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Bad SEP Scholarship

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Epistemology says:

others regard credences as metaphysically reducible to beliefs about probabilities (see Byrne in Brewer & Byrne 2005),

You would expect the cited source to discuss credences, metaphysics, reduction, or probabilities. It does not.

As the title, introduction and ending all make clear, Perception and Conceptual Content is about perception.

Even if it briefly mentioned the topic SEP cited it for somewhere (I didn't read all the words), the cite would still be unreasonable because SEP would be citing it for just one small part but didn't specify a particular page, quote or section. In that scenario, there would be no reasonable way to find or determine what the cite refers to.

This large error is revealing about the scholarship standards not only at the SEP but in academia in general.


Update 2021-08-21:

I emailed the authors of the article about this error when I posted this criticism, and I quickly received this response from Ram Neta:

Thanks!

I don’t know how that citation was introduced into the article, since Byrne’s paper was just published this year. Let me see if the SEP editors will let me fix this.

Sent from my iPhone

Errors are sometimes introduced by other people besides the author, but that doesn't stop them from being published or widespread :/ I'm not sure that that's what's going on here, though. See below.

And he's not even sure if the SEP editors will allow the error to be fixed! What is wrong with their publishing process!?

So, I see that the SEP article says:

First published Wed Dec 14, 2005; substantive revision Sat Apr 11, 2020

So it was revised last year, but not this year. Was Byrne's paper just published this year as claimed? That would be unexpected given the cite says it was published in 2005:

(see Byrne in Brewer & Byrne 2005)

And the bibliography has:

Brewer, Bill and Alex Byrne, 2005, “Does Perceptual Experience Have Conceptual Content?”, CDE-1: 217–250 (chapter 8). Includes:
Brewer, Bill, “Perceptual Experience Has Conceptual Content”, CDE-1: 217–230.
Byrne, Alex, “Perception and Conceptual Content”, CDE-1: 231–250.

I see that the Byrne paper has a bunch of cites, but none are from later than 2004.

Looking more, I found the book it was published in, by reading the note at the start of the SEP article bibliography:

The abbreviations CDE-1 and CDE-2 refer to Steup & Sosa 2005 and Steup, Turri, & Sosa 2013, respectively.

So the book is Contemporary Debates in Epistemology 1st Edition, which was published in 2005. And one of the authors of CDE, Steup, is also an author of the SEP article. Using "Look Inside" on the hardcover version on Amazon, I can see the table of contents and confirm that the Byrne article is in the book.

I also found that the Byrne article, in CDE-1, was in the bibliography of the SEP article in 2007:

https://web.archive.org/web/20070609171028/https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/index.html

However, in that version of the SEP article, Byrne only comes up in the bibliography, not the text. Looking at more archived versions, I see that "(see Byrne in Brewer & Byrne 2005)" was there in May 2020 but not in Dec 2019. In Dec 2019, the word "credence" wasn't present at all in the SEP article and Neta Ram was not yet a co-author and wasn't cited at all. Steup was the only author listed then. Then in 2020, when a major revision happened, "credence" was added to the page 21 times and "Neta" was added 11 times. It seems like Steup was probably the author in 2005 and cited himself a lot. Then Neta probably did the update, added a bunch of stuff about credences, and added a bunch of cites to himself.

The full sentence with the cite error is:

The latter dispute is especially active in recent years, with some epistemologists regarding beliefs as metaphysically reducible to high credences,[5] while others regard credences as metaphysically reducible to beliefs about probabilities (see Byrne in Brewer & Byrne 2005), and still others regard beliefs and credences as related but distinct phenomena (see Kaplan 1996, Neta 2008).

You can see a new neta cite was added here in addition to the mistaken Byrne cite which goes to a source that had already been in the bibliography for 15 years and was not published this year as claimed. Maybe Byrne came out with a different paper in 2021 about credences and Neta cited the wrong paper because it was already in the bibliography? You might think that doesn't work because how would Neta have been trying to cite a 2021 paper back in 2020, as Neta pointed out in his email to me. But I found that Byrne did have a 2021 paper, but according to Google Scholar it was available online in 2019. That's not unusual. Academics often publish papers online before in print.

