Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Philosophy and Practice: Eating Meat

I'm late getting to an examination of Eric Schwitzgebel's most recent study of how philosophers and non-philosophers think and act on various moral issues. He has many blog posts discussing preliminary findings (links to all listed here). It's not a big surprise that when it comes to questions of right behavior, how people think and how they act might not align. It's fascinating, though, to learn a little about whether philosophers, with all their training and practice in logical consistency, might manage to act in ways more consistent with their beliefs than someone not so trained.

My judgment preliminary to reading/discussing Schwitzgebel's preliminary findings is to think that philosophers may well not manage such consistency. My suspicion is that logical consistency is one thing, and consistent action another. What works against our profession's emphasis on logical consistency is an equally strong ethos of thought mattering more than deed.

Knowing that anecdotal evidence is not worth its weight in gold (but maybe in something less valuable, say, corn), I would throw out an observation. Some environmental philosophers of my acquaintance have immaculate lawns, obtainable only by the application of quantities of poison. No environmental scientists of my acquaintance have immaculate lawns, and when nudged just the slightest amount will speak at length about how the height of your lawn mower blade affects competition between weeds and grass for access to sunlight and the relative rates of pesticide application on lawns compared to farms, and so on and so on.

The biggest divergences in moral opinion concerned our question about "regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef and pork". 60% of ethics professor respondents rated mammal-meat consumption as morally bad, compared to 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and just 19% of non-philosophers. Opinion also divided by gender and age. Women were about 1.5 times as likely to condemn mammal-meat consumption (55% of women rated it bad vs. 37% of men). There was a similar shift of opinion with age: 55% of respondents born in 1960 or later condemned mammal-meat consumption, compared to 35% born before 1960. One might expect a compound effect for young female philosophers, and indeed it was so: Fully 81% of female philosophers born in 1960 or later said it was morally bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals. To put this degree of consensus in perspective: In last year's PhilPapers survey of philosophical opinion, only 82% of philosophers endorsed non-skeptical realism about the existence of an external world. (No word, so far, on how philosophers who deny the existence of an external world feel about seeming to consume meat.)

One thing I've noticed at philosophy department functions is that when there is food and the catering is ordered by someone outside the department, there are never enough vegetarian options. (This is also true, and consistently annoying, at lunches where sustainability is the topic.) Our philosophy department is about half "vegetarian" (that is, some degree of restraint on eating some meat), and that is higher than in the economics department (where being vegetarian is coextensive with being Hindu)--or in just about any other department. Likewise, at the meeting of the International Association of Women Philosophers last month, there were more special-ordered (vegetarian) sandwiches than regular fare. So it is not all that surprising to learn from this study that philosophers--many of them--have thought about the ethics of eating meat.

However, Schwitzgebel goes on to show data on who is actually eating meat, and it is a lot of us. Still, knowing that many other philosophers condemn meat-eating may have the effect of lowering how much meat is eaten at philosophical get-togethers.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Buying Out Research

It doesn't take an ethicist to sniff out something wrong with BP's consulting contracts with marine and geo- scientists--or a philosopher of science to show why this way of funding scientists will silence rather than drive knowledge production. But it's worth talking about any way:

From the Telegraph:
BP has been accused of “buying” the silence of some of the world’s leading scientists and academics to help build its legal defence against litigation after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Green Trees

Nalini Nadkarni, a celebrity among forest ecologists, has a moving piece in Poetry:

An excerpt:

"[T]he fragility of trees must also be acknowledged. Scientific studies document that the tiny mandibles of a bark beetle can bring quick death to a jungle giant. A tropical fig tree species c
an go extinct if humans pump enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise the global temperature a single degree. Gail Mazur evokes this fragility in “Young Apple Tree, December”:

What you want for it you’d want
for a child: that she take hold;
that her roots find home in stony

winter soil; that she take seasons
in stride, seasons that shape and
reshape her; that like a dancer’s,

her limbs grow pliant, graceful
and surprising; that she know,
in her branchings, to seek balance;

that she know when to flower, when
to wait for the returns; that she turn
to a giving sun; that she know

fruit as it ripens; that what’s lost
to her will be replaced; that early
summer afternoons, a full blossoming

tree, she cast lacy shadows; that change
not frighten her.

