Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How to Study Our Inner Selves

Eric Schwitzgebel has co-authored a thought-provoking paper on inner thoughts (that is, consciousness) which is examined in this NYTimes article. The methodology of introspective interviews is innovative, and the analysis is surprising. One thing that it doesn't do is settle the question of whether we have accurate, memorable access to the passing stream of our own consciousness. And whether there is a unified, transpersonal experience of consciousness.

After hundreds of introspective interviews, Dr. Hurlburt still hesitates to generalize from his findings. But he has observed that the basic makeup of inner life varies substantially from person to person.

“My research says that there are a lot of people who don’t ever naturally form images, and then there are other people who form very florid, high-fidelity, Technicolor, moving images,” he said. Some people have inner lives dominated by speech, body sensations or emotions, he said, and yet others by “unsymbolized thinking” that can take the form of wordless questions like, “Should I have the ham sandwich or the roast beef?”

Under pressure to take the experiments farther and to make them more objective,
Dr. Hurlburt replied: “Maybe it’s a defensive maneuver on my part, but my rationale is that I don’t want to infect myself with some theory about how the world is. I would like to see the way the world is without having a theory about it.”

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Naturalism? And Disciplinary Essentialism?

Nick sent Ryan Lake's response to the XKCD comic. Yeah, it's hilarious, but 37% of the humor is in the comments, so click here.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Sent to me by a student:

Monday, December 14, 2009

PhilPapers Survey: Preliminary Results

I'm looking over the PhilPapers survey results. My first reaction is of only mild curiosity. I certainly understand the common reaction that this is silly. I mean, though it's interesting, it's not as interesting as this historical article about Mendel's legacy that I have sitting on my desk.

What surprises me is how far I am from knowing what and how my colleagues think. We're talking to each other all the time but also playing games, putting forward our adversaries' arguments and saying that someone argues this position, but surely not you. On a side note, I visited a colleague's (and collaborator's) Modern classroom last week for a discussion on the Meditations. What I discovered is that my colleague (an epistemologist) teaches the Meditations as having proposed the undermining form of global skepticism that has plagued Western culture for centuries whereas I teach the Meditations as having prepared the ground for the development of the methods of modern science. So which are they: an epistemological hazard or a stepping stone of the Enlightenment? And how can it be that they two of us, so close in so many ways, can have such divergent views of a canonical text?

This surprise at discovering the diversity among my colleagues' views follows me through the PhilPaper survey results. Let's look at the phil-sci questions.

I understand that realism has been on an upswing over the last decade or two. Indeed, the Stanford Encyclopedia says "the majority of contemporary philosophers are realists about laws [of nature]." Still, my view is that, first, the dichotomy conveys little about how science is done because there are concepts toward which scientists take a non-realist view and others towards which they take a realist view, depending on subtleties of the concept and the work it does in a theory. To take a simple example, biologists refer unproblematically to ecosystems but none of them would insist that there are identifiable ecosystem boundaries. Rather, what counts as an ecosystem is contextual or, as we philosophers might say, constructed for a specific purpose. I would therefore hold that the appropriate attitude toward some central concepts and the laws that make use of those concepts is anti-realist. Assuming that realism is thorough-going and doesn't permit this pick-and-choose attitude, I suppose that I (and lots of ecologists) are anti-realists, though I'd be more comfortable saying "other" and even arguing that this is a distinction that matters for little to anyone outside of philosophical circles.

75% of my colleagues are realists. Only 12% are anti-realists.

The question about Humeanism and laws of nature is one I'd have to opt out of, but now I know that 57% of my colleagues are non-Humean. Only 25% are Humean.

However, taking a closer look at some of the results, it seems that the answers of specialists diverge from these results. Indeed, among philosophers of science, more tend to be anti-realist and more tend to be Humean than among philosophers more generally.

There's another interesting way of looking at this that is left in the gaps--that is, in the Other category. Among all philosophers, 87% were willing to classify themselves as realist or anti-realist, but among philosophers of science, this dichotomy appears more treacherous, and only 76% were willing to take a stand.

The opposite is true on the question regarding laws of nature: philosophers of science were more likely than other philosophers to place themselves in one camp or the other but were close to evenly split between them. That is, 49% of philosophers of science are non-Humean and 41% are Humean, but the general split was 57/25.

I'm curious whether some of these views come as packages. E.g. are the few anti-realists also contextualists and deflationists and naturalists?

Feminist philosophers suggest the question of whether gender and race are social constructs.
I'd also like to see a question about the source/existence of human rights and one on the environmental philosopher's question of the source of the value of nature: anthropocentric or not?
Berit Brogaard has a searching analysis on the logic questions.
There is a running list of blog posts here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reasons to Study Philosophy: Be a Detective

The Times Higher Education supplement reports that "Being philosophical may be limited to the leisure classes."

I'm truly worried that there may be something to the connection between philosophy degree programs being closed down and university education becoming more vocationally directed. I don't think that there is any inevitability, though, for philosophy being at odds with economic usefulness.

The Times quotes Stephen Mumford as saying
"I have no doubt that if I were young now, from a working-class background, having to take a big student loan would prevent me from studying philosophy because of the sense that it's non-vocational."
In philosophical circles, too, there is a sense that the students who do well in their philosophy courses aren't really successes unless they complete graduate school in philosophy.

