source for dates and sexual liasons? It's a bit shocking to realize that this is still a live issue in some departments, but, sadly, it is. Are faculty-student sexual relations common in the department? What happens when the relations end? Are there repeated cases of sexual harassment complaints against faculty in the department? Do they ever result in discipline? I suppose it is possible this could be an issue for male students, but all the reports I've gotten over the years have been from women victimized by male faculty.
The Nasty Faculty: Talented philosophers and scholars often differ, dramatically, in how pleasant they are personally and professionally. I recall the story of one department where a member of the faculty was known to reduce students to tears in seminar. In another department, a faculty member regularly refuses to work with students, even those interested in his areas; he works only with those he deems "worthy," and there are not many of them! In another department, faculty openly express doubts about the competence of the graduate students and their ability. Make sure the philosophers who seem most interesting to you don't fall into these categories!
The Factionalized Faculty: Many faculties are "factionalized," in the sense that there are sub-groups that rarely see "eye to eye" about departmental issues, from appointments to admissions. Where this becomes worrisome, though, for a prospective student is when certain members of the faculty who share interests and approaches control all the key resources--fellowships, resources for speakers etc.--and use that control to define "in" and "out" groups of faculty and students: students with the "wrong" philosophical interests or who express an interest in the "wrong" faculty members are denied access to important perks and support. This kind of ugly factionalization is less common, but it exists.
I wish it were possible to meaningfuly measure and evaluate faculties along these important dimensions, but, alas, it is not. I have no doubt there are many programs that are really exceptional for how pleasant they are as places to do graduate study, and the way for a prospective student to discover them is to talk to lots of current students.
A leading figure in bioethics, Professor Arras was, at the time of his death, a professor at the University of Virginia. You can read more about his work here. I will add links to memorial notices when they appear.
(Thanks to Harold Langsam for the information.)
UPDATE: A memorial notice from the Hastings Center (thanks to Robert Crouch for the pointer).
...over roughly the last 40 years, compared with a much smaller increase in, for example, tenure-stream faculty? Some of it is no doubt attributable to the tendency of administrators to reproduce in order to justify themselves, but I suspect there's more to the story: e.g., changing federal laws governing employment discrimination, sexual harassment, student privacy, and accomodations for disabilities have surely brought about a lot of this. Anyone know of a well-researched explanation?
Group polarization can be bad enough in real life. As Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein shrewdly observed in the late nineties, however, the Internet and social media have the propensity to lead to an exaggeration of this phenomenon because there is a greater propensity for politically and socially like-minded people to form online groups in which discussion and deliberation take place. Diverse groups are less likely to be affected by processes that lead to group polarization presumably because what I called “the initial condition” this past Monday fails to obtain, so no particular outcome is considered in-group desirable. But when a majority of people, or a few powerful group members, have similar agendas, the initial condition is bound to arise and psychological processes then move people to a more extreme point of view.
Blogs, online forums, social media sites and Internet groups tend to be frequented by people with very similar agendas. For example, while lawyers and psychologists might read Leiter Reports, the dominant readership are philosophers; while an older white woman may join a Facebook group for young, black philosophers, the majority of members will tend to be young black philosophers; and while people with no interest feminist debates may end up reading the blog Feministing, the majority of the readership will be people with a strong interest in, and inclination toward, feminism.
Another factor that can make group polarization more likely to occur on the Internet is the existence of rival “outgroups” (Sunstein, 1999). Because information flows so quickly on the internet, it very quickly reaches a lot of people some of which will disagree with asserted viewpoints. So, rival outgroups are more likely to form on the Internet than in real life, further increasing the likelihood of group polarization.
A third factor that can increase the likelihood of group polarization on the Internet is what is known as “exit.” This is a scenario in which group members leave a group because they do not like the direction in which people’s opinions are moving. This makes the remaining group members more like-minded, and this is a factor that can motivate people in groups to move to a more extreme viewpoint. This effect is hugely exaggerated on the Internet because it is so easy to leave or join online groups. Exiting a real-life group has multifaceted personal effects. It could sacrifice newfangled friendships and liaisons, mess with people’s daily schedules, and leave people without a real-life support net. Leaving an online group is often considerably less complicated and has fewer real-life consequences. In-group online friendships, if formed at all, are less likely to be as close and deep as real-life friendships. Exiting an online group may free up some time here and there but is not going to mess with people’s daily activity schedules, and while an online group can serve as a support net, the impersonal nature of the support net makes the group readily replaceable by another online community.
