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April 20th, 2009

Choice and Inference

There’s an exciting looking new formal epistemology blog, Choice and Inference. They’ve done a lot of good things with getting it set up, including getting LATEX working on the blog. I’ve already added the blog to my RSS reader, and hopefully it will be a success.

What they didn’t do, at least on setting up, was get many female contributors. This was noted over at Feminist Philosophers, where there were also some disturbing reports of critical comments being blocked from the C&I blog. That’s bad – both having a non-diverse list of writers and blocking critical comments. Happily there have been moves to rectify the situation, and the blog owners seem committed to improving the gender balance of the site. So hopefully this story will have a happy ending.

Just what diversity obligations a blog has is a slightly tricky matter. I think anyone is perfectly within their rights to start a solo blog, and if that blog’s authorship is thereby 100% white and male, I don’t see how that’s a problem. I don’t think there’s a problem if they add a second author, even if that still means 100% white and male. A philosophy-oriented group blog that had, say, 10 authors and was 100% white and male, now that I would think was troubling in its lack of diversity. My intuitions about these cases feel fairly strong and robust, and I assume they are tracking something, but I don’t have a good theory about what they are tracking.

The feminist philosophers blog has been doing very good work over recent times keeping track of which events and the like are doing well or badly on gender diversity. That’s not the only kind of diversity we should be worried about though. I’d like to see us, collectively, pay more attention to how white various events (conferences, blogs, etc) are, and how much they are oriented towards people from English-speaking countries. On the latter score at least, Choice and Inference seems to be doing pretty well; which is as things should be given how much of the best work in formal epistemology is being done on the European continent these days. Hopefully this is a kind of development we’ll see more of going forward. There are so many ways in which philosophy could address diversity considerations; having better blogs is a small step in the right direction.

UPDATE: See Jonah’s comments below for information about steps C&I have taken to address the problems being faced. Richard Chappell has further interesting thoughts on the matter.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

13 Comments »

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13 Responses to “Choice and Inference”

  1. Manuel Vargas says:

    Amen, brother.

    And, happy birthday.

  2. Gregory Wheeler says:

    Brian,

    Although I am not an administrator for Choice and Inference, I am a contributor, and I could see the comments traffic this weekend while the blog was going public. All comments on this blog are moderated to block spam, and I know of no comment about gender that was blocked. I saw only one comment about this issue, which was anonymous, by ‘alpha’, and that comment appears on the site.

    If there are comments that have been sent that have been blocked, then I want to know about that. But if in fact, as I suspect is true, no comment about this issue has been blocked, then I think an apology is owed to the administrators.

    It is reckless to traffic in this kind of charge without having your facts straight. I’m a bit disappointed, to be frank.

  3. Jender says:

    Thanks for picking up on this, Brian! And also for making the very important points you’ve made about other forms of diversity. Gregory, the first comment at Feminist Philosophers gives the information on the negative comment that was blocked. I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the report made there, but it is possible that some technical issue kept the comment from appearing. If so, it would be really good to know that— it is, as you say, important to have the facts straight. In fact, in the interest of such knowledge, it would be really useful if you could check into this.

  4. Brian Weatherson says:

    Thanks Manuel and Jender!

    Gregory, I don’t know what kind of evidence you want before someone reports that a charge has been made. The charges were made by people who look credible to me, in a pretty high profile place. Moreover, they weren’t responded to by anyone at C&I despite the relevant blog post being brought to their attention. And despite them having many different ways in which they could have responded. That well and truly passes the threshold I have for saying that people have been making these allegations.

    Now the charges are possibly false (I think my readers know that people on the internets sometimes say false things) and even if true have all sorts of innocent explanations (comments software fails, especially in new implementations). But if the guys at C&I aren’t going to respond to credible allegations against them, I’m not going to turn into Woodward & Bernstein trying to ferret out the truth before saying that people are making these allegations. It seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of blogging to think that anything like that is required. This isn’t the New York Times.

    I also think it’s pretty important in this context to keep the anonymous/pseudonymous distinction straight. When someone comments frequently in high-profile places under a common name, that matters a lot for their credibility even if it isn’t the name they use off the internet. I’m not particularly a fan of pseudonymous blogging, but I can see why some people use it, and that should be respected.

  5. jp12 says:

    The owners of C and I decided not to make some messages public on the grounds that they weren’t really within the topic of the blog. My own “omitted” letter recommended that they read “Unlocking the Clubhous,” which is about CMU’s computer science dept’s efforts at diversity.

    I have a polite letter explaining this point. If you write me at jj.second@gmail.com, I can forward it to you. Actually, I’m hesitant just to forward email, but I could send a sentence…

  6. jp12 says:

    PS: thanks for picking the topic up!

  7. Jonah Schupbach says:

    Hi all. First things first; thanks Brian for the kind comments about C&I; we hope it will be a success too! OK, now on to the main issue; let me try to hit all of these points in a reasonable amount of space.

    First, to our silence on the issue until now: (a) We weren’t aware of this post on TAR until today, and now that we are aware of it, we are going to defend ourselves. (b) We never defended ourselves on the Feminist Philosophers blog simply because, from our perspective, it seemed that we were able to resolve the issue. You can see that this is the case if you read all of the comments. We were thankful to our interlocutors for pointing out gender imbalance and we have started actively trying to remedy it (Rachael Briggs has joined our ranks as a darn good formal philosopher, and she has volunteered to help Jake and I as we all three collaboratively try to remedy this imbalance). Things were, as far as I could tell at least and judging by the end comments on the FP blog, altogether pretty happy – even if only very briefly – until this post on TAR.