But of course philosophy is every bit as relevant as an English degree (still one of the most popular majors in the US). No, it's more relevant. In English courses, students read literature. In philosophy classes, they learn about public policy and logic and Western history and all sorts of complex argumentation. And they learn how to write.

When I was in college (early 1990's), there was a rumor going around (how did rumors spread then? We didn't have the internet!) that the largest employer of American students with bachelor's degrees in philosophy was the LAPD!

Surely that can't have been true? If philosophy students really do make great detectives, shouldn't the largest employer have been the FBI?

In a recent New Yorker article on Jules Kroll, founder of a corporate intelligence firm, William Finnegan writes
Detective firms, on the whole, hire mostly retired cops. In 1981, Kroll hired Tommy Helsby, a failed [???] philosopher--he had abandoned a dissertation at Cambridge University on "the metaphysical basis for formal logic."... He is still at Kroll, serving as regional chariman for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, out of the company's London office. I asked Helsby if his training in metaphysics had helped him as an investigator. He thought it had.

Eh? The metaphysics had helped with the detective work, not the logic?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Climate Change and Population Growth

A student from my ethics course sent along this link to a Yahoo News article on the relationship between climate change and population growth.

The news article starts with a strong, clear statement:
The battle against global warming could be helped if the world slowed population growth by making free condoms and family planning advice more widely available, the U.N. Population Fund said Wednesday.

But then the majority of the article goes into criticisms of this policy and, indeed, casts doubt on any need to control population growth at all:

On Wednesday, one analyst criticized the U.N. Population Fund's pronouncements as alarmist and unhelpful. "It requires a major leap of imagination to believe that free condoms will cool down the climate," said Caroline Boin, a policy analyst at International Policy Network, a London-based think tank.
She also questioned earlier efforts by the agency to control the world's population.

I've been teaching this topic in my ethics class, and the best work I've seen on the issue
supports a position like the UN's while acknowledging caveats such as the higher priority on reducing energy consumption in developed countries as well as the priority that must be put on preserving women's reproductive choices. But since providing access to family planning is generally agreed to increase rather than reduce women's control over their reproductive lives, I was surprised at the negative tone of the article. I retrieved the originals here.

Indeed, this seems to be a clear case of a news article that is slanted to favor an ultra-conservative political angle. The quoted expert is a writer for Britain's Conservative Party, and the other experts were simply misquoted as being cautious about the UN policy when in fact their editorial is strongly supportive of it.
The paper by Bryant et al., however, is the first to provide strong support for the third point – showing that the majority of the least-developed countries cite population pressure as an important determinant of their vulnerability to climate change. The fact that the affected countries themselves identify this as a local priority avoids the conflict that comes from framing population regulation as a way of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

This is how business is done?

After hearing about Sally's paper scheduled for the APA next month (see below) and strategizing my holiday plans, I was thinking that I might swing by the conference for a day or two, even though I'm not presenting (and not--hooray!--interviewing or being interviewed). New York can be fun, even if expensive.

BUT, not having the print program to hand (it's at home--I do pay my dues!), I thought I'd do it the 21st century way and pull up the website.

No doing. The undated message on the website says:

The APA National Office is in the midst of transitioning our website and its services to a new hosting facility. Due to the transition, some features of the APA website may be temporarily down for a few days.

Wasn't this supposed to be accomplished in October? Is there another site that Google isn't finding?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Publishing Philosophy

All professional philosophers are invited to participate in a survey on publishing in philosophy. It should take about 10 minutes. It will be useful to have your CV handy as you fill it out. Please go here to find it:
If all goes well, Sally Haslanger will report on the results at the December APA in the symposium on philosophy publishing (Wednesday December 30th, 11:15-1:15).

Thanks for your help. Please spread the word.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Thoughtful Missing, Again

Leiter posts again on women in the profession. Sure, his posts are helpful. And as always we philosophers use our reasoning skills to hash it all out in the comments, so that now we can move toward putting thoughts into action. Ahem.

One thing that's so very nice is that this conversation gets more sophisticated nearly every time we practice it. Sadly, though, the key points remain the same. Which to rehearse this time? That the constant stream of anecdotes about hostility toward women is sufficient to explain quite a lot? That philosophical exceptionalism can't stand up to counterexamples from law, from linguistics, from life sciences? That the success of other disciplines in moving toward gender parity has been the result of a lot of hard work and concerted programs at national, regional, and local levels?

Sure, that last one always deserves a good run and I haven't said much about the APA in a good long while.

Margaret Atherton says it so well:
Philosophy now stands out as having a peculiarly low percentage of women. What hasn't happened, of course, is any large-scale disciplinary wide effort to change matters. Periodically people notice the low level of women, speculate that women find aggression distasteful, and go about their business. I think if we want to actually alter the situation we have to stop speculating and do something that is specifically directed toward raising the number of women, perhaps by finding out first what steps successful disciplines have taken.

