“Philosophers, myself included, have for decades been too gullible to science, misled by the marketing of scientists, and ignorant of the inevitable uncertainties that plague the scientific process…”
The following is a guest article* by Edouard Machery, professor emeritus in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the university’s Center for the Philosophy of Science. This is the first in a series of weekly guest posts by various authors on Daily Us this summer.
Implicit attitudes, science and philosophy
by Edouard Machery
How can we be responsible and informed consumers of science, especially when it gives us morally and politically pleasing narratives? The fascination of philosophers for the psychology of attitudes is an object lesson.
Some of the most exciting philosophies of 21st century was made with an eye on philosophically significant developments in science. Social psychology has been a reliable source of ideas: consider only how much ink has been spilled on situationism and virtue ethics or on Greene’s dual-process model of moral judgment and deontology.
That people can have, at the same time, perhaps without realizing it, two distinct and perhaps opposite attitudes towards the same object (a brand like Apple, an abstract idea like capitalism, an individual like Obama or a group like the elderly or women philosophers) is one of the most remarkable ideas to come out of social psychology: in addition to the attitude that we can point out (usually called “explicit”), people may harbor an unconscious attitude that automatically influences behavior (their “implicit” attitude)—or so we’ve been told. We’ve all become familiar with (and maybe now we’ve all had enough of) well-meaning liberals who unknowingly harbor negative attitudes toward one minority or another: women or African-Americans, for example. .
While it was first discussed in the late 2000s – Tamar Gendler discussed the implicit association test in her articles on aliefs and Dan Kelly, Luc Faucher and I discussed how attitudes implicit influences on issues in the philosophy of race – this idea has crystallized as an important philosophical theme throughout the lecture series Implicit bias and philosophy, hosted by Jennifer Saul in the early 2010s in Sheffield. This lecture series resulted in two groundbreaking volumes edited by Michael Brownstein and Jennifer Saul (Implicit Bias and Philosophy, Volumes 1 and 2, Oxford University Press). At that time, the fascination of philosophers with implicit attitudes was in step with the obsession with the subject in society at large: implicit attitudes were discussed in dozens of articles and open-eds in the New York Times, then President Obama, and by Hilary Clinton during her presidential campaign. Deans and provosts, well-paid consultants on “debiasing” and journalists have taught us to be on the lookout for our unconscious biases.
Most notable is the range of areas of philosophy that have engaged with implicit attitudes. Here is a small sample:
- moral philosophy: Can people be held responsible for their implicit attitudes?
- Social and political philosophy: Should social inequalities be explained by structural/social or psychological factors?
- Metaphysics of the mind: What kind of things are attitudes? How to think about beliefs in the light of implicit attitudes?
- Philosophy of cognitive science: Are implicit attitudes propositional or associative?
- Epistemology: How should implicit biases impact our confidence in our own abilities?
The social psychology of attitudes implicit in philosophy had another kind of impact as well: it provided an immediate explanation for the embarrassing underrepresentation of women and the persistent inequalities between male and female philosophers. Jennifer Saul has published a series of important articles on this topic, including “Ranking Exercises in Philosophy and Implicit Bias” in 2012 and “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Women in Philosophy” in 2013. In the first article, after summarizing ” what we to know about implicit biases” (emphasis mine), Saul concluded his discussion of the Philosophical Gourmet Report as following:
There is plenty of room for implicit biases to negatively affect the rankings of entire domains and departments. However, it seems to me that this concern is much more acute in the case of entire departmental rankings. With that in mind, I offer what is sure to be a controversial suggestion: drop the part of the Gourmet Report that asks graders to rate entire departments.
The British Philosophical Association was receptive to the idea of explaining gender inequalities in philosophy by means of implicit biases, and to this day implicit attitudes are mentioned on its website. Of course, in doing so, the philosophers were simply following broader social trends in English-speaking countries.
With hindsight, it is difficult not to find this enthusiasm disconcerting as the shortcomings of scientific research on implicit attitudes have become glaring. In “Anomalies in Implicit Attitudes Research”, recently published in WIRE Cognitive SciencesI have identified four fundamental gaps, which remain unaddressed after nearly 25 years of research:
- It is not yet clear whether the indirect measurement of attitudes (via, for example, the IAT) and their direct measurement different things; in fact, it seems increasingly doubtful that we need to postulate implicit attitudes in addition to explicit attitudes.
- The indirect measurement of attitudes predicts the behavior of individuals very poorly, and we do not know under what conditions their predictive power can be improved.
- Indirect measures of attitudes are temporally unstable.
- There is no evidence that, anyway, indirect measures of attitudes occur to measure causal impact behavior.
These four shortcomings should lead us to question whether the concept of indirect attitudes means anything (or, as psychologists or philosophers of science say, to question its construct validity). To my surprise, leading researchers in this field, such as psychologist Bertram Gawronski and philosophers Michael Brownstein and Alex Madva agree with the thrust of my discussion (see “Anomalies in Implicit Attitudes Research: Not so Easy Dismissed”): indirect measures of attitudes do not measure stable traits that predict the behavior of individuals.
It therefore appears that many of the beliefs that have driven the philosophical discussion of implicit attitudes are either erroneous or scientifically uncertain – why worry about how to limit the influence of implicit attitudes in philosophy when they might not have any no influence on anything? – and that philosophers have been far too quick to reify measures (indirect measures of attitudes) into psychological entities (implicit attitudes).
Hindsight is of course 20/20, and it would be misguided to blame philosophers (including myself) for taking science-in-the-making seriously. On the other hand, philosophers have not even listened let alone given a fair ear to dissenting voices challenging the relentless hype of cheerleaders with implicit attitudes. The lesson is not limited to implicit attitudes: the neuroscience of meditation, the neuroscience of oxytocin, the so-called molecule of love, experimental research on epigenetics in humans, and research on the interaction gene x environment in human genetics also come to mind.
Philosophers, myself included, have for decades been too gullible to science, misled by the marketing of scientists and ignoring the inevitable uncertainties that affect the scientific process: the frontier of science is filled with non-replicable results, she is plagued by hype and hype (COVID researchers, I’m looking at you!), and her journey is shaped by deep-rooted cognitive and motivational biases. In fact, we need to be especially mindful of the uncertainty of science when it seems to provide a simple explanation and promise a simple solution to moral, social, and political ills we find repugnant, such as the underrepresentation of women in philosophy. and elsewhere and persistent racial inequalities in society at large.