More Than Funny Great Jokes

AudienceLaughing   I hereby inaugurate a new series for UP@NIGHT,  “More Than Funny Great Jokes.”  I begin with one of my favorite jokes in this vein.  (Please feel free to send in suggestions for this series.)

On Yom Kippur, the rabbi stops in the middle of the service, prostrates himself beside the bema, and cries out, “Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!”

Saul Rosenberg, president of the temple is so moved by this demonstration of piety that he immediately throws himself to the floor beside the rabbi and cries, “Oh, God!  Before you, I am nothing!”

Then Chaim Pitkin, a tailor, jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the aisle and cries, “Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!”

Rosenberg nudges the rabbi and whispers, “So look who thinks he’s nothing.”

(Thanks to Jewish Sight Seeing and Bruce Lowitt for this version of a pretty famous punch line.)


What do you think of this?

Question_mark_(black_on_white) Fans of Philosophy, rhetoric, and the English language: What are your views on the exchange below?   I am very curious to hear your reactions.  If you would prefer to respond anonymously in the Comments section, please do.  (This is also being posted on Facebook.)

The exchange is from a long blog post that is intended to assist students in deciding about whether to apply to graduate school in philosophy, and where. (The blogger makes numerous references to the PGR in the post.)  The first passage is from the post itself; the second is an update. Excerpts from the Comments Section discussing the update follow. I have removed identifying information regarding the schools under discussion and the commentators’ names.

It’s worth a read even if you don’t wish to comment.  It’s a wonderfully absurd example of how both to mean and not mean what you say.  It’s also exhibits some serious bad faith on the question of whether the Philosophical Gourmet Report is fair.  (Please bear in mind that the intended audience is undergraduates.)


Wednesday, September 19.   (Excerpts)

If all this hasn’t soured you on the prospects of graduate school in philosophy, then you’re just the sort of maniac who might succeed! The Philosophical Gourmet Report is the natural starting place for thinking about where to apply, along with with (sic) advice from your professors. Once you have a sense of about where you might expect to land in prestige level based on the features of your application, you might select about four schools at that level, two more prestigious schools as longshots (sic), and two fallback schools. Look at faculty profiles (on each department’s web page) and at the Gourmet’s specialty rankings to see what schools have strengths in the areas or points of view that appeal to you.


Update on Ph.D. Placement (Sept. 20)

A reader advised me to look at Unranked School A’s placement record. Although they are not ranked in the Gourmet report, this year they placed students in several good tenure track positions including Emory and Colorado-Boulder, and they have also placed well in the past. I suspect their track record is unusual in this respect, and may have to do with the sense some people have that the Gourmet Report is unfair to a network of schools including Unranked School A, Unranked School B, and Unranked School C. Those schools may, then, have better placement records than their unranked status suggests. This could be the case regardless of whether the Gourmet ranking is fair (about which I mean to take no stand): The point is that some people will see those schools as very good and view their Ph.D.’s favorably (emphasis in the original, M.A.).

Commenter A said…

I suspect their track record is unusual in this respect, and may have to do with the sense some people have that the Gourmet Report is unfair to a network of schools including Unranked School A, Unranked School B, and Unranked School C.

It’s not clear just what you’re saying here. Are you claiming that people hire graduates from such programs not because of the quality of the people being hired but because the hiring departments seek to redress a perceived wrong?

Blogger said…

Commentator A, I mean only not to take a stand on whether those departments are treated unfairly or not. I’ll revise the post to make that point clearer.

Commenter B said…

This is a wonderful and really depressing post. I just wanted to quickly comment on the Unranked School A issue, lest your readers get the wrong idea. It is my understanding that Unranked School A receives well above 200 applicants every year for the PhD program of which it takes somewhere around 12. Thus, while Unranked School A may have a high placement record considering it isn’t ranked in the PGR top 50, that does not mean prospective applicants should view it as a shortcut to a good job.

Commentator A said…

Blogger: I appreciate your response and willingness to revise your post. (Also, it’s kind of you take your time and provide prospective students with this kind of advice.) It’s hard, however, to see how your revision is supposed to help clarify the issue I asked about.

To cut to the point: just what is the subject of the phrase “may have to do with the sense some people have” etc.? It seems to be “[A’s] track record.” Do you see the problem? The sentence seems to offer an explanation of Unranked School A’s placement record. And the explanation seems to be some people’s sense that Unranked School A and like schools are unfairly unranked. If that’s not what you’re saying (and I hope you see how offensive a claim that would be), you would need to do more to make it clear.