By having taken our sweet time talking rather than acting, we are in the good position of having a lot of practical research literature to draw on. Maybe our discipline hasn't been eligible for all those STEM funds from NSF (we're not so essential to economic growth as computer science and engineering), but we can benefit from the research in those fields nonetheless.

We have some good ideas about what supports women and what doesn't:

1. The most important finding across disciplines has been that offering early support to students who express a desire in a subject and breaking down unnecessarily competitive mores reduces the % of students changing their mind about majoring and supports students who are socially marginal, whether because of gender expectations, class, race, family educational history, or whatever.
2. All-female learning communities don't work so great. In general, interventions that call attention to gender in gender-divisive social situations get mixed results because they can undermine and differentiate as well as support.
3. The presence of role models is supportive but can't be expected to overcome other barriers.
4. Personal relationships with teachers are valuable, for reasons that stem from #1 above. For this reason, some departments write letters to their most promising intro students inviting them to consider a philosophy major.
5. Programs that focus on eliminating social obstacles benefit women without violating norms of fairness.
6. When someone is a problem to their colleagues, they are often a problem for students also. Informal interactions are the source of many of the career-breaking anecdotes that we see on blogs and around.
7. Achieving a threshold (around 30% participation by women) has been important in many disciplines.
8. Articulating clear career goals for majors increases interest in the major. Women in particular have responded well to increased information about careers and about the educational and professional tracks for getting into careers. They are also more often concerned about job security and flexibility than status and salary.
9. There is weak support (i.e., it's there but is still an area of some debate) for the idea that women (in general, on average, for the most part...) are attracted to career tracks where they "make a difference." "Making a difference" means different things to different people: having a hand in social change, so-called 'helping' careers, teaching careers, careers that reward creative expression.

I think these last two are important challenges for us.

My office is (anomalously) in the MicroElectronics Building. As a result, I see a lot of signs referring to "Technology for the 21st century" and announcing talks on "Restructuring Engineering to Build Careers in the 21st Century." I think this is not just banal navel-gazing rhetoric. There is some merit to thinking about what good a career will do for people in changing times.

How have philosophers changed what they do and how they do it for the 21st century? (Here are some hints: experimental philosophy, public philosophy.)

What careers do we prepare students for other than teaching philosophy? I would say there are a lot of careers, and that many of those careers "make a difference."

There's no good reason not to couple discussions of improving the gender ratio in philosophy with improving the profile of philosophy and growing the size of the discipline. Increasing the # of women in philosophy need not mean decreasing the # of men; it could mean growth overall.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Mathematical Ability and Environment

There's not much empirical evidence identifying systematic biologically-based intellectual differences between girls and boys, women and men, and what evidence there is doesn't reliably rule out the possibility of environmental rather than biological differences. One of the few points that hasn't been disproved is the observation that at the highest levels of mathematical ability (I'll wager, that means better at math than you are!), men and boys outnumber women and girls.

This new paper looks at the geography of the distribution of female math whizzes and finds that they come out of a surprisingly small number of high schools. And that suggests that there is something about the pedagogy or the social environment that helps the female math whizzes discover their talent.
Link here.

"MIT economists find a new reason to think that environment, not innate ability, determines how well girls do in math class"
Ellison made this basic observation the heart of a recently finished paper showing not only that girls are a small minority of elite high school math students, but also that the prevalence of high-achieving girls in math varies from school to school. Indeed, in research conducted along with Ashley Swanson, a PhD student in the Department of Economics, Ellison found that the best female math students across the United States come from a tiny number of institutions. The majority of the girls who have been chosen to represent the United States in international mathematics competitions come from a set of about 20 high schools with elite math teams.

This extreme concentration of talent strongly indicates the crucial role that environmental factors, not just innate ability, play in shaping the accomplishments of students. “It’s significant that the top girls are coming from a very, very small subset of schools with strong math programs,” says Ellison. “That suggests most of the girls who could be doing well, aren’t doing well. The thousands and thousands of other schools in the United States must have a lot of talent, too, but it’s not coming out.”

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Women Philosophers and Administrative Leadership

When thinking about the gender imbalance in philosophy, I tend to focus on direct support for undergradate students. But it's interesting to look at university leadership, too, as a place where women philosophers can wield influence.

I think the street tends to distrust administrators, and why not? While we deal with theory, they deal with nitty-gritty practices: budget decisions, personnel problems, deciding who gets the corner office. Ugh. Who would want a part of that?

But there are also certain kinds of (pro-woman, pro-family, pro-student, progressive) changes that can best be managed from a dean's, provost's, or president's office. Deans--and other administrators--do have a say on budget, personnel, and space decisions. The faculty may participate in self-governance, but it moves slowly and inefficiently by comparison.

Do the numbers:
  • About 23% of college presidents are women, while about 45% of upper administration more generally is female (not all of those are academic offices).
  • Fewer than 15% of doctorate-granting schools are headed by women.
The analysis could be encapsulated as "same old story," as in this article in Forbes:
Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, says the dearth of female college presidents comes down to the hiring process. Since a president is selected by an institution’s board of trustees--women, especially minority women, are virtually absent from most--tips on navigating the interview process and news about job openings tend to stay among the insiders: men.
Some of the reasons to get involved in administration converge with the interests of feminists and of people like us--theorists. This quote is from an article in the journal Women in Leadership:
Women presidents differ greatly in their approaches to leadership. In this report... [most women]...talked about their leadership in terms of their being trusted “to articulate the aspirations of my institution.” One reflected, “I’m almost entirely motivated by the desire to do meaningful and worthwhile work.” One said that she feels less pressure to be right than to “arrive at mutually satisfactory conclusions and decisions.”