Perhaps the deepest value of poetry for scientists is its articulation of the feelings that scientists themselves harbor for what they study—passion, deep curiosity, and a sense of stewardship."

More Feminist Parenting

A great idea for a game from Jender at Feminist Philosophers:
Reveal the stereotype--for the 3- to 6- year-old set.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Female Filosophers

I've had a long-time quest to include women authors among the readings for each of the classes I teach. (As have others: here's Brian Weatherson's.)

And I've said how it drives me bonkers to find textbooks that include only token women--especially when represented as speaking for women rather than just being a philosopher doing good philosophy.

Yes, we women write feminist theory, and it's good that we do. But it's not ALL that we do!

So it's with strong hopes for the future that I point you to a work in progress:
Women's Works, hosted by the Australasian Association of Philosophy and collected by philosophers at Macquarrie University. The site makes recommendations for articles written by women which would be appropriate for undergraduate classes, containing citation info and an abstract.

The AAP has done incredible work collecting data on women's participation in the profession, and, knowing this commitment, I suspect the Women's Work site will improve with time.

As it stands....oh, I hate to's such a great idea...every project starts somewhere...but only three recommendations for women writing epistemology? Really? I have more than that in a 10-week course! And only one in philosophy of science? And only 20 authors total? (OK, I'll admit that there may appear to be 21, but I refuse to count an anti-feminist work by Janet Radcliffe Richards.) At first I thought that maybe the list was limited to Australians...but no...

In addition to a realistic expansion, the other thing that would improve the site would be some specific information about how these articles work for undergrads. I can easily go through a database and pick out female authors, but it's more difficult to sift through them for a writing style that doesn't require a lot of background. I raised this particular problem last spring when I was looking for articles in philosophy of physics by women and found that so many of the eligible articles by Laura Ruetsche, Doreen Fraser, Alisa Bokulich and others are models of rigorous, technical, scientific writing that would not be appropriate for my non-science undergraduate students. Given what it can take to establish that even though you're a woman, you do have chops, perhaps it's not surprising to find dense, technical theorizing among the best papers.

I'm wondering if book chapters can be listed, too, since some good writing for the undergraduate level appears in that format rather than as journal articles.

Anyway, here are some articles that I included in my courses in the last couple of years and which worked extremely well. I'll pass these on to the Women's Works site, and if you leave any in comments, I'll pass those on, too. Or you can do it yourself. Let's support this project so that it can be useful--and maybe be a source of ideas for textbook editors, too.

In a course on philosophy of biology and its social implications:

Lisa Gannett, “The biological reiļ¬cation of race,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 55 (2004): 323 – 345.

Inma de Melo Martin, “Genetic research and reduction of health disparities,” New Genetics and Society 27 (March 2008): 57 – 68.

In a course called "Physics and Metaphysics":

Helen Beebee, “The Non-Governing Conception of Laws of Nature, " Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61 (2000): 571-594.

Susan Schneider, "What Is the Significance of the Intuition that Laws Govern?" Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85 (2007): 307-324. (This is a response to Beebee.)

In a course on philosophy of science, with an emphasis on the issue of pluralism:

Nancy Cartwright, “Fundamentalism vs. the Patchwork of Laws,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94 (1994): 279-292.

Lorraine Daston, “Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective,” Social Studies of Science22 (1992): 597-618.

Susan Haack, “Trial and error: The Supreme Court’s Philosophy of Science,” American Journal of Public Health 95 (2005): S66-S73.

Elisabeth A. Lloyd, “Feyerabend, Mill, and Pluralism,” Philosophy of Science 64 (1997): S396-S407.

Wendy S. Parker, "Understanding Pluralism in Climate Modeling," Foundations of Science 11 (2006): 349-368.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Feminist Parenting

Until this week, I did not know that there is a lively blog carnival for Feminist Parenting.