Blogger said…

Thanks, B, for the helpful point. I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on the Unranked School A situation!

Commentator A, I’m unsure what your concern is. One’s institution of origin — and correlatively the perceived eminence and philosophical judgment of one’s letter writers — is a major factor hiring committees consider when looking at new Ph.D.’s. It seems reasonable to infer that Unranked School A’s good placement record reflects the sense of some people on hiring committees that Unranked School A is a better department than their unranked status suggests. And people who think that, in my experience, tend to think that the fact that Unranked School A is unranked has to do with some unfairness in the PGR.

Sun Sep 23, 06:43:00 AM

Commentator A said…

Blogger: Surely, people would think the report is unfair because they thought the department is better than its unranked status would suggest. That is why it seems wrong to claim that the reason its graduates get hired is that people hiring think the ranking is unfair.

Blogger said…

A fine point of language, that. But what I actually said was:

“may have to do with the sense some people have that the Gourmet Report is unfair…. This could be the case regardless of whether the Gourmet ranking is fair (about which I mean to take no stand): The point is that some people will see those schools as very good and view their Ph.D.’s favorably.”

I need to introduce the point about unfairness and “having to do with” is weaker than “because”. The last sentence then disambiguates, if there was any confusion. So I think it’s clear enough. I hope you don’t feel that I myself have been unfair.

Mon Sep 24, 08:26:00 AM

Night Owls of the World Unite: The B-Society is Here

Night Owls:  Yes, there is an international organization, the B-Society, fighting for your right not to go through life tired.  And for your children’s rights, especially teenagers, to stay awake and alert, not tired and depressed.   This is a serious issue.   Research has shown that forcing night owls into early bird schedules can lead to illness, not just productivity loss.  Progress is being made on more flexible schedules, especially in Denmark.

The Society has a Facebook page that you can link to from its web site.

There is a summary of research on the B-Society’s Web Site.   From the B-Society’s page on research:

In Denmark Vorbasse School has introduced flexible hours for the 7th, 8th and 9th graders. The pupils can themselves choose between working in teams between 8-10 AM or 2-4 PM. In this way, the pupils can be taught during the hours that best match their circadian rhythm. After the introduction of differentiated learning hours Vorbasse School has obtained measurable results. The average grade has gone up from 6.1 to 6.7, and the pupils are more alert and motivated when they receive training. At Egaa Ungdomshoejskole the superintendent Ulla Fisker has moved meeting time from 8:30 AM to 10 AM. This has resulted in students being more awake and alert so that they are more “learning-ready” students

The Incovenience of Rigor: The Pseudo-Science of the PGR

10-Social-Media-Secrets-from-the-Social-Scientist  Another day and more PGR silliness from Leiter about the protecting his Camelot from hordes of SPEPers–proletariat rabble, Nietzsche’s last men–seeking to undermine the good, the true, and the beautiful.  But in all seriousness, I can’t fathom how people who claim that what they admire most in philosophy, its rigor, can simply look the other way regarding Leiter’s unwillingness to submit the PGR to standard peer review.  I can speculate about what motivates this sort of head-in-the-sand behavior, but first let’s look at some basic facts.

It’s standard procedure to have instruments used for evaluation checked by experts, in the plural, because, well, that’s how science should operate–community of investigators, etc. This is all the more true if there are genuine concerns about biases and methodological problems in a study.  Leiter has not done this.  He is satisfied with relying on one sociologist, Kieran Healy, who, according to Leiter, has given his stamp of approval to the PGR.  But if one looks at Healy’s posts on Leiter’s Blog, his analyses deal with correlations internal to the survey, for example, between various groupings of evaluators, who were hand-picked by Leiter and the Advisory Board. There is no discussion about whether this pool is representative of the profession–and Healy has a disclaimer of sorts: I am a sociologist–or whether evaluators are given detailed and coherent criteria for evaluation.  The PGR cannot be defended on the basis of Healy’s work against trenchant criticisms that have been brought to bear, and I don’t believe that it was intended to do so. Healy would have had to respond to a whole list of problems that he doesn’t touch, at least not as a guest blogger on Leiter’s site.  In any case, he is one person, and this is not the way a controversial survey should be defended.  At minimum, it should be reviewed by an impartial panel of survey specialists, and the results should be published. There is no scientific basis for accepting the PGR.  It’s like creationism: all appeal to authority and no science.