Back to philosophy. Who are some current female philosophers in administrative positions? (Add more in comments!)

  • Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania
  • Marjorie Hass, President, Austin College (my alma mater)
  • Dorothy Leland, President, Georgia College and State University
  • Cheryl Misak, Interim Vice-President and Provost, University of Toronto
  • Michele Moody-Adams, Dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education at Columbia University
  • Onora O'Neill, President of the British Academy (OK, not a university post, but influential nonetheless)
  • Lynn Pasquerella, President, Mount Holyoke College
I know of others who have done a rotation in adminstration—Naomi Scheman, Kathleen Okruhlik—and have had positive things to say about the experience. It's a role that we feminist philosophers could keep in mind as we plan our career goals.

Pile It On!

Cross-posted from my Intro to Ethics course blog:

In Chapter 3 of The Ethics of Climate Change, James Garvey looks at the difficulties with assigning responsibility for the current climate change crisis. He identifies it as a sort of sorites paradox, also called the paradox of the heap.

The general idea is that when something is made up of many, many little things, it's difficult (if not logically impossible) to say that just one of those little things is what makes the big thing itself or, in another context, if very many minor actions cause something, then each of the individual causes is too minor to bother with calling it the cause of the major effect.

For example, if you have a few grains of sand, then it's not a heap, but if you have millions of grains of sand, it's definitely a heap. Say I take a heap of sand and start removing one grain at a time, at what point is the heap no longer a heap?

In the context of climate change, Garvey points out that what seems to absolve us individually from responsibility is that none of our individual actions is really contributing very much at all to the climate problem. In fact, this reason is sometimes given as a reason for inaction because if just one person stops adding to cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, that individual restraint won't do much of anything to curb the problem. However, since the heap is made up of individuals, the only way to face up to the problem is to somehow address the collective.

Here's a somewhat weird comic about the sorites paradox. Or maybe it's really about something else...

Source: Dinosaur Comics

Monday, October 19, 2009

Conservation Ideology and National Parks

I've been blogging about women in philosophy but have mostly been thinking about the "problem of people and parks."

A recent (July 2009) article by Emily Wakild in Environmental History speaks to a related issue: the history of park planning along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In the 1930's, Mexican and U.S. officials tried to plan an international park on the southern U.S. border which would be analogous to the U.S.-Canada Glacier Waterton International Peace Park. The planning ultimately came to naught, partly because the U.S. insisted on locating the park in a place that would be inaccessible to Mexican tourists.

What's interesting about the article is that it makes explicit the values that have supported the formation of U.S. national parks and examines the ways these values differ in another culture. The U.S. national parks favor locations of unique grandeur and untouched forests, often in remote locations. Mexican national parks, on the other hand, favored locations that offered easy access to visitors, which had cultural meaning, and which were in need of reforestation.

This strikes me as similar to the difference in the U.S. between national parks and state parks. While national parks act as symbols of American uniqueness and rugged beauty--and have been linked to economic privilege--state parks are accessible, are a way of conserving diverse lands, and embody democratic mingling of classes.

It's interesting to get this historical view on what are still current questions of land use and land preservation. Does preservation require eliminating other land uses? Does tourism aid or inhibit preservation? Are conservation goals better served by setting aside the wildest lands or by targeting resources to areas that can benefit from restoration of watersheds or forests? How does park creation further political goals and goals of democratic participation? Answering such questions often demands impossible answers, such as placing a valuation on symbolism and comparing the value of a place as national symbol to its use value.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Women Philosophers: Then and Now

Feminist Philosophers notices and re-posts an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on women in philosophy.

It's marvelous to see articles on this worry of ours appear so prominently (and, it seems, more frequently). Especially since it is not uncommon for my colleagues in other humanities and social sciences to be utterly and completely surprised when they find out that the gender make-up of my department is typical for the discipline as a whole. (The economics department down the hall is the same size but has more women.)

One thing we need to (and have been) doing is to 1) identify (possible) causes of the gender disparity; 2) identify strategies to remediate it; 3) work to see these through; and 4) find ways of evaluating their success.

Regan Penaluna, the article's author, is clearly committed to doing this. Having identified the male (and sometimes misogynist) content of philosophy classes as a possible cause, she's writing a book on early women philosophers. The continued entrenchment of a canon in philosophy is a clear difference between our classes and what's going on in English Lit!

At the same time that we pursue strategies to diversify the authors and content that we teach (How many women were on the last syllabus you put together?), I think it's vital to address possible social causes.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Recommended Reading on Gender Parity

Richard Zach points to two reports from the National Academies which could be useful in understanding the gendered participation in philosophy and may suggest or vet strategies for change. He writes:

For background data (not in philosophy, but in science and engineering) on research on gender differences in aptitude, patterns and mechanisms of discrimination, trends, etc., I can only recommend again the definitive report of the National Academies' Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering from 2007:

Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering

as well as a new report (2009):

Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty

It's instructive to compare philosophy to mathematics: roughly the same numbers, but in mathematics it has been improving (31% women math PhDs in 2008 vs 24% 10 years earlier) while in philosophy the numbers have remained around 28% for a while.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Say It Again...