Thoughts about how my feminist commitments--with their particular theoretical, liberal, academic, and sometimes bourgeois bent--guide parenting a young son do rise to the surface frequently.

I've blogged on pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding before, and the links in the most recent carnival are a good index of those issues. Just guess: the issues have a lot to do with autonomy, trust in women's judgment, and the inflexibility of social (and workplace) contexts.

The feminist challenges of raising a toddler or kid are different than those in babyhood. They have more to do with his autonomy than my own, and with his mental and emotional development than his physical development. Recurring themes have to do with:
  1. Commercialism. This more than anything else. To take an example.
  2. Violence. I take the "no weapons" rule at the daycare for granted--so why is it that other same-age friends can't seem to do imaginative play without guns and swords?
  3. Gender. There was a proposal that one of the weekly themes at my child's preschool be "Kings and Queens." I asked a teacher what, exactly, the educational content of that would be, other than how boys dress and how girls dress. But aside from such obvious gendering, I have constant questions about raising a gender-happy and feminist boy that I don't know the answers to. Here's a promise to post some when they come up.
  4. Discipline. When is it OK to let a child run wild, to allow a scene to happen, to just indulge, etc? My feminist response is that this should depend on the needs of the moment, but in reality how I discipline has a lot to do with who I think will observe it and what their expectations are.
It's not hard to identify where I can't manage to be as feminist as I would like: connecting with and supporting other mothers and feminist-raised kids. Is there an irony that this reflects the frequent failure of academic feminists to join with each other to create maternity-friendly workplaces?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Monadic Communication

How can it be that I've never pointed out that fellow philosophy blogger Carrie Jenkins makes great music with Syracuse metaphysicians under the name The 21st Century Monads?

Take a break from your summer research program to have a listen to "The G. E. Moore Shift" and then click through to the band's page for free album downloads and to listen to the soon-to-be-classic "Don't Get Smoked at the Smoker."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Covering Laws

Not that kind. This kind.

In April, Belgium became the first European country to ban wearing full-face veils in public. This week, one house of the French Parliament voted to ban face-covering veils in public. Headscarves are already banned for teachers and students in public schools. Some Spanish cities have a similar ban, and in June the Spanish Senate recommended that face-covering veils be banned in public nationwide.

While some Muslim countries, such as Iran, require a head covering in public, others, such as Turkey and Tunisia, ban veils for civil servants and public school students. In Turkey, the president's wife covers her head, and unless she removes it, she is banned from state institutions, including some hospitals. Whether or not to cover, and how, is a decision that can be based in religion, fashion, and politics.

The ban on face veils is portrayed as a defense of women's liberty and dignity, as a blow against religious oppression of women. With regard to the Spanish vote:
"Today, a very important step in favour of freedom and women's equality was taken," the deputy leader of the Popular Party, Maria Dolores de Cospedal, told reporters after the vote.

Martha Nussbaum examines, in detail, the arguments in favor of banning full-face veils. She finds them wanting, and her reasons are well worth reading.

An analysis of the dilemma on Feministe makes the more practical point that banning full-face veils may not so much have the effect of making women more present in public places as of forcing them to stay at home.

To me, it seems key to keep two distinction in mind: the cultural differences between wearing a headscarf and wearing a full-face veil, and the difference between such bans in countries where Muslims are a minority (like France) compared to where they are a majority (like Turkey).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Reliability of Historical Data

I've been writing up my research on presettlement forests in western New York, and one of the most frustrating things about this work is that there is a huge gap in the data and--obviously--no way to go back and correct it.

The land surveys I work with were done in 1811. Three out of four surveyors used the same sampling methods. But one of them--was he confused? too innovative?--did not collect one of two types of data. Specifically, what surveyors were expected to do was to find the corner of the property lots and then locate the closest tree to that corner. They would write down the species of that tree, its diameter, and where it stood in relation to the corner (distance and compass direction). Then they would also blaze the tree with the lot numbers (carve the numbers into the bark). This information was collected so that whoever bought the property could then go out and identify the boundaries of their land. Unless the tree was struck by lightning and went up in a blaze, this was a fairly reliable way of keeping track of property corners for at least a couple of decades. And it helps forest scientists 200 years later.