    Now, pertaining to the comments. I (Jonah, not Jake) am currently in charge of moderating the comments and I have indeed rejected several (I estimate four or five) – all pertaining to this issue. However, I must admit that I don’t see the problem. The reason that I deleted these comments was simply because we have made it a policy of C&I from its beginning planning stages to try our best to keep all debates and dialogues on topics within formal epistemology. This should be clear to anyone who read all of the comments on the Feminist Philosophers blog too: there, one of the commentators remarks that she received a kind email from me explaining this. Thus, I disallowed such comments for the same reason that I wouldn’t allow comments discussing the recent Cubs game: these are just not among the topics that this blog is set up to discuss publicly. We are doing our best to keep all discussion on C&I pertinent to formal work on rationality, and I don’t see the problem with that.

    Contrary to what one commentator said on the FP blog, this does not mean that I believe that the issue should never be discussed in the public arena – I don’t believe that. We are perfectly supportive of feminist issues being discussed in public forums; we have just arranged C&I in such a way that it is not one of those appropriate public forums. Nor does it mean that I believe there is nothing to feminist epistemology (that same person suggested this too) – if one of C&I’s authors or commenters wants to post something about formal work in feminist epistemology, they are of course welcome to do that. Nothing about our comments policy implies such extreme claims.

    This takes me to another consideration: in all of the cases that I deleted a comment save one, I personally contacted the commenter, admitted the problem, thanked him or her for the comment, and welcomed any more criticisms, advice, or questions that he or she may have to my personal email address. And I was being very genuine when I did so (and for the record, I still am welcoming of this). Additionally, I explained that I was deleting the comment and explained my reasoning in doing so. These were far from the refusals to respond to these criticisms that you make them out to be in this post. In fact, in the interest of complete transparency, here is a copy of one of the emails that I sent (with only the name taken out):

    Hi ****,

    Thanks for your observations lately in pointing out a major imbalance in our contributor list and for your advice on your recent comment. We are taking you up on your advice and actively trying to recruit more women for the blog. One way we’re doing this: thankfully, Rachael Briggs (of Sydney and MIT) has offered to contribute lately and she has also offered her services in helping us to fix this imbalance … so hopefully this will be corrected for in the near future. Thanks again!

    One small request: I am trying my best to keep any discussion threads / comments on C&I relevant to the topics of this blog – especially in its initial stages. Thus, while I very much welcome any more comments, advice, and / or observations you may have on this issue, I would also ask that you send those directly to me at this email address instead of posting more comments on this issue. Thanks again *****!

    Truly, Jonah

    OK, I think that’s all for now. To summarize, we realize there is a glaring gender imbalance in the contributor list for C&I, and we’re thankful for the folks at the FP blog for pointing that out. We have begun to take steps to try to remedy the situation. One of the steps that we’re not taking is turning our comments section into a discussion / debate forum for feminism (although, as you’ve noticed, we did post a public announcement trying to recruit more women). One of the steps we are taking is to send out many invitations to female formal philosophers inviting them to contribute (I think that I’ve sent out 7 or 8 in the last day). Contrary to what some have thought recently, Rachael Briggs is not doing all of the work on this; rather, Rachael, Jake, and I are collaborating on these efforts.

  8. Richard Zach says:

    So what do you think would be reasonable diversity? Does it depend on the field? Age of the blog? What would be a reasonable effort on the part of the people who run the blog? Do you think publicly shaming organizers of group blogs into recruiting more women is the best strategy to promote diversity?

    Choice and Inference is now as diverse as or even more diverse than It’s Only a Theory, Certain Doubts, and The Garden of Forking Paths (each around 10% women afaict). Many other group blogs I looked at, including Language Log, don’t get far beyond 20%, if that.

  9. Richard Zach says:

    PS: I’m not suggesting that 10 or 20% women is “enough” diversity. And my questions are not rhetorical questions.

  10. Jender says:

    Just wanted to apologise for any confusion I’ve caused: I didn’t keep up properly with all the comments on the FP post and missed that face that the C&I folks have been responding to commenters whose comments got blocked.

  11. Brian Weatherson says:

    Richard, I’m not sure naming and shaming is the best strategy, but I’m sure that critics are not under any obligation to pursue a strategy only if it is known to be best. I think at this stage of the field, doing everything and seeing what works is the best approach.

    It’s true that C&I isn’t the only large group blog that could use having a more diverse membership. Some of the other blogs you mention are also fairly white, as well as being fairly male, so in some respects C&I is ahead of the competition.

    I don’t think there is a bright line number. I do think 4.5% of a large group is well under it. I’m not also convinced that blogs in areas where there are fewer women should ‘get away’ with fewer women members – in those areas the obligation to do more to redress problems is greater. And as Alpha said over at C&I, at some point a blog just looks unwelcoming – then you’re clearly below where you should be.

    Jonah, I guess it’s your blog, but I think it is a very odd practice to think that the running of the blog is not a topic of conversation for the blog. If you want to delete all meta-comments, I guess you have the power to. (And it’s obviously a good thing given you’re doing this to communicate with the blocked commenters.) But it doesn’t seem exactly the way to create a thriving community.

    Having said that, it is a good thing that this is being done on neutral grounds. It would be really bad practice I think to only delete critical comments – as tempting as that is at times!

  12. Gregory Wheeler says:

    Brian, It turns out that we were both wrong on the facts. There were blocked comments. But, those comments were responded to off-line.

    I don’t think this lets you off the hook for letting fly with speculation about motive, however. So whether it was a mistaken shot or a cheap one, I’m not sure. But it wasn’t a warranted one.

    I take your point about that this isn’t the Post. And that’s fair. Even so, I hope you’ll take mine that the central moral judgment underpinning this flap is wide of the mark.

  13. Rachael Briggs says:

    Brian, I don’t have much to add at the moment, but a belated thanks for this post and a happy belated birthday to you.

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