NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty is coming to Logan on July 17. She will be discussing her new book, Fingerprints of God: In Search of the Science of Spirituality. She will be on the Access Utah radio program that morning from 9:00-10:00am, then she will talk about her book at the Cache Valley Center for the Arts ballroom (upstairs) from 4:00-600pm. All are welcome, should be interesting.
Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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12 thoughts on “Science of Spirituality”
Robert Wright (“The Evolution of God”) had an interesting Bloggingheads exchange with her last week:
Hey, I hate to hijack this thread, but I’d like to request a discussion on the New Haven firefighters decision. I’d be interested to find out what y’all think.
I’ve only heard one radio report on the decision. From that, it seems to me that the majority’s decision was sensible. Nothing in the test showed any racial bias, and New Haven can’t decide not to use the test results merely out of fear of getting sued. The sensible reaction, among fire depts (and other orgs) across the nation, should be to have something more than a test in place in considering whom to promote. That seems to me closer to the intent of the Civil Rights Act anyhow.
I agree with Dr. Huenemann. I think the court’s decision was sensible. I think you are spot on with the intent of the civil rights act.
Slate has lots of commentary, if you’re interested.
I was honestly surprised by this decision. I fully expected the court to rule the other way. The thing that seemed to clinch it was that New Haven really was in danger of being sued; their results violated Title VII of the Civil Rights act (“disparate impact” is a violation of the act, whether it was intentional or not). Also, the court itself hinted that its decision was somewhat of a departure from the earlier standard (it “search[ed] for a standard that strikes a more appropriate balance”).
I was troubled more and more by the case as I read up on it. It seems that there’s a long history of racial tension in New Haven and the Fire Dept. So I could see how black firefighters might object to the tests, seeing as they did just one more layer of entrenchment of the good old boy system. From their perspective, the whole thing looks remarkably unfair:
1. The tests didn’t have that much to do with firefighting anyway; one bookish SCOTUS clerk said (in paraphrase) that he could have passed the tests easily but was the last person anyone would have wanted fighting a fire.
2. The black firefighter’s union (the Firebirds, or something) had opposed the rules of the tests and especially the 60/40 written/oral point spread.
3. Due to the history of the department, the black firefighters feel they are already at a disadvantage. (I have no idea whether they are or not, but I’m sure that feeling contributes to a sense of unfairness about the whole thing.)
On the other hand, a bait-and-switch always feels unfair, and so it’s easy to sympathize with the white firefighters. Even though they had no “right” to promotions, when somebody says they’re going to promote you and then pulls the rug out from under you because no black guys made the cut, that has to be upsetting.
Generally, I have a pretty clear gut feeling about things like this, but this case confuses me. It’s made worse by the fact that Title VII says disparate impact is illegal. Basically, it pits two admirable goals against each other:
A) Ending the generally disadvantaged situation of minorities (by affirmative action, whatever)
B) Making the system a true meritocracy, where the color of skin wouldn’t matter and everyone would have a decent run of opportunities in life
Although I have qualms about it, my final reaction is that the decision of the court is a probably for the best. (That sentence was markedly reserved, no?) Although I’d like to have A and B right now, B seems like an easier idea to build into the system. For example, it’s easy to legislate that race not be taken into account for hiring or promotion. This would probably require a battery of tests or contracting with some third-party evaluator, but my feeling is that some bureaucrats could work out a reasonably “objective” system. (Note how I put the word “objective” in scare quotes. You know, ’cause its a philosophy blog. ;) ) That gets us at least the first part of B (meritocracy). My feeling is that if we could get the second part of B (equal opportunity), then A would take care of itself. The second part of B is much more complicated, however, and involves serious inner-city school reform and other complex stuff.
In any case, the whole situation makes me glad I’m not a SCOTUS judge. Any other thoughts?
The NYT editorial makes a good argument against the decision:
I am swayed, at least a bit, by the point that the racial disparity in the results of the test should be enough to show it was biased, and should be enough to have tossed it out as illegal.
I’m curious as to what, exactly, is the nature of the flaw in the New Haven test referred to by Ginsburg. I don’t like the result of a test that singles out an ethnic group, of course, but doesn’t the claim that there is a flaw in such a test have to be based on something more than just the unpleasant result?
When test results are skewed, we should look closely at the test. Apparently both sides did, and came to opposite conclusions. Ginsburg seems convinced the test was flawed (but this view seems based largely if not entirely on the unwelcome results) while Alito argues that the evidence shows it was valid (for instance, an independent review of the test which was done prior to its administration).
Anyway, I am not sure that the mere fact that there was racial disparity in the results is enough to show that the test was biased. If I give a test in my class and the men score higher than the women, does that in itself prove that my test was illegally biased toward men? It would give me some pause, but I am not sure that is a necessary conclusion.
George Will makes a similar point as Rob – that the dissenters are driven by results-oriented reasoning.
Though I most certain hope the test is flawed, because I hate the skewed result, its being flawed and its being skewed aren’t necessarily the same thing. Maybe the test is showing up background structural inequalities, but is in itself not flawed. Again, I really hope the test is skewed because it’s flawed.
Does anyone know the numbers? How many people took the test, and the racial percentages, and how many whites failed the test?
Ah — found it here:
Psychologist Drew Weston has a TNR piece which provides some grounds, I think, for claiming the test is flawed:
[I]n 2003, the city of New Haven had 15 openings for promotion in its fire department. They made the cut based solely on the results of a multiple-choice exam and an oral exam, giving more weight to the multiple-choice part of the exam despite the fact that other fire departments recorded substantial disparities between blacks and whites on the multiple-choice exam but not on the oral exam. (The few fire departments that still use a combination of oral and written exams tend to place about twice as much emphasis on the oral rather than the written exam, because they have not witnessed racial disparities in leadership among qualified firefighters, suggesting that the oral exam is less biased.)
As could be predicted from the pattern of results in prior fire departments, the test ended up excluding every black firefighter who applied for promotion…