However, Healy occasionally provides useful analysis that should be an eye-opener to believers and non-believers alike. Let’s look at one of Healy’s observations.*

Respondents love rating departments. A small number of respondents rated 25 departments or fewer, but the median respondent rated 77 departments and almost forty percent of raters assigned scores to 90 or more departments of the 99 in the survey.

In another post Healy says that the median for U.S. evaluators is 81.  So almost 40% of the evaluators feel comfortable ranking 90 or more departments, and in the U.S. half ranked 81 or more. “Respondents love rating departments.”  True words!  But unless people are spending their careers studying the virtues and vices of other philosophy departments, I don’t know how they can claim comparable knowledge of 90 departments, which is what they would need to evaluate them fairly and judiciously against each other, which, in turn, is what a ranking is about. Has anyone bothered even to examine whether those who rank so many departments have the knowledge to do so?  Has anyone done a survey of the surveyers?  But the problems don’t end here.

Two other preliminary points on Healy. First, he repeatedly uses the term “reputation” when discussing PGR-evaluated departments, acknowledging that it’s a reputational survey, which is exactly the way many of us see it.   We who are skeptical about the PGR don’t believe that reputation equals quality–Leiter thinks it does–especially when so small a slice of the profession does the evaluating. (Leiter from the PGR site: “This report ranks graduate programs primarily on the basis of the quality of faculty.”) Second, it’s worth noting the source of Healy’s data.

The data I’ll be relying on come partly from information available on the PGR website itself, and partly from rater-anonymized versions of the 2004 and 2006 waves provided to me by Professor Leiter.

Shouldn’t a scientist require some independent verification of the data that is being provided?  I won’t pursue this here, although with the latest iteration of the PGR, given all of the controversy, transparency should be Leiter’s middle name.

As many of us have pointed out, the criteria for evaluating are neither rigorous nor well-defined. Leiter himself acknowledges that people have used different philosophies of evaluation.  Let’s take an especially timely example.  Yesterday we heard from one evaluator, Eric Schliesser, about the criteria he used this year for evaluating departments in his area of specialization.   “What did I rank? Well, some vague mixture of (a) quality of work; (b) personality; (c) sense/evidence of advising capability.”

This “vague mixture” is idiosyncratic, or, better, unknowably idiosyncratic, because, once again, evaluators have so much leeway to choose their own criteria.   But let’s suppose that Schliesser’s list is acceptable for departments in your area of specialization. How would it possibly work for the overall rankings with up to 99 departments to rank?  Does Schliesser provide additional information about the criteria he used for the overall evaluations?  No.  Instead, he mentions some items he thinks worth considering while making overall evaluations:

Finally, on the department-wide scores: part of me still strongly thinks it is an extremely dubious exercise — my knowledge of the give-or-take-1000+-names is superficial –, I also came to think that it was not so hard to distinguish between, say, the obviously understaffed or very narrow departments from the departments filled with reasonably well known and good even excellent people. What I found most difficult, in fact, was to rank the departments that I know really well (because of a recent visit or stay) and that have some terrific people but that are also uneven in various ways (coverage, quality of members, known-to-me-predators on faculty, etc.).

This is honest and I appreciate Schliesser’s candor. I wish other evaluators would tell us about all of the different ways that they approached the process. There may be a unique set of criteria for each evaluator, thus, these reports would take on the character of independent surveys.  Nevertheless, my immediate response to Schliesser is this: man, if you felt this way, why did you do it?

I am not seeking to single Eric out here, but to reinforce a point that has been made many times: the PGR is not a rigorous survey, not even close.  It’s just the opposite–and intentionally so.  The same star-struck mentality that its founder exhibits when talking about “major faculty moves” infects the whole process of evaluation.  Instead of having defined criteria, we get a religion of (certain kinds of) well-known figures in the profession. Why would anyone play buzz-kill and insist on explicit criteria for evaluation?  Not Brian Leiter.  The devotional culture must be catered to, respected, and cherished, because–who knows?–its members might decide not to participate if tasked with following specific instructions and using standardized, definite criteria.

