Tuesday, November 28, 2006

CFP: Society for Social Studies of Science

Next year’s theme for the 4S conference is similar to the theme of a conference held at Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute in 2004. That conference was called “Epistemologies of Ignorance” and had its origins in an NEH seminar on feminist epistemology. There has also been an issue of Hypatia on the theme “Feminist Epistemologies of Ignorance” 21(3), Summer 2006. And the conference theme also recalls the book by Belenky et al, Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986). So, next year’s 4S conference theme should be fruitful for exploring topics in feminist philosophy of science.

Call for Papers:

Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science
October 11-13, 2007, Montreal, Canada

Theme: “Ways of Knowing”
Abstracts for sessions or papers due on February 1, 2007.

The theme for the conference is ways of knowing.
By this we mean several things: implicitly, that there are many ways of knowing any particular object, process, or event; that some of these ways of knowing have historically been more valued than others; and that processes of adjudicating ways of knowing have usually been neither nice nor neutral.
So we are interested in processes of valuation (from the language of debates to acts of censorship) that result in one way of knowing as “the right one” or “the natural one.” We are interested in how people, groups, or cultures hold more than one way of knowing, and whether this is stable, durable, or problematic.
-When different ways of knowing are triangulated, how is this actually done in practice?
-What is lost and what is gained in the triangulation process?
We are interested in how certain ways of knowing are deemed to be “non-scientific,” (for example, magic, divination, astrology, etc).
-Several other interesting areas spring from this mixture of questions: historically, what is kept, or what is ignored, in studies of knowledges and paradigm shifts? (Including here questions of collective memory and collective forgetting.)
-How do new regimes of record keeping, such as the electronic patient record or the full text data base, affect what is remembered and what is forgotten? (This may be true across a large numbers of fields.)
All sorts of questions about translation arise in discussing these issues:
-Who chooses what is to be translated?
-Who does the translation?
-Does the quality of the translation impact the nature of knowledge, and if so, how?
-In Howard Becker’s famous concept, “hierarchy of credibility,” he claims that information coming from the top of a hierarchy (e.g., a bank president) is more credible than that coming from a disreputable person (e.g. a street person, or a drug addict, or a “seedy character.”) Given that our conference will be in Quebec, one of the sites where language (as a marker) difference are really bitterly disputed (up to the point of a gun), we must examine the idea that language is a powerful source of dispute, even war.
-Finally, there are different ways of knowing that are formed by gestures, by ways of pronouncing words, or by how names are heard and understood.
-Sometimes ways of knowing are different with respect to quantitative vs. qualitative; visual vs. textual, or statistical vs. enumerative. These only suggest the ways knowledges may frame findings, thus mirroring a final finding.

A final word about themes: these are suggestions to draw together work and a suggestion of a question or women and work. As always, themes are meant to suggest and encourage, not provide an iron cage. So, the Program Committee welcomes work that is outside the sketches drawn here; submissions are welcome from any of the variety of areas normally addressed by 4S (or even those not normally addressed, but which need to be).

Find more information and submit abstracts and session proposals at http://www.4sonline.org/meeting.htm.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Evidence in medicine: Fetal monitoring

A new study has indicated that fetal oxygen monitoring does not improve outcomes during childbirth. The randomized, controlled study was large, involving 14 hospitals and over 5,000 subjects, and the results have been published in an article and editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study had been designed to enroll 10,000 subjects, but the findings were so clear that it was halted early.

The hope behind the technology was that by monitoring both heartrate and oxygen level, obstetricians would be able to discern which babies were truly in an emergency situation, thus lowering the rate of Cesarean sections. That is, the additional monitor, it was hoped, would correct for the failure of heartrate monitoring alone to lower infant mortality rates and the rate of complications such as cerebral palsy. The fetal oxygen monitor will now be discontinued.

This study is important because it was performed before the technology was widely adopted, in contrast to fetal heart monitoring. A number of studies have shown that routine fetal heart monitoring, too, is no better at predicting fetal distress than a trained nurse with a fetoscope, but that it does increase a woman's chance of having a C-section (not to mention that it constrains a woman's movement during labor and that internal monitoring is an invasive procedure for both mother and fetus). Nonetheless, obstetricians have come to rely on fetal heart monitoring, and 85% of births are so monitored. The C-section rate rose again last year to 30.2% of all births, a 46% rate increase in a decade. (An editorial about the shortcomings of fetal heart monitoring, with references, is here.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Philosophers and low self-esteem

I've noticed a sort of self-loathing combined with exceptionalism among philosophers.

What we do is theoretical, but to what end do we do theory? Philosophers of science, for instance, are sometimes cautioned not to be so presumptious as to believe that our normative statements about good scientific reasoning should guide scientists. Who are we to tell scientists how to reason or how to arrange their institutions? Who are we to even judge which practices are best? How can we know science better than scientists themselves? But if we have no legitimate means of influencing scientific practice, then what is the point of our work?

But this attitude is not just pressed on us from the outside. It is readily embraced. Some philosophers do believe that what philosophy can best contribute to inquiry is, for example, a theory of universals, and that philosophy as a whole suffers when the importance of this lofty but impractical goal is overlooked.

And what benefits are promised by a career in philosophy? What jobs are there for philosophers other than the job of training and speaking to other philosophers?

The self-endorsed view that philosophers are sorrowfully misunderstood and that we suffer for this reason was put in front of me again recently when filling out a survey for my undergraduate college, where I majored in philosophy. The survey asked the standard questions that might be needed to evaluate and update curricula: "What courses served you the best?" "Were you well prepared for graduate school?"

In addition, there was this question:
"How was majoring in philosophy a burden to you after graduation?"
Would a business college ask the same question?
"How has your accounting degree held you back in life?"
Or about a degree in science,
"How has studying chemistry changed your life for the worse?"