Saturday, November 7, 2009

Experimental philosophers discover that the folk are likely enrolled in philosophy courses where they are surveyed by experimental philosophers

There's an interesting discussion over at Experimental Philosophy (here). The question is whether 'the folk' are objectivists and there's some interesting evidence that suggests that some folk are not. In the comments, Angel floats the possibility that the students in the course might not be immature moral agents. It seems there's something to that suggestion. I noted half-jokingly that if we were given surveys as undergrads (I'm only speaking of some students who went to Rhodes, not the students who took the actual surveys), our profs would discover that sleep-deprived, binge-drinking, prescription-drug abusing undergrads sometimes speak as relativists do when answering survey questions. I worry that such results tell us little about our friends and neighbors who aren't college students. I worry that they tell us little about our students' attitudes when not in phil class. Two worries. The students are a bad sample because they aren't morally mature. The students responses don't provide clean data because students will take relativism more seriously in the context of a philosophy course than they would if they were just reading the paper or watching the news. So, what's an experimental philosopher to do?


Josh May said...

I think these are definitely decent worries, though I'm not sure they're devastating. But even if they are, there seems to me to be a simple solution to the problem of what to do. If we're worried about getting answers from students in a philosophy class, run the surveys in a different kind of class (say, political science) or around campus (e.g. in the quad). If the worry is that they are college students, run the surveys in Central Park (like Knobe has done for his CEO cases) or at some business establishment, etc.

I've tried to avoid these worries myself in the surveying I've done. I try to get a decent pool from non-philosophy classes and I try to get some people who aren't in college in the mix as well. From what I gather, many X-phiers do this already. They prop a table up in the quad, go to a park, and so on. I think the necessity of doing so depends greatly on what questions the experiment is aimed at tackling.

Clayton said...


I think I don't disagree. One concern has to do with whether undergrads are a representative sample, and I thought Angel raised a legitimate worry on that point. It seems that for every phil who says that the folk are objectivist, there's a phil who complains about relativists in their classroom. Sometimes I suspect that there's the same phil making both points, which suggests that relativism might be a phase that young students go through.

The other concern is harder to control for. It seems theoretically possible that the use of certain surveys will manipulate the context in such a way that respondents are in a more philosophical caste of mind than they would be when they normally used certain concepts. That suggests that the survey data might be misleading even if we took samples from people other than those enrolled in phil classes. (I don't presume that this is anything more than mere speculation, but it seemed like an interesting thing to speculate about at the time of posting.)