A fourth factor relevant to the exaggeration of group polarization on the Internet is the occurrence of emotionally charged events. A classical example is the assassination of Martin Luther King that immediately led to more extremist opinions within opposing groups. The 9/11 terrorist attack is a more recent emotionally charged event that shifted people’s opinion about Muslims to the extreme and the opinions of supporters of Muslims to the other extreme. After 9/11 the FBI reported that there was a 1700 percent increase in hate crimes committed against Muslims in the United States. There was also a significant increase in negative stereotypes associated with Muslim Americans. The Internet plays a central role in quickly circulating news reports of emotionally charged events, making people within groups feel more strongly about their group identity. The induced strong emotions can then move groups to more extreme positions regarding the groups responsible for the events in question.
There are other factors that can contribute to a higher likelihood of group polarization on the Internet. The feasibility of commenting anonymously and posing as a different person with a pseudonym is greatly increased on the Internet. When people are relatively or fully anonymous and group membership is made salient, then the chance of group polarization increases significantly. Anonymity is erasing individual differences, making it seem to group members as if their fellow group members are very similar to them. This, in turn, strengthens the feelings of belonging and group identity. When no or little attention is drawn to individual in-group differences, the majority opinions or the opinions of people of perceived authority come to seem desirable for the group as a whole, making it more likely for people to move toward that outcome or engage in one-upmanship that can lead to a more extreme perspective.
Another reason the Internet escalates polarization is that search engines allow people to selectively seek out information that confirm their existing opinions rather than arbitrary information that could challenge their viewpoints. A large array of information is generally positively valued, as access to multifaceted information appears to be the bread and butter of democracy and unbiased decision-making. But when a huge load of information becomes available, it becomes possible for people to do selective searches for information that confirm pre-existing biases or for allies who can assist in activism. Selective searches for confirming information allows people to present persuasive argument that can move individual people’s more moderate viewpoints to the more extreme. Selective searches for allies can help establish groups susceptible to the force of the arguments. Additional in-group discussion can then help people conjure up further arguments and move opinions to further extremes. Search engines readily available to everyone on the Internet thus contributes strongly to group polarization.
As Sunstein has argued, the Internet has created the need for a distinction between planned and spontaneous polarization. The spontaneous version of the phenomenon is what we have been discussing up until now. The planned version takes place when people purposely create groups of like-minded people with the goal of taking the positions of other group members to the extreme. It’s relatively hard to generate or decide to join groups in real life. Being a member of a real-life group is time-consuming and costly. In comparison, it’s extremely easy to generate or join groups on the Internet. Anyone can generate a Facebook group and invite selected individuals to participate or find an already-existing group to join. Although being active in groups online can be time-consuming, it is far less time-consuming than having to spend time on transportation, irrelevant small talk and useless food or cigarette breaks. So planned polarization is strongly encouraged by the structure of the Internet. As an example, consider a group of girls in high school who decide that they don’t like another girl from their class and plan to bully her. Prior to the age of the Internet, bullying would mostly take place on school property or at after-school activities, and it would be relatively easy for teachers to discover the abuse and intervene. With access to the Internet the scheming girls can meet any time they choose online to plan their attack and reinforce each others’ opinions, and they can conduct the offense completely online without the knowledge of parents and teachers.
Sunstein’s hypothesis from the late 1990s that polarization will be worse on the Internet has been confirmed for online communities (Daniels, 2009) and for Twitter (Yardi and Boyd 2010). Yardi and Boyd (2010) analyzed 30,000 tweets on Twitter about the shooting of George Tiller, a late term abortion doctor, on May 31, 2009 in Wichita, Kansas and found that conversations between like-minded individuals quickly led to strengthened group identity among both pro-life and pro-choice people. Conversations between people from different groups, on the other hand, widened the gap between the opposing communities.
Because the group polarization is hugely exaggerated on the Internet, a majority of the beliefs formed as a result of deliberation or the airing of opinions on blogs, social media sites and group forums are unreliably formed and hence do not have a great propensity to be true overall. Some beliefs end up being misleading or exaggerated versions of the truths. Other beliefs will be outright false.
