Sherrilyn Roush is Professor of Philosophy at UCLA. Her research focuses on philosophy of science, epistemology, and philosophy of medicine. Her article “Closure Failure and Scientific Inquiry” appeared in Res Philosophica in 2017. She was interviewed by Sarah Beach. Sarah is a third-year student in the Department of Philosophy. She is interested in meta-ethics, social and political philosophy, and feminist philosophy.
SB: Where are you from? Is this your first time living in Los Angeles? If so, how are you liking it so far?
SR: I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, sometimes referred to as “Pennsyltucky.” It’s now Trump country, though it was a Democratic stronghold when I was growing up; it’s former rust belt, underprivileged, and a little backward, but proud, and very beautiful. This is my first time living in Los Angeles, although I lived in California for 8 years when I was at UC Berkeley, and I’m liking it very much. I like the sun and the heat. And the activity, it’s great, a vibrant city.
SB: What did your parents do?
SR: My dad was a steel worker when I was growing up, until the third great Johnstown flood, in which the steel mills were destroyed, and then he did what he could, mostly construction, and then he was elected a District Justice, which is like a justice of the peace, and he did that for 24 years. Until he retired, and now he plays golf. My mother was a secretary, then an insurance agent, and now she’s retired, and she does not play golf.
SB: When and why did you decide to become a philosopher and did you consider doing anything else?
: Well, I never really decided to be a philosopher. I do remember deciding to go to graduate school, but I was thinking “This is a worthwhile thing to do until I figure out what I’m gonna be when I grow up.” And then, I guess I never figured out what I was gonna be, and ended up . . . I never imagined I was gonna be a philosophy professor. In college I started out in pre-med and then I moved to bio-chemistry, and then I moved to physics, and then I moved to math, and I graduated in math and did a philosophy major on the side. I think one difficulty I had was that I couldn’t see one field of inquiry as more important or more choiceworthy than another. So, philosophy was attractive because it seemed to be a place where I didn’t have to choose. I could always study anything I thought was interesting.
I think there’s also a matter of temperament. I think I always was kind of, what’s the word? Probing. So, before the age of 5, I almost never spoke. My parents were worried that there was something wrong with me. But when I did surprising things happened. I was about 4 years old I remember seeing the landing on the moon, Walter Cronkite, the Eagle has landed. As part of that, the view of the Earth from space, and I saw the continents. And I remember suddenly realizing how many houses there were on Earth. And how it’s not possible that Santa Claus would be able to get around the Earth and all the houses in one night. And I was electrified by this. And I told my mother all of this and I said “There’s no Santa Claus, is there?” And she just looked at me, shocked, and said, “I don’t know!” And I said, “I knew it!”
I think I haven’t trusted authority since. And this Santa Claus business made me a terror when I went to school, I was telling all the kids there was no Santa Claus and the teachers wanted to spank me. But I had to share the truth, right?
SB: What was your first encounter with philosophy as an undergrad like and what texts or authors were you into as an undergrad?
SR: My first philosophy course was in Medieval Jewish and Islamic Philosophy. And that made me a major. I think that it was attractive because I was trying to figure out how to reconcile the scientific part of me with the religious part of me, and how science and religion relate. This is a big theme in medieval philosophy. I thought it was neat that it was Jewish and Islamic rather than Christian, which was my own tradition. Kind of mind-expanding for me. What was I into when I was an undergrad? Aristotle. A lot of Aristotle. In fact, I took Greek classes in order to be able to read Aristotle in Greek. And science and math.
SB: Where did you go to graduate school, who was your adviser, and what was your dissertation about?
SR: I did my Ph.D. at Harvard. My main adviser was Hilary Putnam [a UCLA Ph.D.], also Robert Nozick and Simon Saunders were on my committee. And Nozick was a very inspirational figure for me. My dissertation was about the material conditions of knowledge, how the physical universe must be for there to be knowing beings like us. I made transcendental arguments with empirical premises, to argue that there could be a bias in the evidence about the universe that’s available to us, and so a limitation on our justification for generalizing from our evidence. I was into physical cosmology at the time—the 1990s were a very exciting period in that science—and I had studied Kant with great enthusiasm in grad school. This was my response to him.
SB: Tell me about your present philosophical interests and the central questions with which your work is concerned.
: My interests are mostly in philosophy of science and epistemology. And mostly about rationality, evidence, knowledge, method; I use probability a lot as a tool.