Now to the question I raised at the start: why would people committed to rigor participate in this unscientific affair? Of course I don’t have a single, definitive answer.  People do things for different reasons, including their own job worries. But given that the PGR’s supporters have not called for the survey to be objectively and rigorously examined, and given how much they profess admiration for rigorous analysis, including scientific analysis, it’s clear that something extraneous to the PGR’s methodological merits is a factor.  My guess: peer pressure plays a role, even if indirectly. If you are part of what has come to be known as the PGR ecology–perhaps supporters use the phrase hoping that it will be treated as a protected species/ecology–it’s not easy to opt out  if other members of your club, or your tribe, are in.  You fear people will see you as a less-than-fully committed member of the club, which means that your work may not receive the same kind of acknowledgment as your more enthusiastic clubmen (and women).  In a culture given to the commodification of recognition, this must be a concern, a deep one for many people.


*Here is another Healy observation that should raise some eyebrows.

It’s clear that not all specialty areas count equally for overall reputation. In 2006, NYU and Rutgers were weak or had very little reputation to speak of in a couple of areas, but still outranked Oxford. Similarly, the other top departments all have gaps in their coverage.

As many of have suspected, not all specialty areas are created equal. Further, it seems that by getting more votes your Department’s score rises.  Being more popular, that is, more “worthy” of votes being cast in your favor, correlates with a higher score.  (We can speculate here about the effects of the halo phenomenon and name recognition in reputational surveys.)  I should also mention something peculiar.  Healy typically discusses the charts that he presents.  There is no discussion here, except to say that the correlation is much tighter than that found in the previous discussion on the question, “Might it be the case that how many votes a rater casts is related to the PGR score of their home department?”  Why wasn’t there a discussion?   This is certainly an interesting finding.


Why I Said the PGR is Goyisha, with Video

First a video of a joke–best watched first.

On the heels of the recent extension that Brian Leiter gave invited evaluators, I provided a list of reasons evaluators gave for why they had failed to turn in their surveys on time (#PGREvaluators: “Struggling with Other Obligations”). It was intended to be  funny. But I believe that I may have left some non-Jewish colleagues perplexed by the #9 on the list:

  1. There was something too goyisha about the whole thing (*that is, the PGR).

A word explanation here. For Jews, of course, something that is non-Jewish is often referred to as goyish or goyisha. It can be about something innocuous, or it can have more of a bite. In that case it may accompany veiled or explicit criticisms of people who have power or positions denied to Jews, often over centuries. Like other oppressed peoples, Jews have a long tradition of jokes about their oppression and their oppressors; you can also hear criticism of oppression in the ways that Jews have used certain phrases.  “That’s easy for you to say” is addressed critically to a person who is clueless about how his (or her) station–perhaps one of privilege and standing–may be affecting his (or her) perceptions. You might be sitting next to me on a bench and we can be schmoozing as old friends, but it becomes clear that you can’t fathom what’s happening in my life; perhaps it’s about problems with my kids that you don’t have with yours, or it happens when you tell me about all the wonderful benefits you get from membership in a club, one I can’t join because I am a Jew. So I say, “That’s easy for you to say.”

I’ve expended a good deal of electronic paper pointing out that the PGR is a flawed instrument and that it is inappropriate for philosophers to support it. But I don’t believe I’ve been direct enough, until my goyisha comment, about what’s at stake. So let me make it clear now. The reason the PGR is goyisha is that it confuses the rational justification of authority with domination, a condition well-known to Jews and other marginalized peoples. It’s what Jews came to expect from many goyim down through the centuries.

People who exclude others from participating in activities that are related to human flourishing, especially when that exclusion is accompanied by a belittling of the worth of these others, for no rationally justifiable reasons, are engaging in a form of domination. It doesn’t have to be direct. It can be a consequence of a system. Surely the vast majority of the members of the PGR’s Advisory Board and the evaluators don’t see themselves as engaged in an activity that is deeply exclusionary. It’s not their intention to dominate–they would never dream of such a thing. But this is not about intentions, it’s about the consequences of actions. It’s about the willful ignorance of relevant data and analysis. It’s about ignored facts, for example, the quality of graduate students in certain non-PGR ranked programs, who have comparable grades and tests scores to those in so-called top ranked PGR programs. PGR supporters usually assume that students matriculate at these other schools because they can’t get into the top ones, ignoring the real reason, that these students want to study different things. PGR supporters can’t see these and other facts. They don’t fit the narrative. They assume theirs is the rational explanation.