As Sunstein argues in On Rumors, group polarization is also a trigger of a greater within-group commitment to the truths of rumors. Group polarization can explain rumors, such as the widely circulating falsehoods that Obama was not born in the United States, that the CIA was responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy and that Governor Sarah Palin thought that Africa was a country rather than a continent. The claim about Sarah Palin, which appeared on MSNBC, was supposedly traced back to Martin Eisenstadt, an alleged McCain policy adviser. But Martin Eisenstadt is entirely fake. The think tank where he was claimed to work, the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy, is merely a website and his blog and the online TV clips of him are all fake. The hoax was put on by filmmakers Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish. They had previously fooled Jonathan Stein, a reporter for Mother Jones, and a Los Angeles Times political blogger. They subsequently claimed that they weren’t the source of the Palin rumor. Whoever was the source of it is not the only person to blame. The journalists and bloggers who didn’t vet the incoming information are to blame as well. But so is the phenomenon of group polarization. As Sunstein argues, people believed the Sarah Palin rumor, because they already held the view that she was an airhead. It was a simple step to move to a more extreme viewpoint.
When people’s conviction in the truth of a rumor is strengthened due to group polarization, this clearly can have devastating effects for individuals, as everyone who googles a person’s name will immediately see the false information but will not necessarily find out that the information was false. Lots of folks still believe the Palin story, for example. As Sunstein puts it:
In the era of the Internet, it has become easy to spread false or misleading rumors about almost anyone. A high school student, a salesperson, a professor, a banker, an employer, an insurance broker, a real estate agent-each of these is vulnerable to an allegation that can have a painful, damaging, or even devastating effect. If an allegation of misconduct appears on the Internet, those who Google the relevant name will immediately learn about it. The allegation will help to define the person. (It might even end up on Wikipedia, at least for a time.) (On Rumors, Chapter 1)
There are situations in which group polarization is a good thing, for example, within social support systems. Alcoholic Anonymous is an example of a social support system where group polarization is very likely to occur. Alcoholics tend to develop extreme viewpoints about alcohol and abstinence. Some of these beliefs may be exaggerations of true beliefs. Qua exaggerations, they are false. But in a setting like this it doesn’t matter whether people’s extremist beliefs about alcohol are true or false. It is far more important that alcoholics receive the group support they need to quit their addiction. So, in support groups where the aim is psychological support, group polarization can be a good thing. The problem it presents in other cases is that it is an unreliable belief-forming method, as unreliable belief-forming methods aren’t likely to yield true beliefs.
Daniels, J. (2009). Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights: Rowman & Littlefield.
Yardi, S. & Boyd, D. (2010) “Dynamic Debates: An Analysis of Group Polarization Over Time on Twitter,” Bulletin of Science Technology Society October, 30, 5, 316-327
Sunstein CR (1999) “The Law of Group Polarization”, December 1999, University of Chicago Law School, John M. Olin Law & Economics Working Paper No. 91.
Sunstein CR (2002) “The Law of Group Polarization” Journal of Political Philosophy,10, Issue 2, pages 175–195.
Sunstein, CR. (2009). Going To Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Oxford University Press.
Sunstein, CR. (2009). On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
It has been a mantra of those calling for Marquette political science professor John McAdams to be sanctioned for his blog criticisms of a philosophy teacher and graduate student, Cheryl Abbate, that as a student, Ms. Abbate was uniquely "vulnerable." Thus, the letter sent to Marquette by some number of Harvard philosophy graduate students stated:
Universities owe their graduate students—who are among the most vulnerable members of their communities—a guarantee of protection from this kind of treatment. But at Marquette, we were recently disturbed to learn, Cheryl Abbate was put in a position where her best option was to transfer out of her doctoral program.
We call on Marquette to articulate a clear policy for protecting its graduate students from abuses by more powerful members of its community.
As I noted at the time, the idea that universities have an obligation to protect teachers from criticism of their pedagogy by other members of the university is unworkable. But what I want to remark on here is the assumption that Ms. Abbate was "vulnerable" and Prof. McAdams was the "more powerful member" of the community. As a generalization, it is true that graduate students are more vulnerable to various professional and other setbacks than tenured faculty. But it wasn't true in this case, as should now be clear: It is McAdams who now faces the full might of the university as it tries to end his career, while Ms. Abbate has had the good fortune to move on to a much better PhD program, where she will hopefully flourish and move on into her own academic career. Assumptions about "vulnerability," like other stereotypes, may sometimes belie a more complex situation. And "protection of the vulnerable" can not, in any case, trump all other values, for when it does we end up with injustices like that at Marquette.