But in the surveys I'm using, one surveyor did not record this information at all. Instead he had his team cut posts and set them in the ground at the lot corners. This sounds like a LOT more work than blazing a tree and taking down some notes. Moreover, the posts that he set were of ironwood--a small tree that is hard to cut but rots quickly. Those posts probably didn't stand for even a decade.

This is a common type of problem with historical data. It's full of gaps. It's not entirely reliable. It can't be checked! Or, in the case of historical records, it may have been gathered in a way that is difficult to reconcile with contemporary measures.

I read of an interesting example of using historical records which was recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. Woodworth (et al) made use of tidal gauge measurements in the Falkland Islands collected in the mid-19th century by the explorer James Clark Ross. They correlate these with other historical measurements of sea level and with contemporary measures based on satellite altimetry in order to construct a more long-term record of change in sea level.

What this historical data accomplishes is to show that the rate of sea level rise has been accelerating. In historical ecology, too, what the vegetation data show clearly is that there has been rapid change in the last 200 years but only slow changes in forest composition before that.

Historical data is gappy, but it's often good enough to demonstrate a key point.

Friday, July 09, 2010

It's Random

Another quote from Pagels' The Cosmic Code:
The mathematician Marc Kac stated an amusing feature of random numbers: "A table of random numbers, once printed, requires no errata."

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Sense Experience and Scientific Knowledge

When I started the blog and picked a name, I was thinking about how it's the case that many of my metaphilosophical commitments come down to a particular conception of the relationship between knowledge and experience. These commitments define, from one perspective, why I think philosophy is an important guide to life. And from another perspective, they distinguish my philosophical style from that of some other philosophers.

Many of my Google hits come from folks searching, e.g., "philosophers suggest knowledge is based on experience." So I think I'll say a little more about the blog's title.

Looking to experience as the basis for knowledge distinguishes a scientific and skeptical worldview from a worldview based on hearsay and tradition. This is pragmatism with a small 'p'. It's the reason that I've written in support of evidence-based medicine (though I think clinical experience can also play an important role), the source of my depression about biology education that confuses religion with science, and why I poke fun at bookstores that specialize in "metaphysics." This modest empiricism (not logical empiricism!) encourages us to question assumptions and gives rise to a faith that data is worth gathering because facts can be the basis of a good argument. For instance, though the data on women in the philosophical profession do not by themselves motivate any changes in practice, they give us a good idea of what the problem is and a reason not to write it off as misperception.

In a philosophical sphere, looking to experience as a basis for knowledge counteracts taking empiricism to an extreme (logical empiricism!). I define experience broadly--it is embodied, it is social, it is personal, and it is physical. Solipsism? Individualism? Philosophical skepticism? How could mere thoughts have led philosophers to doubt the richness of their own experiences? Taking the richness of experience seriously is anti-reductionist, and it supports naturalism and Pragmatism. A view of experience that is too narrow and too exclusive is inadequate to support all that we call knowledge, including knowledge of other people. Sense experience must be interpreted, and we can't do without some conceptual and interpretive frameworks.

These two views of experience--that experience is of an independent world but that it is also personal--are sometimes seen as being at odds. Science at war with humanism. I don't have that view. We can (must!) find humanistic meaning within a scientific worldview.

Here is the physicist Heinz Pagels meditating on the problem, in his book The Cosmic Code (written in 1982, it's still the best book on quantum mechanics for popular audiences).
Goethe was interested in colors as an immediate human experience, and Newton was interested in color as an abstract physical phenomenon. On an experimental, material basis one must side with Newton's conclusions. But Goethe's view speaks to the immediacy of human experience. ...

Goethe was part of the romantic reaction to classical mechanics and modern science--a reaction that continues to this day. This confrontation between Goethe and Newton revealed a modern humanist critique of science that the abstract explanations of science deny the vital core of human experience. The quantum theory and the sciences that emerged from it are prime examples of such abstract explanations.