...this time with style.

I do get weary of the discussion about the dearth of women in philosophy, but the problem seems fresh and intriguing once again when covered by The Edge of the American West. Not to mention tractable. As Rosie says, "We Can Do It!"

Aha, these posts remind me that it's time for the yearly Digest of Education Statistics Update. (See the sidebar to the left for earlier installations.)

Here are the percentages of bachelor's degrees in
philosophy earned by women, yearly:

1994: 32.0%
1995: 31.6%
1996: 31.4%
1997: 29.8%
1998: 30.9%
1999: 31.3%
2000: 31.5%
2001: 31.4%
2002: 33.0%
2003: 32.3%
2004: 29.2%
2005: 29.7%
2006: 30.8%
2007: 30.9%

Nary a significant deviation from the mean, and no trend of change, unlike what has been seen in many of the sciences. This percentage is certainly not tracking the trend of a growing percentage of bachelor's degrees overall being earned by women.

The one-year trend in Master's degrees is not good and the result is especially not good in comparison to the statistic for undergraduate degrees. In 2006, 26.6% of Master's degrees went to women and in 2007 22.1%.

The figures for doctorates are not quite so bleak, but no light on the horizon, either. Since 1991, about 27% of PhD's in philosophy have gone to women. The 2006 figure was 27.1% and the 2007 figure is 25.3%. This is a decline from the 2004 high of 33.3%, but is statistically in line with the verdict of "no change."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Not Discrimination, But Choice

Since the article about women philosophers in the Philosophers' Magazine and its citation by a NYTimes blog, plenty of analysis (as well as not quite so analytic commentary) has brought welcome attention to our discipline's gender disparity--a disparity that gets the attention of government agencies in disciplines more essential to technology and security than philosophy is.

I've heard it all: women aren't as aggressive (there is an inherent connection between theoretical reasoning and aggression?), women prefer jobs that aren't this hard, women just aren't as good at abstract thought...

All are theories that should not be ignored, but not prioritized either...not when there is such good evidence (from our discipline and others) for the role of social factors.

Jenny Saul blogs it well here.

In addition to the social factors covered in that post, the Feminist Philosophers blog has over the years cataloged many a conference and edited book that inexplicably includes only male authors. JJ suggests that networking may be not just the problem but also the solution.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Newsflash: Fewer Women Than Men in Philosophy

This just in: an article in "The Philosophers' Magazine" reports that a survey of 20 British philosophy departments reveals that only about 20% of full-time faculty are women, much less than in history or psychology or literature departments. A survey of 8 American departments came up with 22% women.

(This is a good point to look toward the sidebar, over there to the left, which has links to more thorough statistics and some of my own analysis. Julie van Camp reliably tracks women in 54 US PhD granting philosophy departments, and her current statistic is 19.6% of full-time faculty are women. Another nice set of statistics is on Sharon Crasnow's blog.)

From the article:

Helen Beebee, a University of Birmingham lecturer and director of the British Philosophical Association (BPA), says her impression is that there are roughly equal numbers of men and women graduating with good bachelor degrees in philosophy and that the numbers of women start to drop off at MA level and then again at PhD level.

Jennifer Saul, a Sheffield University lecturer...says that relative to post-graduate students, there is a significant drop in the number of women going on to become temporary lecturers. She says that number decreases again at permanent and more senior levels of academic philosophy and agrees that an aggressive culture may be a contributing factor. “I think that very combative ‘out to destroy the speaker’ sort of philosophy is something that a lot of women find uncomfortable,” she says. “But I wouldn’t want to say it’s just a problem for women – I think it’s a problem for men and a problem for philosophy because I don’t think it’s a good way to do philosophy.”

Beebee says people might see the fact that so few women choose to pursue a career in philosophy as unproblematic if there is no overt sexism going on but argues that “sustaining a culture whose effect is to exclude women is arguably a form of discrimination, even if the discrimination is neither conscious nor based on unconscious assumptions. And if women who would have made really good philosophers are not entering the profession, the philosophy that’s being done overall is not as good as it would have been if they had.”

I would only add that the U.S. Department of Education statistics suggest that the gender disparity, at least in the US, does begin at the undergraduate level. Women have only been earning about 30% of bachelor's degrees in philosophy, though they earn more than half of bachelor's degrees overall in all subjects. That difference between women and men is maintained and only slightly widened for master's and doctorate degrees. The gap widens again, and more significantly, at the stages of hiring and tenure.

Much has been done in STEM disciplines to decrease gender disparity. Success in engineering, math, physics, and other sciences has required concerted efforts from universities, professional organizations, and foundations, together with government support in the form of funding research and recruitment programs. The discipline of philosophy has received no similar level of support, and our professional organization has not so far even been able to collect data on hiring and on departmental make-up.