A second process that can polarize groups is persuasive argumentation. When a majority of the group or powerful individuals in the group hold a moderate viewpoint, they will choose to present certain selective arguments for their point of view and will often choose not to present any opposing arguments. Further thoughts on and discussion of the particular opinion will bring about additional persuasive arguments, which will then move the group in a more extreme direction. This can have an escalating effect, as extreme viewpoints tend to be less tractable and more confidently held, so the group eventually ends up with considerably more extreme collective opinion compared to the opinions each of the group members initially held. Persuasive arguments, of course, need not be sound arguments and could even be arguments infiltrated by threats, propaganda or lobbyism. As the term indicates, arguments are persuasive when we perceive them as sound or as salient in a memorable or vivid way.
Events preceding the 2013 Government shutdown serve as a good example of persuasive argumentation processes. The Constitution requires that Congress approve Government spendings in legislation (appropriations legislation). When the opposing chambers of Congress fail to agree to the distribution of funds for an upcoming fiscal year, it is common to extend existing laws (a so-called continuing resolution). However, if Congress fails to reach an agreement about extending the existing law about Government spending at the end of the fiscal year on September 30, there is a so-called “funding gap,” and the Constitution requires that the government shuts down to avoid defaulting on public debt.
As early as in 2010 Republican activists and politicians were planning a Government shutdown as a strategy to defund the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and cut Government spendings. After a failure to reach that result on several occasions, concerted efforts were made toward making it happen starting in January 2013. Billionaire Koch brothers funded conservative activists to work with tea party members of Congress in order to advertise an appropriation bill that would defund Obamacare.
This sort of funded political activism is a quintessential case of persuasive argumentation that occurs as a result of repetition, emphasis, propaganda and lobbyism. When people are exposed to persuasive argumentation for what is considered a desirable outcome, their viewpoint is likely to move in that general direction, resulting in an overall more extreme group opinion. This was exactly what happened in the events preceding the 2013 Government shutdown. For example, tea party affiliated politicians managed to use persuasive argumentation to convince nineteen Senators to sign a letter calling for defunding of Obamacare prior to the Government shutdown.
In my final post tomorrow I will address the differences between group polarization in face-to-face groups and Internet groups.
For the first time in a half-century, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has commissioned a new essay on "Philosophy of Law," written by myself and a former student, Michael Sevel, now at the University of Sydney. Hopefully ours will have a half-century run as well!
Continuing this week’s discussion of group polarization: people sometimes move to a more extreme version of their initial opinion owing to a power structure within a group, even when holding a more moderate opinion has no overt negative consequences.
Again the main driving force is likely to be a desire to be favorably perceived by group members (in this case people of power) and one-upmanship among equals. The Stanford prison experiment and the BBC prison experiment exemplify social comparison processes within a power structure to the extreme. The Stanford prison experiment is a study that took place at Stanford University August 14-20, 1971. It was funded by the US Office of Naval Research and was conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Twenty-four male students were recruited for the study. They were assigned random roles as prisoners and guards in an enclosure in the basement of the psychology building at the university. Both groups adapted their roles far beyond Zimbardo’s expectations. One-third of the guards became truly sadistic dictators, whereas many of the prisoners tolerated psychological abuse. For example, as a way of punishment the guards would remove the prisoners’ mattresses and not allow them to empty the bucket in their cell that they used as a toilet. What was most surprising perhaps was that in spite of the fact that everyone was aware that it was an experiment and not real life, the prisoners willingly abused and harassed fellow prisoners when requested to do so by the guards. Even when the prisoners had lost all monetary compensation and incentive to remain study participants, they didn’t quit the study (with the exception of one prisoner who quit early on). Zimbardo shut down the experiment prematurely owing to its questionable moral status.
Zimbardo subsequently argued that since the roles of guards and prisoners were arbitrarily assigned, the actions were unlikely to be the result of the students’ personality traits but were situationally determined.
The study has been criticized for its lack of rigorous methodology, and a partial replication of the experiment sponsored by BBC and conducted by psychologists Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher in 2006 appeared to show that internalized group membership can trigger tolerance, obedience and tyranny but also resistance. People engage in tyranny after they feel that they identify with the group, if tyranny is the agenda of the most powerful members of the group. The less powerful in the group have a desire to be favorably perceived by the powerful, and move their viewpoints in that direction. Further, because the viewpoints of the most powerful and cruelest among the guards are considered desirable, one-upmanship drives in-group opinions to further extremes.