At the moment, I’m working on an argument about why we should have consistent beliefs, and the argument is that we should have consistent beliefs because if we don’t then we can mislead others about what our beliefs are. Because others will be assuming we’re consistent, and if they hear us profess belief in p, they’ll infer that we don’t believe ~p, and get a false belief about our beliefs. And since we know that they’ll do that, we’re being untruthful. Because we know how they’re going to interpret us, we’re responsible. So the idea is that you derive a norm of consistency from the moral norm of truthfulness; because you ought to be truthful, therefore you ought to have beliefs that are not liable to mislead people about what your beliefs are.
SB: I typically think of the requirement to have consistent beliefs as an epistemic requirement—something to which you need to conform if you’re an epistemically rational agent, but not necessarily a moral requirement. It doesn’t seem I’ve done anything wrong if I irrationally believe I parked my car in the driveway and I parked my car in the street, for example. Do you think epistemic requirements in general can be justified by moral considerations?
: I suspect not, that seems right, but this surprised me, so maybe there’s more to it. This is a popular area these days, seeing relationships between epistemology and ethics. Generally the goals are different, so, roughly speaking, beliefs aim at the truth, morality aims at the good. But there are these areas of overlap, including another thing that I’m working on in the topic of epistemic injustice.
We commit epistemic injustice when on the basis of an identity characteristic, like race or gender or disability, we accord less credibility to someone’s testimony than they deserve. That idea seems clear enough, but when you ask, “What would epistemic justice be?” the natural answer is that to do justice would be to follow your evidence. There’s a problem with that view, though, which is that statistical correlations are also evidence and there are correlations between things like being male and being an orthopedic surgeon—95% of orthopedic surgeons are men. So it seems like following our evidence requires following these things that are going to lead to conclusions that—you know, Jane’s going to be thought less likely to be qualified as an orthopedic surgeon than men, because she’s a woman. Justice seems to require not using that evidence, but how can we justify ignoring evidence?
In the paper I’m writing I’m explaining why, or when, statistical evidence is not good evidence about the individual, based on a probabilistic concept of evidence that I developed in my book on tracking. The issue about how to use statistical evidence on—the individual case comes up in a lot of other areas too. Like in medicine, where we use epidemiological evidence in treatment decisions about individual patients.
“I’m working on an argument about why we should have consistent beliefs, and the argument is that we should have consistent beliefs because if we don’t then we can mislead others about what our beliefs are.”
SB: I’d like to transition here to some questions about the philosophy discipline. It’s no secret that women and minorities are seriously underrepresented in philosophy. See, e.g., this statistic from the New APPS blog: “Overall, from 1973-2014, 96 philosophy programs had 24.20% women (among all graduates) and 8.05% non-white (among U.S. permanent residents and citizens) Ph.D. graduates.” Why do you think this is and what do you think we should do about it?
SR: I think there are a lot of reasons but mainly implicit bias and the effect that that has on performance. So in implicit bias we misjudge people’s talents, and judging people as untalented affects their opportunities, and affects their performance, as we learn from empirical psychology. So it’s a downward spiral. I think we have to really, really fight against implicit bias and, given what it is, that’s not something that you can achieve just by a voluntary decision to change your judgment. We have to make procedures of judgment that bypass bias, for example by blinding processes of judgement as much as possible. That’s one thing we can do. And also, trying to be alert to ways in which what we do and the way we behave are not necessarily the way things have to be and things can be different, and to be open to that.
SB: What has is it been like to be in a field that is so male dominated? Have you faced any challenges?
SR: Mm. It has not been easy. I have experienced sexual harassment repeatedly, and long-term bullying. But I think—and that stuff’s difficult, really difficult—but I think something that is more common, that kind of grinds you into the ground at a slow pace, is a conversational culture. Things that seem small but when they’re repeated ten times a day they really build up, like being interrupted all the time, and the fact that having the skill to interrupt and not be taken to be [rude] is a very gendered thing. Like being invisible. Like having what you said be attributed to someone else, this just happens again and again and again. Like being discouraged by people explicitly. Like, really? Do we need to do that? I get discouraged enough all by myself.
SB: Is there anything you would change about the discipline?
: One thing I wish we would do more of is to think more constructively rather than destructively. It’s almost a reflex when a paper is presented that the way to respond is to come up with objections. And of course that’s useful but I wish we also cultivated more positive ways of responding. More encouraging development of ideas, to let ideas breathe and work with the person on them rather than having public philosophy be an adversarial enterprise with all the creativity happening in private, with an individual fretting alone. I wish the profession were a little bit more like that. And some places are a lot more like that than others. I’m happy that this is one of them.
I also wish that we did more that made our work have an impact on the way the world is. I think philosophers have a tendency to studiously avoid doing anything that might have practical significance. I wish we weren’t like that.