I am skeptical that our discipline will reach contemporary standards of fairness and gender inclusivity until addressing the problem of gender disparity is prioritized by the profession at large--men as well women.

Friday, September 25, 2009

CFP: Jane Addams and Her Legacy

Call for Articles
Special Issue of Peace & Change: A Journal of Peace Research
Topic: The Legacy of Jane Addams

Peace & Change, the journal of the Peace History Society (PHS) and the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA) is planning a special issue in early 2011 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Jane Addams’s birth and the 10th anniversary of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, gender equality, and peace. We are interested in publishing pieces pertinent to Addams’s legacy of women’s rights, nonviolence, citizenship responsibility, human rights, and activism against the use of violence against women in militarized societies or during war. Articles which address the work of women’s organizations, human rights efforts, and individual people’s work on behalf of women are welcome. Also of interest are first-hand accounts from activists currently working on these issues. Acceptance for publication will be based on originality, scholarship, and attention to women’s issues. We particularly welcome materials addressing regional or global perspectives through a historical lens.

Deadline for submission: January 15, 2010. Contributors will be notified by late February of acceptance of papers. All revisons will be due back to the editors by June 15, 2010.

Guidelines for submission can be found here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The End (of Something) Is Nigh

Like many pragmatists, my philosophical and political temperament is unabashedly tilted toward meliorism. That is, I think that we humans have it within our power to make a better life for ourselves.

But there are days when holding this commitment is a struggle. The Onion reports it best:

"Nadir of Western Civilization to Be Reached This Friday at 3:32 pm"
Experts predict that the penultimate catastrophe will occur at approximately 7:15 p.m. Thursday night, when the social networking tool Twitter will be used to communicate a series of ideas so banal they will instantaneously negate the three centuries of the Renaissance.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Questions for Graduate Programs

A former undergraduate student of mine is interested in pursuing a career teaching philosophy. She's asked her former professors for advice about where to apply. Of course, no two people recommend the same schools to her.

There's a world of difference between picking a grad school now and in the pre-Internet age. She has the Gourmet report and The Philosophy Smoker to guide her.

But wait! The Gourmet Report will rank departments year after year. But does it answer the questions which really need answering for prospective students? Will it tell you:

1. which locations have affordable apartment rentals?
2. which graduate programs have the fattest stipends?
3. anything at all about attrition rates? (And isn't that, really, the bottom line?)
4. which departments have their misogynists (and misanthropists) under tight control?
5. which departments have teachers that can teach you to teach? and who won't judge you to be a lesser person should you announce that your career goal is to be a superior community college or liberal arts college professor?
6. which departments really do have good placement rates (as opposed to the embroidered facts they post on their websites)?
7. which placement officers can and will aggressively talk up all their department's job candidates?

What questions have I left off?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Women and academic careers

A post worth reading at BlogHer on "Women in academia (especially) can't have it all." The links are worth tracing, too. (Don't we all have time to lose in the labyrinth of the Internet during these first few weeks of class?)

I do believe that emphasizing the positive has much psychological utility--at the same time that keeping a real perspective on the bleak average outlook is necessary for political engagement. The number of women I know who have hit obstacles in balancing work/family/self/social engagement is a high one. Certainly it's something everyone struggles with. The struggle gets tiring.

But what deserves our attention is not the usual struggle but the degree and the injustice of failure to stay in the workstream. I have women colleagues, now approaching retirement age, who were able to have kids (before or after their graduate degree) and then later re-enter (or enter for the first time) academia. I suspect that in the last 20 years this route has become less possible. A short period of bad luck--washing out in the job market for a couple years in a row or a serious illness--combined with the demands of family can spell the end of a deserving and talented person's career.

I also know quite a few women with happy family lives, engaged with friends or politics, who are doing well enough in their careers. Only a handful of those have stellar academic careers with published books and prestigious academic appointments that come with lavish travel funds. The majority of women I know figured out early that what would be sacrificed was the (often illusory) hope of stardom. That illusion--inculcated in absolutely everyone in graduate school and maintained on a certain other blog--obscures the first-class value of teaching colleges.

But woe to those with partners in academia. That system certainly can be unfair.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Big Books, Long Words

I tell people I only read short books. I tell myself I only read short books.

When a friend published a book and apologetically said "But it's not much of a book--it's less than 200 pages," I had to reply "That's the best kind! It's the kind of book that people will actually read!"

When asked about my favorite books, I can cite a whole list of really great reads under 200 pages long. The books in the Boston Review series qualify, and as a bonus, some add on scholarly comments, such as Susan Moller Okin's Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?. Loren Graham's What Have We Learned about Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? is a favorite of mine, not just for its fascinating thesis, but primarily because it is the perfect model of a short book. It asks some clear questions and then provides evidence to answer each. The evidence and the interpretations of it are not always the obvious ones.

Lectures can make good short books. Austin's How to Do Things With Words just would not have been as good a read if it were three times as long. I've never read Robert Brandom's Making It Explicit, which is over 700 pages long, as though he had to make it all explicit. And I don't believe everyone who says they've read it. It's far more believable that they might have read his Articulating Reasons, published just a few years later and covering similar territory in just over 200 pages.