Tomorrow I will look at persuasive argumentation, a second process that can polarize groups.
From his contribution to Portraits of American Philosophy:
I have two more considerations to offer in support of my suggestion that we can expect an important creative philosophical impulse from the direction of religion. The first of these is that, over the centuries, an enormous collection has accumulated of books and monographs on topics related to theology and to the philosophy of religion. Many of these books and monographs are by authors of high intelligence and penetrating depth. Most of them have hardly been read. This represents a readily accessible gold mine of fresh materials for scholarly research, for courses and seminars, and for doctoral dissertations....
My final point in this connection is that, as a matter of fact, academic moral philosophy has itself actually been moving lately in the direction of religious thought. Moral philosophers have taken up certain fundamental human problems that have characteristically been especially within the province of religious inquiry and discussion: for instance, issues having to do with the nature of virtue and with the meaning of life. It is partly with issues of this variety--and with related issues concerning the nature of sin, or of holiness, or of being sacred, or of salvation--that I would expect the philosophy of religion to be again, in coming years, largely concerned. (pp. 127-128)
The philosopher of physics David Wallace, currently at Oxford University, has accepted a senior offer from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, where he will start in August 2016. This will solidify USC's "top ten" status and also put it on the map for students interested in philosophy of physics.
As discussed in my post yesterday, that group polarization occurs is a fact. Why it occurs is more puzzling. What drives this phenomenon is not as simple as an inherent desire to conform that we all have. If a desire to conform were governing group polarization, we should expect the end result of the group to be no more extreme that the most extreme viewpoints of the majority of group members. But we know that group polarization can happen even when the majority of group members start out with rather moderate opinions.
The psychological processes driving group polarization require that there is a pre-existing tendency towards a particular moderate viewpoint that is held by the majority of the group members or by the most powerful among the group members. Call this the “initial condition.” Once the initial condition is in place polarization tends to occur via one of two processes: Social comparison or persuasion. The processes are often presented as different theories of group polarization but there is no good reason to think that they can’t both be in effect on different occasions and sometimes perhaps simultaneously during deliberation.
Social comparison occurs when people in a group are exposed to each others’ viewpoints or deliberate on a particular subject matter. We tend to assess ourselves by comparing ourselves to others, and we have a desire to be perceived favorably by relevant others, which makes us likely to assert a less extreme viewpoint, until we discover that others hold the same or a more extreme view. This, however, is only the beginning of the explanation of group polarization. If the viewpoint of other group members is more extreme than the opinion you originally asserted, then social comparison explains how you come to hold a more extreme opinion. But it doesn’t explain the emergence of a more extreme outcome for the group as a whole compared to any initial perspective of individual members. The main factor here is subpersonal one-upmanship (Isenberg 1986). Group members will tend to outdo each other as long as the more extreme viewpoint is considered desirable implicitly or explicitly. So, the group as a whole will often end up with a viewpoint that is more extreme than any starting point, when that general direction appears to group members to be in-group desirable. This is also known as a choice shift. Sanders and Baron describe it as follows:
This realization either “releases” the moderate members from their fear of appearing extreme or motivates moderate members to “compete” with the extreme members to see who can come closest to espousing the most admirable position. In either case, the moderates are motivated to adopt more extreme positions, while there is no corresponding pressure on extreme members to moderate their opinions (although, of course, simple conformity pressure may lead to some small amount of moderation by extreme members.) The net result is an overall polarization of opinions, that is, a choice shift. (Sanders and Baron, 1977: 304)
Misperceived group norms can also mistakenly be seen as the ideal that one should strive toward to be perceived favorably. This, together with subpersonal one-upmanship, can move a group to a more extreme viewpoint. What’s interesting is that once the group polarization has taken place, the initially misperceived group norms have automatically become the new norm. So, this is an example of a kind of normative bootstrapping. By adhering to a misperceived norm, that norm becomes the true norm for the group.
A striking example of how group opinions can be affected by misperceived group norms is the long-term abidance by the trans-woman-exclusion policies governing large queer and feminist events such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. For many years festival organizers and festival-goers have abided by an informal policy that only women who were assigned the female sex at birth should attend the event. This is also known as “the intention.” The intention concerning the intended attendees is captured by the slogan “womyn-born-womyn.” As many trans* activists, most notably transsexual activist Julia Serano, have pointed out on several occasions, the long abidance by this intention strongly turns on traditional norms in queer and feminist groups as well as plain old sexism. Traditionally, discrimination against trans* people from these corners consisted in derogatory anti-trans-women remarks or “witch hunts” by prominent feminist writers, such as attempts to prohibit hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery.