So it looks to me like the error was probably Neta's fault despite his attempt to deflect blame. Especially considering he was careless enough that he didn't seem to read my whole email, which was quite short, but did contain the quote "Byrne 2005" and somehow he writes back to tell me Byrne's paper was from 2021 (ignoring the 2005 cite) and that therefore he couldn't have even tried to cite it so he doesn't know what happenend, suggesting he was never trying to cite Byrne there. But he did intend to cite Byrne and was too quick to disown that while carelessly forgetting that papers get prepublished and not trying to investigate what actually happened as I did above.

Link for Byrne's paper being published in 2021: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/phpr.12768

And the online version I found with Google Scholar which says it's from 2019: https://philarchive.org/archive/BYRPAP-2v1

It seems like Neta rushed to reply to my email and deflect blame, and to move on without any real post mortem or investigation, and made careless statements to me, while under no actual time pressure to reply immediately. I hadn't even told him my negative blog post existed. For reference, here is the full email I wrote to Neta (also sent to Steup):

Subject: Error in SEP Epistemology article

You wrote:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/index.html

others regard credences as metaphysically reducible to beliefs about probabilities (see Byrne in Brewer & Byrne 2005),

The Byrne text you cite is here:

https://web.mit.edu/abyrne/www/percepandconcepcontent.pdf

It doesn’t contain the strings “credence”, “credal”, “meta”, or “reduc”. The two instances of “proba” are not discussions of probabilities. I hope you’ll appreciate being informed about the error.

Anyway, given the careless email reply to me, you can imagine how careless citation errors get into his work. In this case, it seems like he wanted to cite a Byrne paper and then used the cite already in the bibliography even though the year was over a decade off and the title was totally different. So I can figure out what he did and what happened, but he can't or won't? You may then wonder how and why SEP chose this guy. I wonder that too. I suspect it'd be very hard to get a transparent answer from SEP and that, on a related note, the answer would be damning.

Oh and it gets way worse. The 2021 Byrne paper is relevant but the cite says:

others regard credences as metaphysically reducible to beliefs about probabilities (see Byrne in Brewer & Byrne 2005),

But Byrne doesn't think credences reduce to beliefs. He writes e.g.:

the solution—to adapt a phrase from Quine and Goodman—is to renounce credences altogether.

Those are the last words of the introduction.

A reduction in the other direction, of credence to belief, seems hopeless from the start: as was pointed out, to have credence .6 in p is not to believe anything.

and

Granted that neither credence nor belief can be reduced to the other, there is an immediate problem

and

That leaves belief monism, the thesis of this paper: “there are no such things as credences”

So in addition to citing the wrong paper because he's careless and probably shouldn't be an academic ... and answering my email incorrectly because he's careless and probably shouldn't be an academic ... the paper he intended to cite blatantly contradicts his paraphrase of it.


Update 2, 2021-08-21:

I replied by email to Neta, left Steup CCed, and added Byrne to the CC list. I again used a factual, understated style and tone. Neta replied, keeping them CCed, to say

Helpful, thanks!

Sent from my iPhone

So on the one hand it could be worse. On the other hand, he's fully failing to acknowledge how much he screwed up, that it has any significant meaning, or that I did anything special that goes beyond minor help from a random guy to an expert. He's acting kinda like I reported a typo. And that's after I find layers of error in his writing and also his initial email to me was wrong.

I don't intend to reply to Neta's response. Here's a copy what I emailed:

Ram Neta, based on your comments, I looked into it more. I think what happened is this:

Steup put the 2005 Byrne article, Perception and Conceptual Content, in the bibliography, but it wasn’t cited in the text.

In 2020, you wanted to cite Byrne’s 2021 article, Perception and Probability, which you have indicated familiarity with. That was possible because it had been available online since 2019 at https://philarchive.org/archive/BYRPAP-2v1

You accidentally cited the Byrne article that was already in the bibliography instead of the new one.