Science does not deny the reality of our immediate experience of the world; it begins there. But it does not remain there, because the basis for comprehending our experience is not given with sensual experience. Science shows us that supporting the world of sensual experience there is a conceptual order, a cosmic code which can be discovered by experiment and known by the human mind. The unity of our experience, like the unity of science, is conceptual, not sensual. That is the difference between Newton and Goethe--Newton sought universal concepts in the form of physical laws, while Goethe looked for the unity of nature in immediate experience.

Science is a response to the demand that our experience places upon us, and what we are given in return by science is a new human experience--seeing with our mind the internal logic of the cosmos.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Priori, Empirically Confirmed

From an abstract in the 18 June issue of Science:
Space, and events associated with places and spaces, are represented in the brain by a circuitry made of place cells, head directions cells, grid cells, and border cells. These cell types form a collective dynamic representation of our position as we move through the environment. How this representation is formed has remained a mystery. Is it acquired, or are we born with the ability to represent external space? [Articles by Langston et al. and Wills et al.] investigated the early development of spatial activity in the hippocampal formation and the entorhinal cortex of rat pups... A neural representation of external space at this early time points to strong innate components for perception of space. These findings provide experimental support for Kant's 200-year-old concept of space as an a priori faculty of the mind.

Three questions:
  1. Would a developmental pathway that is triggered early in a child's experience of the external world, and which is followed in a similar or identical way in all normal people fail to confirm the concept of space as a necessary faculty of the mind?
  2. Does this mean that the 1st Critique was referring, all along, to rat minds?
  3. Does an a priori concept become stronger with experimental support?

Friday, July 02, 2010

What are teaching evaluations good for? Part II

They aren't meant to be advertisements for the easiest class--the one that won't take up any of your valuable time or give you any sort of intellectual struggle, that's for sure! Though this clearly isn't how the users of see the value of that site.

Check out my ratings or those of any of your friends--I'm betting they have some version of these comments:
1. This teacher is willing to help as long as you do the work.
2. This class was not so good because the professor expects attendance.
3. I liked this teacher because the grading was easy (or didn't--because it wasn't).

One of my more frequent comments on intro-level philosophy teaching evaluations: SHOW MORE MOVIES. Interestingly, showing more movies (at least up to my level of tolerance) does not reduce the frequency of the comment.

But I don't usually criticize the very idea of teaching evaluations. Though they are a limited tool, surely they can flag (for chairs and administrators) those professors who are committing terrible mistakes--disrespecting students or (at the other end of the scale) giving everyone an A just for breathing. They should be taken in context, and the context should be understood to reflect student's cultural preconceptions about courses and professors.

Stanley Fish does criticize their very idea on a NYTimes blog. I usually love to disagree with Fish, but on the state of Texas' proposals for teaching evaluations and higher ed, I'd give him a high-5.

In case you missed them:

OPINION | June 21, 2010
Stanley Fish: Deep in the Heart of Texas
Assessing teaching performance through student evaluations is still a terrible idea, and Texas is leading the way.

OPINION | June 28, 2010
Stanley Fish: Student Evaluations, Part Two
Further discussion, with readers taking part, on the pros and (mostly) cons of students' evaluations of teachers.

Here's my favorite passage:
[One] proposal is to shift funding to the student-customers by giving them vouchers. “Instead of direct appropriations, every Texas high school graduate would get a set amount of state funds usable at any state university” (William Lutz, Lone Star Report, May 23, 2008). Once this gets going (and Texas A&M is already pushing it), you can expect professors to advertise: “Come to my college, sign up for my class, and I can guarantee you a fun-filled time and you won’t have to break a sweat.” If there ever was a recipe for non-risk-taking, entirely formulaic, dumbed-down teaching, this is it. One respondent to the June 13 story in The Eagle got it exactly right: “In the recent past, A&M announced that it wanted to be a top ten public university. Now it appears to be announcing it wants to be an investment firm, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, and a car dealership.”