The opinions underlying the exclusion policies of the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, however, moved toward extreme versions of some of the traditional viewpoints. The official explanation of why trans* women were not welcome at the festival was that they had experienced the male privilege during their upbringing and that some of them still have a penis. It was argued that experiencing the male privilege, albeit involuntarily, made trans* women fundamentally different from “womyn born womyn.” Having festival attendees with a penis at the event, furthermore, was asserted to be an impending threat to the women there both physically and psychologically.
While these opinions are bad enough, they don’t reflect the actual extremist viewpoints that group members came to hold over time as a result of group polarization. As Serano correctly points out, lesbians who have no problem with trans* men and who might even “lust after trannybois” find trans* women “creepy” and “effeminate” and don’t hesitate to openly state these viewpoints in their absence. Probably what initially made festival-goers and supporters move toward these extreme viewpoints was they seemed to fit the (misperceived) group norms, and as a result the misperceived group norms then became the implicitly accepted group norms.
Sanders, G. S. & R. S. Baron. (1977). Is social comparison irrelevant for producing choice shift? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(4) , 303 - 314
Serano, J. (2007). The Whipping Girl: A Transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity, Berkeley: Seal Press.
A colleague in Germany calls my attention to the latest development in the wake of the most recent revelations about Heidegger's anti-Semitism. He observes:
Apparently, the university and department in Freiburg want to give up Husserl's and Heidegger's chair and replace it with a Junior Professorship (probably not even tenure-track!) for logics and analytical philosophy of language. This would be the most provincial move possible given their structure, as the article points out....[T]his scandal will certainly trigger a lot of resistance in Germany. It is just ridiculous to sell out phenomenology and hermeneutics in Freiburg as a side-effect of petty department dynamics (which ultimately lies behind this).
From his contribution to Portraits of American Philosophy:
I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts. In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines--and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.
The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded. We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them. Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet. We seem, more or less, to be marking time. (pp. 125-126)
...can be posted at the PhilJobs site, so I won't be collecting them here. If there's interest from placement chairs, I can run a thread in late March or early April for departments to post the results for their candidates.
Thanks to Brian for offering to guest-blog this week. As I like to think about group epistemology, I will focus on the phenomenon of group polarization.
Group polarization, also known as the risky shift and the choice shift phenomenon, is a tendency of group deliberation to move individual group members toward the most fanatical--sometimes riskiest and sometimes most cautious--versions of the viewpoint they initially held. For example, after deliberation, people in groups opposed to the affordable care act are likely to be still more opposed; people who believe there are no salary inequities in an institution or company are likely, after discussion, to prevent investigations into its existence; people who think that smoking at universities is a serious problem are likely, after discussion, to insist on severe measures to prevent it. Group polarization shapes the conduct of individuals in universities, courts, juries and various other governmental institutions.
Cass Sunstein (1999) distinguishes between two different types of polarization pertaining to groups: group polarization toward within-group extremes and individual polarization toward within-group extremes. The latter but not the former is consistent with the group’s final collective opinion being no more extreme than the average for the group. Suppose all but one juror is ready to recommend life without parole for a suspect, whereas the remaining juror is leaning towards life with parole. The other jurors bring her around. In the envisaged scenario, the juror’s viewpoint has become polarized, whereas the viewpoint of jury stays more or less the same. It’s group polarization toward within-group extremes that we are primarily interested in here.
The initial research on group polarization was at first met with surprise and skepticism in the scientific community as it was at odds with the principles of group reasoning that were prevalent at the time. It was thought, for example, that group decisions would reflect an average of opinions and norms, which is quite intuitive for a group of like-minded individuals. You would expect like-minded individuals to find a compromise that reflects the mean position of the group. The result that overall group opinions move to extremes after deliberation is surprising and runs counter to common sense.
Despite the initial opposition, research in the area picked up in the 1960s, and group polarization was confirmed as a possible effect of groups on individual decision-making, even in trained decision-makers. Since the 1960s hundreds of studies have confirmed the phenomenon. Main and Walker (1973), for example, looked at decisions made by Federal district court judges sitting either alone or in groups of three and found that group discussions strongly influenced the judges’ decisions. Only about thirty percent of the cases where the judges were alone resulted in an extreme decision. When the judges were part of groups deliberation led to extreme results in sixty-five percent of cases.
