Thursday, May 5, 2011

Should we be surprised? X-phi meta-survey results

There's a post up on the Experimental Philosophy Blog detailing an in-progress study by Billy Dunaway and his collaborators - it's a meta-survey that tries to assess whether philosophers can accurately predict the results of other X-phi surveys.

It turns out that philosophers don't do too badly when guessing which way the "laity" would go :
"at least 73% of philosophers who claimed to have no prior familiarity with these studies predicted how non-philosophers would respond"

I don't think that we should be surprised by this result though - we wouldn't be surprised if philosophers were given a survey to guess what kinds of inferences non-philosophers would make when presented with arguments containing informal fallacies. I'm not suggesting that critical thinking and the deployment of intuitions are perfectly analogous, but rather that at least part of what philosophy does is modify one's intuitions the same way in which critical thinking modifies one's deployment of reason (in fact, I think that there is at least some reason to think that the two are related - this is for another time though).

The study does a couple of interesting things - Firstly, it shows that philosophers aren't entirely out of touch with folk intuitions. David Manley raises an interesting question here though when he asks "are theorists who specialize in a particular area more likely to be out of touch about folk intuitions in that area?"
Secondly, it shows that philosophers have at least some notion that intuitions can vary along dimensions that are not philosophically relevant (in this case, with the amount of training a person has). Whether this shows that philosophers are in any sense experts at intuitions is questionable, but it does show that there is at least some critical self-awareness (and, really, we do philosophers a disservice to think that they would be anything by critically self-aware, however ensconced in the "armchair" they might be)

It's going to be interesting to watch the discussions around this work in the next few days. If something cool comes from it, I'll post it up here.