The new article is on the right topic but contradicts your statements about it. You characterize Byrne’s position like this:

regard credences as metaphysically reducible to beliefs about probabilities

But what Byrne actually says is:

the solution ... is to renounce credences altogether.

and

A reduction in the other direction, of credence to belief, seems hopeless from the start: as was pointed out, to have credence .6 in p is not to believe anything.

and

Granted that neither credence nor belief can be reduced to the other, there is an immediate problem

and

That leaves belief monism, the thesis of this paper: “there are no such things as credences”

So Byrne does not believe that credences reduce to probability beliefs.

I wonder if it could be defamation to publish, in the SEP, lies about what philosophical positions a rival philosopher from another school of thought believes and published... Imagine publishing in the SEP that Ayn Rand was a Marxist!

BTW, speaking of carelessness, Neta's CV says "ENTERIES IN REFERENCE WORKS". That isn't how you spell "entries", so maybe he's a well-suited person to have any of those.

I think a lot of people don't read what they cite, but do they not even skim it, keyword search it, read the introduction/abstract, or glance at the conclusion?


Update 3, 2021-08-21:

Alex Byrne replied:

Ram, I cannot cast the first stone -- I am sure I have made many more mistakes of this sort myself. Possibly you had not realized how implausible my view is. Elliot, thanks very much for pointing this out. (The paper appeared in PPR, by the way -- I should update the philpapers entry.)

best
Alex


Update 4, 2021-08-22:

Ram Neta wrote:

Thanks Alex: I actually never read your paper, I only recall the version you delivered at Rutgers, and that we talked about on the train afterwards. I’ll read the paper now, since obviously my memory is not to be trusted!

Sent from my iPhone

I guess that answers the thing I was wondering about yesterday: can't read or won't read? This was more of a won't/don't read – he didn't actually read the paper and then egregiously misunderstand it. I'm also not seeing signs that he misuses an assisstant to create errors. I think reading something and then citing it months or years later without rereading happens too and leads to errors. I think a lot of these people are bad at skimming and text search, so they rely on memory too much. Like Neta could have web searched to find the paper he wanted to cite, and glanced at it, instead of relying on his inaccurate memories of an IRL talk. But he didn't and just thought citing to a paper based on memories of a talk is acceptable scholarly practice. And that kinda standard is OK with his university, the journals that publish him, and with the SEP.

Regarding sharing these emails: I'm just a random stranger to them, I did nothing to schmooze, establish rapport, or act friendly. All I did was tell him he was badly wrong, twice, without flaming or volunteering my opinion of him, what I think he should do about the error, or what I think the error says about him, SEP and academia. They also (I presume) made the choice not to look me up – my signature had a link and I'm easy to find with web search too. That the author of the emails I sent would have a blog – and even would blog about the errors – should not be very surprising.

I think the world should know what academia is like. It's not really hidden but it's not exactly shared either. It's kinda an open secret for people in the know, but a lot of laymen don't realize it.

They are social climbers. Neta got to write a SEP article and added tons of cites to himself, and also added cites for people he likes or wants to network with. He doesn't remember Byrne's philosophical positions but does remember meeting him IRL and sharing a train ride and a chat. Byrne has an MIT job. So he wanted to give Byrne a cite to strengthen the social connection. Cites are favors used for social networking. Not always but often.

I know Neta is admitting too much because he's not on the defensive. This is common with social climbers. They're two-faced. They try to recognize safe situations to be candid, and other situations to be guarded. They say different things on different occassions. But they're often pretty careless about it and bad at it. Too bad. It reminds me of what people will admit about how bad their romantic relationships are when they aren't defensive or guarded – but if it's a debate their tune and tone change, and they become biased and dishonest, and try to say stuff to benefit their side instead of seeking the truth objectively.


Elliot Temple on August 21, 2021

Messages (1)

Added a 4th update.


curi at 12:13 PM on August 22, 2021 | #1 | reply | quote

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