But these books are (analytic) philosophy--and perhaps philosophy ought to be brief. But no, when I think of my favorite novels, they too are short. To take one example, Christa Wolf's Cassandra is less than 150 pages. And far more than novels, I always love to read a short story by Alice Munro or Muriel Spark.

In spite of my long-standing penchant for quick, concise reads and common, straightforward language (spare me the neologisms!), I've found myself reading long books this summer. But by necessity, only a few of them: Bowling Alone (544 pages), The Poisonwood Bible (576 pages), Roads to Quoz (592 pages).

From earlier this year, here's a column by historian Ann Vileisis on "The Pleasures of a Big Fat Book" (ooooh! Look at her bookshelf! That's like my bookshelf--well, it would be if you removed the big fat Russian novels!)

What's your preference? The focus of a short book or the rambling development of a long one? Is a preference for short books conditioned by too much Internet reading and too little patience?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Virtual PowerPoint

Running on summer time here--laid-back as opposed to of-the-minute.

Here's an article from The Chronicle on "teaching naked," that is, without slideshow support.

It maintains that "when computers leave classrooms, so does boredom."

It's impossible to be both thoughtful and also completely enamored with slideshow technology after having read Edward Tufte's "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within." For a demonstration of one of the points, just consider how Lincoln's Gettysburg address might have impressed (or not), had it been delivered in 2005. One of my colleagues assigns Tufte's booklet in his Critical Thinking class. It throws students into an uproar.

(This is not, of course, how philosophers do PowerPoint. Their style is to put 80% of their prepared text onto slides so that it is virtually unreadable and to never use a chart, graphic, photo, or even color.)

The Chronicle article profiles a dean at SMU who alleges that professors "often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool."

Excerpts from the article:
A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw.

The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions.

Here's the kicker, though: The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen's ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods. The lecture model is pretty comfortable for both students and professors, after all, and so fundamental change may be even harder than it initially seems.

"Strangely enough, the people who are most resistant to this model are the students, who are used to being spoon-fed material that is going to be quote unquote on the test," says Mr. Heffernan. "Students have been socialized to view the educational process as essentially passive. The only way we're going to stop that is by radically refiguring the classroom ."

This agrees with my classroom experience. Perhaps this is narcissistic of me, but I think that philosophy is in a unique position with regard to the use of PowerPoint. Many of my colleagues have been more resistant to using it than professors in other disciplines, partly because our material is not readily illustrated with photos, diagrams, charts, or equations. Nor is it easily simplified into bulleted points (though I hardly think philosophy is unique in that!). But the main reason we've resisted slideshow technology is that teaching or doing philosophy is tied in an essential way to arguing about ideas, to give and take, to dialogue. Teaching philosophy is like teaching a foreign language in that the best way of learning it is by doing it. Discussion is not a teaching technique that we abandoned, and that is one of the main reasons that students love us or hate us.

One point in the article, though, gives me pause. The dean whose campaign it describes has been encouraging professor to record videos or podcasts of their lectures and to assign them as homework.
One of [his] fans is Maria A. Dixon, an assistant professor of applied communication. She's made podcasts for her course on "Critical Scholarship in Communication" that feature interviews she recorded with experts in the field. "Before, I was always complaining that I never had time to go in-depth and talk with my students," she says. "Now they come in actually much more informed about a subject than they would have if they had been assigned a reading."

Eh? "IF they had been assigned a reading?" So is the new technique this: discussion replaces lecture and lecture replaces reading? And students are "much more informed" by getting a professor's summary than by reading primary literature? I hardly think that is much of an improvement, in the end.

Indeed it recapitulates Tufte's criticism of PowerPoint, which is that only a fraction of information goes onto a slide than can be put onto a handout or said in the natural words of someone not tied to reading a slide. Likewise, an hour's lecture contains only a fraction of what a person can read (silently) in an hour.

Monday, August 10, 2009

It's Summer

The last (and hottest) days of summer...and I'm trying to wrap up a writing project on presettlement with nothing relevant to blog, here's a short film. Pretty cool.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Teaching Climate Change

I don't think my university (recently ranked 596 out of 600 colleges by Forbes, but not for this reason) offers a course that explains climate change and its social consequences.

There are a lot of barriers to offering such a course. Would it be a science course? In which scientific discipline? Just understanding the physical causes of climate change requires knowing more than just a little something about physics, chemistry, and earth science. So what department would own it? (We don't have an earth science or geography department.) Understanding the effects of climate change broadens the scope even further, to include (all) the life sciences, but especially ecology and the medical sciences. And also social science. Understanding the social causes and implications would require a yet broader course: communication, political science, economics, public policy, history, philosophy. At least those, and probably more.

Can such a course be taught only at the senior level, since it requires so much knowledge? If so, would there be any students who could fit it in their schedules among their other advanced courses? Or could it be a way to teach basic concepts from many disciplines in a way that provides the sort of meaningful context that gives sense to difficult ideas?

Even if such a course would have a market among lower-level students, how could they get credit for the course (except as an elective), given that my university is set up on a disciplinary model? And how could a team of teachers from different colleges (e.g. science and the humanities) get credit for teaching it?

Then again, how can we afford not to be teaching such courses? How can we afford not to make it possible for every student who wants to take such a course to have the opportunity?

