Monday, December 22, 2008

Teaching Philosophy of Science

When I was an undergraduate, one of the best courses I took was philosophy of science, and that was years before I thought about turning in this direction as a career. I've finally found the confidence, time, and support to teach the course using the technique that I so enjoyed as a student, satellite presentations on problems in the special sciences.

Why do we teach philosophy of science courses with confirmation and explanation at their center, maybe winding up the course with Structures of Scientific Revolutions and a few thoughts about realism or constructivism? Judging from the textbooks that are out there, this is the standard format.

But whose research is general, or in confirmation and explanation? Our research interests are problems in molecular biology, levels of evolutionary selection, evaluations of climate models, how economics represents the rational mind, and so on... Those are the truly interesting questions, and we keep our undergraduate students out of them because we think the problems are too complex or require too much technical sophistication. Or maybe because our own expertise is in one narrow area of biology, and so we wouldn't be able to tackle the problems in psychiatry, physics, and information processing with the appropriate level of skill.

I bit the bullet. I'm requiring a student presentation on a philosophical problem in the special sciences, but I'm adjusting my expectations to account for my own levels of expertise and my students' inexperience with philosophy, with science, and with presenting. We've had three weeks of our term, and many students have clearly expressed their excitement about doing independent research.

My hope is that these presentations will build skills, but also that they will be fun and interesting, and so will build curiosity. I don't remember much of anything from the lectures my undergraduate philosophy of science professor gave, but I do remember a half dozen of the student presentations--17 years and many many philosophy of science talks later!

I expect the format to accomplish several goals:
1. giving student presenters the opportunity to see what it is like to be the expert in the room.
2. giving student presenters the opportunity to present philosophical material. I allow but discourage PowerPoint for these 15-minute presentations. Several students were dismayed by this policy. "What are we supposed to do for 15 minutes if we don't use PowerPoint?"
3. open-ended questioning that models philosophical inquiry. Many of the topics that were chosen will lead us into the territory of metaphysics, logic, confirmation or explanation, methodology, and even religion.
4. student presenters acting as teachers--providing questions as much as answers; or, if answers, then answers which they have to defend.

The first weeks' presentations--on emergent properties (via Steven Johnson's popular book) and on the classification of mental illness--provoked a lot of quality discussion. I had suggested the latter topic as a possibility, but I didn't realize at the time how many questions it raises:
  • To what degree are disease concepts socially constructed?
  • What does social construction mean in this context? That a disease has an environmental component, e.g. one may have a genetic disposition but not be an alcoholic if never exposed to alcohol? Or that abnormality depends on acceptance and approbation?
  • To what degree does labeling the cause of unacceptable behavior a disease release the patient from responsibility from illegal actions?
  • Does identification of symptoms as the result of a physical illness rather than a mental illness depend on the sophistication of our science? That is, neurological disorders, in which a harm to brain tissue can be identified, are not classified as mental illnesses, but chemical imbalances are equally physical but as of yet unidentifiable.
The NYT reports on the development of the DSM-V, which will bring some of these questions about responsibility and social construction into wide discussion. Commentary by Christian Perring here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Take a breath of fresh air

What's a walk in the woods worth? And to whom?
Is it just "nature lovers" that unwind in the great out-of-doors?

A study in Psychological Science finds that people perform a memory task better after walking through an arboretum than after a walk in a streetscape. Even viewing scenic images is a better treatment for mental fatigue than pictures of buildings. Science does occasionally prove the obvious--in this case, that strolling in the forest really is relaxing.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

CFP: "Science, Technology, and the Humanities"

This would be a great opportunity to hear Karen Barad speak, and it's within spitting distance of Manhattan.



April 24-25, 2009
College of Arts & Letters
Stevens Institute of Technology
Hoboken, New Jersey 07030

DAVID LOWENTHAL, Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, University College London
KAREN BARAD, Professor of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

Several scholarly disciplines focus on science and technology. Especially since World War II, the fields of the history, philosophy, literature, and social studies of science and technology have become well established as academic programs, and they have brought us ever richer and more subtle appreciations of science, technology, and their social dimensions.

As valuable and productive as these research endeavors have been, it is also the case that their principal purpose has been to produce better understandings of the enterprises of science and technology. Even where “external” or socially-oriented considerations have been brought to bear, by and large the goal has remained to shed new light on science and technology and the continuing roles they play in our lives. What remains of mere incidental or peripheral concern are the humanistic disciplines themselves.

In many ways, the traditional humanities and liberal arts have hardly felt the impact of these studies of science and technology. In recognizing this circumstance, the College of Arts & Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology has taken as its institutional mission to rethink the traditional humanities and liberal arts with science and technology as our points of departure. In so doing, we aim to reverse the analytical arrow and to focus more directly on the ways science and technology impact, inform, and redefine our disciplines.

Our upcoming conference, Science, Technology and the Humanities: A New Synthesis seeks to inquire—both on theoretical levels and in case studies—how by taking science and technology into consideration, we might enrich our understanding of history, philosophy, sociology, literary analysis, and the arts.

We invite as wide a range of speakers and papers as possible. We anticipate the speedy publication of conference proceedings. The closing date for consideration of proposals is January 15, 2009. Please send abstracts to CAL Conference, Spring ’09, c/o Prof. James E. McClellan III, College of Arts & Letters, Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030

Monday, December 01, 2008

Where are the Girl Mice in Physiology Research Labs?

Dr. Isis explains why the absence of female test subjects is not simply a matter of gender discrimination.

Namely, beliefs about gender have most certainly had a role in female-blindness (unlike gender-blindness, that's when researchers who depend on women to staff their offices--and who may themselves be women--don't notice that their research subjects are not). This can account, in part, for the assumption through most of the twentieth century that heart disease progresses the same in women as in men. The underlying assumption was that the differences between men and women are just the sexy ones. Although we know better now, research on women still progresses more slowly, and when research on women is lacking, the default position is that they must be more-or-less like men.

Dr. Isis says:
"as we interpret published findings, especially as they apply to the treatment of human patients, we have to remember to ask who comprised the cohort and ask if it is appropriate to apply the findings to female patients. Finally, we have to continue to support groups like the Society for Women's Health Research that remind us of a major gap in medical knowledge, appreciate the effect this gap has on public health, and aims to close it."