In addition to the effect of groups on individual decision-making, it has been confirmed that groups as a whole move toward an extreme version of the initial opinions of the group. For example, appeal to group polarization is a common way of explaining jury decisions and political deliberation. Jury members tend to decide on punishment that is either significantly harsher or less harsh than those of any individual juror.
Fishkin and Luskin (1999) later discovered that group polarization is less likely to influence decision-making within highly diverse groups. The greatest effect on decision-making has been observed in groups of similar-minded individuals, particularly when the group is new or takes on new tasks.
Group polarization is not intrinsically bad. It might well be the psychological force required for individuals to take the right kinds of action. The problem with group polarization is that it is an unreliable method for forming true beliefs. Even if group polarization in a slut-walk protest might lead to new legislation preventing rapists from being acquitted on the grounds that the victim wore a miniskirt, which surely is a good thing, group polarization might just as often lead to an endorsement, or a lack of condemnation, of slavery, female circumcision, salary inequities or gun possession.
In my next post I will look at some reasons that polarization may occur.
Fishkin, J. S., & Luskin, R. C. (1999). “Bringing deliberation to the democratic dialogue”. In M. McCombs, A. Reynolds, & Eds. (Eds.), The poll with a human face: The National Issues Convention experiment in political communication (pp. 3-38). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Main, EC., Walker, TG. (1973). “Choice Shifts and Extreme Behavior - Judicial Review in the Federal Courts”, Journal of Social Psychology 91, 215-221.
Sunstein CR (1999) “ The Law of Group Polarization”, Harvard Law School December 1999 University of Chicago Law School, John M. Olin Law & Economics Working Paper No. 91
Sunstein CR (2002) “The Law of Group Polarization” Journal of Political Philosophy, Volume 10, Issue 2, pages 175–195.
Sunstein, CR. (2009). Going To Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Oxford University PRess.
Sunstein, CR. (2009). On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
A group of researchers, led by Ron Eglash, from the field of Science Studies (STS) have written this petition to 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science) to adopt a resolution that STS scholars should advocate that science should not be misrepresented in class-rooms in public schools, i.e. evolution should be taught in public schools, and that 'intelligent design' and 'creationism' misrepresent evolution.
Again from Portraits of American Philosophy, Judith Jarvis Thomson writes:
[W]hich nonphilosophical beliefs are such that a philosopher tries to explain what makes them true? Moore had invited us to take the beliefs to include that there are living human bodies, which have been in contact with or near the surface of the earth since they were born, that some events had occurred before others, and that there are human beings like oneself in having experiences. But that is an awfully short list...[T]here is nothing normative on the list, and, in particular, no moral directives to the effect that such and such a person ought or ought not do such and such....It seemed to me clear that there are moral directives that are as obviously true as that there are a lot of living human bodies currently near the surface of the earth. (pp. 54-55)
First Law of Cyber-dynamics: any unmoderated comment thread will reduce the total amount of knowledge and understanding in the world in proportion to its length.
Second Law of Cyber-dynamics: any unmoderated comment thread on a post touching on politics, race or gender will degenerate into vile idiocy within the first ten comments.
Third Law of Cyber-dynamics: no off-hand comment is too trivial to not generate thousands of words of cyber-commentary.
Fourth Law of Cyber-dynamics: no off-hand comment is too benign to fail to generate offense somewhere else in cyberspace.
Fifth Law of Cyber-dynamics: any comment thread on a blog with an ideological identity will give expression to the most extreme version of that identity within the first ten comments. (The Law of Cyber-Group Polarizaton--Brit will be shedding some light on this next week).
...but it's not just the feminist bloggers and tweeters who are withdrawing. I know of male philosophers who have withdrawn for a similar reason--the main difference, of course, is that threats of sexualized violence are rarely directed at men in cyberspace. But round-the-clock abuse, and threats of non-sexual violence, are a constant for anyone who takes positions that are at all controversial or non-mainstream. The pathology of cyberspace and the ugly behavior it elicits warrants more attention from the law than it has yet received.
Continental Philosophy Farhang Erfani, a philosopher at American University, provides a useful set of links to news, events, interviews, reviews, videos, etc. related to "Continental philosophy" (broadly construed)