Rational agency again

In maintaining that ethics could no longer be done entirely a priori, David Brooks apparently sent the philosophy blogsphere into something of a spin.  (Of course, the piece was entitled “The End of Philosophy.”)  Anyway, discussion of that was such fun, I thought I’d draw your attention to another attack on the idea of human rationality, even though I haven’t read the book,  Animal Spirits How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism.  From a review:

Akerlof, a Nobel laureate, and Shiller, a good bet to become one, are prominent mainstream economists. They don’t deviate easily from orthodox theory, with its allegiance to the proposition that people are essentially rational, well informed and unemotional in the numerous transactions that shape the economy. But in “Animal Spirits,” they have deviated — and they have done so just as mainstream theory self-destructs.

There was nothing rational, well ­informed or unemotional about the behavior that has all but collapsed the economy. That leaves most of America’s economists without a believable framework for explaining how we got into this mess. Akerlof and Shiller are the first to try to rework economic theory for our times. The effort itself makes their book a milestone. …

…And their book takes their case not just to economists, but also to the general reader. It is short (176 pages of text) and easy enough for laymen to understand (most of the time).

Above all, they challenge the reigning free-market ideology of the past 30 years or so, from the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to the abrupt arrival of the present crisis late last year. That ideology held that markets should operate free of government because they were rational. But if animal spirits influence behavior, then government must play a broad, disciplinary role, and do so permanently.  (My stress.)

Keynes apparently saw a lot of this, but the role he gave to animal spirits got written out of economics.  So now we’ve had experiments with a comparatively unregulated market, and even those benefitting up to now should have  some sense something went awfully wrong.  Well, those other than the conservatives on US radio and TV who are now blaming the mess of Obama.

When will they ever learn? Update

UPDATE:  Owners of the new blog we criticize below have responded very positively to remarks made by several people, and an effort is being made to make the list of contributors more diverse.  The details of the effort are described below in the comments; congratulations are  due to those below and to Choice and Inference.

And I admit it: “unconscionable” (in the main body) might have been a bit strong.  However, while women are being allowed access to more fields, their progress is delayed when people act on old assumptions.   All of us who care about this should consider taking action.  As one commentor points out below, there are important issues about who the knower is; there are solid reasons for thinking a diversity of knowers enriches a field, in addition to being more just. 

Of course, many of our readers know all this!


How many women do formal epistemology and decision theory?  If you look at the new blog, Choice and Inference, the answer appears to be:  One.

But a look around the web shows that is certainly not true.  See here and here, for example.  So why does a promising new blog with 23 authors have only one women among them? 

Whatever the reason, it presumably does show that the list owners are unaware of the negative effects of such exclusivity.  And yet they probably have women students and even advise women on their careers.  One does despair.  How can they look around and not notice the extent to which the women are  missing?  (My guess to the answer is not happy; I suspect in many cases, they really do  think women can’t be as good as they are.)

So let’s get a bit explicit:  The first “here” above links to a conference, photos of which suggest strongly there were more young women in the audience than there were women speakers (even though the women speakers far outnumber those on the blog).  But the list makes it clear:  when you think of getting people together for an extended chat, you think of the guys. 

And the women  probably know that; it may well be on their list of very unpleasant features of their field, along with harassment of various awful sorts.  (Believe me, when women are talking in these small clusters at  conferences where nearly all the speakers are men, they are NOT talking about what an honor it is to be allowed to hear the guys.   Despite all the negative messages that women are given, almost all of us have figured out  that the situation is deeply unjust.)

All sorts of research strongly suggests that in formal fields women are having a much harder time than their male colleagues,  and a major reason is the exclusivity that men enact.  Shockingly difficult though it is for women in formal fields in the States, a lot of research suggests  the problems are worse in other places, including many European countries.  It is, in my opinion, unconscionable to act out the exclusivity in public forums like this. 

Now, they do ask that people interested in joining them as commentators send an email.  We must  hope some of the missing women do.  And I hope they don’t have  my experience in a comparable position:  email twice ignored.  (A woman’s name?  Probably unsuitable.)  But many women in the field, if they are anything like women in other formal fields, will already know the reception is unlikely to be friendly.

I’d recommend that the blog owners look at some of the names readily available on the web and send out explicit invitations.  And an addition to the blog to the effect that the blog strongly supports inclusivity would be a good idea.

More on smears

A recent post on this blog drew attention to the fact that the medical services are sometimes wholly unhelfpul in administering smear tests, failing to take seriously the experiences of women who find smears incredibly difficult or painful.

The Guardian today contains the following report from Clare Allan. She writes:

Smear tests are unpleasant, full stop. There can’t be many women who would disagree with that. But for those with mental health problems, learning disabilities and/or a history of sexual abuse, the procedure can be exceptionally traumatic

Apparently there’s  been a marked increase in women going for smear tests recently, since Jade Goody was diagnosed with and subsequently died of cervical cancer. It is incredibly important that this increased awareness is not doused by bad experiences or inadequate understanding. The author calls attention to the fact that whilst well meaning, it appears medical staff has insufficient awareness of the difficulties that face some women undergoing smear tests.

Attention can be drawn to this problem here.

Sheffield cuts nursery workers’ pay for sake of gender equality

I’ve already blogged on this, but I’m so angry that I’m going to do it again. Sheffield city council has decided to cut the pay of many of the lowest paid workers in the name of gender equality– amongst these are such traditionally female occupations as nursery workers and special education assistants, though also some traditionally male jobs. The BBC story focuses on a special education worker who is having her pay cut from 17,000 to 13,000 pounds. Apparently there are many cases like this.

I think I hesitated to say very much yesterday because I didn’t know all the details of the council’s reasoning. But on further reflection I decided I didn’t need to know more. According to the BBC story linked to, the council’s explanation is that they grouped jobs into categories and then tried to equalise within categories. I initially thought to myself that I couldn’t say very much because I didn’t know the details of these categories. But that’s just wrong, because:
(1) If you’re reducing the pay of some of the lowest paid in the name of fairness, something has REALLY gone wrong. (So maybe those categories need re-thinking.)
(2) If you’re reducing the pay of some of the lowest paid traditionally female jobs in the name of gender equity, something has REALLY gone wrong. (So maybe those categories need re-thinking.)

Today I got a further explanation in response to my letter of complaint:

Currently we have a situation where there are two groups of Nursery / School staff.
1. Those who work term time, and get paid a reduced salary to reflect the weeks they do not work.
2. Those who work term time, but get full time pay regardless of the weeks they don’t work.
This is the key issue that is having an impact on the pay of nursery workers. It is not acceptable to have people working side by side who get paid more for doing the same work.

I can certainly appreciate that the current system is unfair. HOWEVER we’re talking about a situation in which currently some people doing absolutely vital and extremely difficult work for 17,000 pounds and other people are doing the same absolutely vital and extremely difficult work for even less. Both of these groups are seriously underpaid. Justice is NOT served by reducing the pay of the somewhat less underpaid to the level of the even more underpaid.

Now– why do I keep blogging about this here, aside from the reasons given above? Because this is being justified in the name of gender equality, and so in the name of feminism. A gross injustice is being carried out in the name of feminism, and we MUST fight it. It is deeply offensive to call this feminist, and it is precisely the sort of thing that convinces people that feminists are elitists happy to sacrifice the pay of low-paid workers for some deeply confused notion of gender equality that includes cutting the pay of nursery workers.

I urge you to complain here, and to spread the word on your own blogs if you have them. This isn’t fairness, and it isn’t feminism.