People who consider themselves liberals and progressives are serving as evaluators and members of the Advisory Board. With a few exceptions they have not been willing to have a public discussion with those who have been, in recent times, unfairly disenfranchised or marginalized by the PGR. They avoid situations in which a colleague in another tradition might point out their advantages, some of them owing to nothing but a confluence of historical events that has very little to do with the merits of a specific philosophical tradition. I feel comfortable making this claim because many of us have for many months–no, years–been trying have a public conversation with people who support the PGR. But with a handful of exceptions, Board members and evaluators have not been willing to put themselves in a position in which they can hear criticism, especially personally, one-on-one, or in a public forum. This is a sure sign that we are not dealing with a rational exercise of authority but with domination, which dismisses the views of the excluded, or in Leiter’s words, the self-deceived.

One of my deepest disappointments in all of this is that the Advisory Board members and evaluators haven’t been willing to put themselves in situations in which someone can turn around and say to them, “That’s easy for you to say.”  This is what we should be doing as philosophers, that is, listening for criticism to the effect that our own situations and interests may be blinding us, undermining our impartiality.  Instead these folks look to their would-be peers for reinforcement and continue to support a ranking system that is unjustifiable on its merits, whether in terms of its methodology or simply in terms of the exclusion that it creates in a profession that is supposed to be dedicated to the examined life.

I do not believe that it is an accident that some of the most vocal critics of the PGR have been women and members of other underrepresented groups in philosophy.





#PGREvaluators: “Struggling with Other Obligations”

sisyphus2   Extra, extra, more time to turn in surveys for evaluators “struggling with other obligations,” according to the latest from Leiter (see annoncement below).

We here at UP@NIGHT wondered about what kinds of roadblocks the PGR evaluators have been facing in completing the taxing PGR survey.   So we sent out our investigative team and here’s what we discovered evaluators actually told Leiter .  In rank order, for there can be no other kind:

1.  The dog ate my survey.

2.  I couldn’t figure out the criteria I was supposed to use.

3.  I couldn’t understand why there are so many specializations.  Isn’t analytic metaphysics and epistemology enough?

4.  I heard that Edward Snowden is planning to release emails describing behind-the-scenes activity at the PGR.

5.  I thought the stars on “Access Hollywood” were more interesting.  Can I rank those instead?

6.  I couldn’t figure out whether current, past, future, or Sub specie aeternitatis reputation was most important in evaluating departments.

7.  The instructions on how to stonewall critics of the PGR were not included with my survey.  Please send as promised.

8.  I learned that you planned to include my name in the specialty rankings and dread overcame me.

9.  There was something too goyisha about the whole thing.*

10. I couldn’t find the promised Amazon gift certificate for “Gone with the Wind.”

11.  I was being inducted into the NJ Hall of Fame.

12.  I still can’t figure out how turning in this survey is supposed to make me one of the cool kids.

*UPDATE, 11/15/2014, New post explaining #9, “Why I Said the PGR is Goyisha, with Video”




The PGR: A Whiff of Desperation?


Sad day for philosophy. Brian Leiter has doubled down on his promotion of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (see photo below). Under pressure over the merits of the PGR, and in light of some high-level defections from the ranks of well-regarded past evaluators, he has now published a list of names of people who have sent in their surveys, shiny tokens meant to lure–or coerce?—other philosophers into the PGR web.

Did he clear it with these folks, our colleagues, that he would use their names in this fashion? I doubt it. But if he did, I would like to hear from them. I would like to hear that they agreed to this use of their names.

Leiter claims that he currently has 170 participants with only a couple of days to go on the survey. Last year he reported that he had over three hundred participants.   He told us that this year there would be 560 invitations, more than in 2011. The return rate, once again, is not good. Keep in mind that these people are hand-picked, those clearly expected to return his survey. Never mind the views of the approximately 13,000 other philosophers in the Anglophone world.

So Leiter’s numbers are not good, and he’s doing what he always does, drumming up some reflected glory for the PGR using halos borrowed from individual philosophers.

The Philosophical Gourmet Report is a Dead Man Walking. To see it propped up in this fashion is just pathetic. And it won’t work, because the word is out, the PGR is a bogus survey. Before long every dean and provost in the country who oversees a philosophy department with a graduate program will know it.