It's so common, so easy to say that Americans don't have the education it takes to understand the urgency of climate change. But are we in higher education doing what we can? Are we providing an education that helps graduates understand pressing problems?

Here is one course, available as a podcast, which has a multidisciplinary approach to climate change.

And here's an interesting blog I just happened across which examines the psychology of climate change denial.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Society for Analytical Feminism
Feminist Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition

SAF Session at the Central Division APA 
Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, Illinois
February 17 - 20, 2010
The Society for Analytical Feminism invites submissions for a session at the 200 Central Division APA meetings to be held in Chicago in February 17-20, 2010.  
The Society seeks papers that examine feminist issues by methods broadly construed as analytic, or discuss the use of analytic philosophical methods as applied to feminist issues. Reading time should be about 20 minutes. Authors should submit either  (1) a paper, or (2) an extended abstract, as detailed as possible (up to 1000 words) accompanied by a bibliography. Please delete all self-identifying references from your submission to ensure anonymity.  

Submit papers as a Word attachment to .
The deadline for submissions is August 15, 2009.
Graduate students or underfunded professionals whose papers are accepted will be eligible for the Society’s $250 Travel Stipend. Please indicate on a separate page (or in your covering letter) if you fall into one of these categories.
The Society for Analytical Feminism provides a forum where issues concerning analytical feminism may be openly discussed and examined. Its purpose is to promote the study of issues in feminism by methods broadly construed as analytic, to examine the use of analytic methods as applied to feminist issues, and to provide a means by which those interested in Analytical Feminism may meet and exchange ideas. 

Monday, July 20, 2009

Legal Rights for Nature

Here is an article from yesterday's Boston Globe, "Sued by the forest: Should nature be able to take you to court?"

The idea of granting legal standing to natural entities is not a new one. In the case that spurred this article, a town in Maine passed an ordinance that grants rights to "natural communities and ecosystems" in order to try to protect their aquifers from taking by the Nestle corporation (which bottles the water under the Poland Spring label). What's interesting is that rights are granted to natural, non-human entities in order to protect them from another non-human entity, a corporation.

So the question that has to be raised is whether granting rights to ecosystems will solve the problem of mis-use by corporations. History would suggest that, instead, corporations (who can pay for very, very clever lawyers) are likely to find ways of subverting ordinances or even using them to their advantage. The real problem is that corporations are not accountable to all the moral considerations that human communities believe are worth accounting for. 

I've been reading about cases of indigenous populations who have been displaced directly or indirectly by conservation projects. These cases create moral dilemmas for environmentalists. Preserving ecosystems and species is a valuable goal, but at what human cost? A legal framework that gives rights to ecosystems could be used to justify protected areas that displace humans. It would, in some sense, be a simple solution that would settle the problem. But it would settle it in a way that is too easy because it would not work through the moral balancing of the needs of nature vs. the needs of humans.

More on Sotomayor and neutrality

In violation of the rules of blog time (namely, the NOW lasts only one day at most), here is a timeless clip evaluating last week's Sotomayor hearings.

Yes, objectivity, neutrality, bias. It would be easier to make fun of the view that bias isn't bias if you can't see it yourself if it weren't for the philosophical difficulty of theorizing what does count as neutral knowledge. 

And one more comment: Why did I hear over and over the statement that Sotomayor is "an admirable judge, an admirable woman," when we never hear someone called an admirable man in addition to being an admirable judge.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Neutral Man's Burden
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorJeff Goldblum

Friday, July 17, 2009

Noam Chomsky vs Jerry Springer

Below is a video clip passed on to me by Greg Janssen. 
Greg, do you realize that the calculus has not yet been invented that can measure the infinitesimally small size of my sense of humor? Oh, now I get it. This is funny because of the banner that announces that Neil is dating a positivist. Come on! Everyone knows that all positivists are straight and all positivists are male, so therefore... Eh, do you need to see that in syllogistic form?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paradigms, Perspectival Knowing, and Politics

Here's a short commentary on the media coverage of Supreme Court Justice nominee Sotomayor's confirmation hearing.

The author's application of Kuhn seems like a stretch based on my own reading but is well in line with popular applications of lessons learned from SSR.  I like the example of flashers. If men don't see flashers and women do, this difference is due to attentional and interpretive reasons and also to the fact that flashers simply aren't as likely to flash men as women. We know different things and interpret reality differently from our diverse social positions in part because of our subjective operations but also because we have different experiences to start with. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Do Philosophers Do, Anyway?

Not even philosophers can agree on that question. It may be the one discipline which has lost sight of its reason for being as time goes on, rather than having developed a clearer niche. Not only is there wide disagreement among philosophers about what philosophy is and ought to be, but there is hopeless confusion among many non-philosophers. At the same time, there are artists, geographers, and anthropologists who have taken on theorizing that mainstream philosophy has abandoned.

Here Hasok Chang gives his answer to the question, "What is the use of philosophy?"

A historian and philosopher of science, Chang suggests that one function of philosophy of science is to pursue the scientific questions that history contingently abandoned. Doing so is a unique form of inquiry, and an importantly educative form of inquiry, in that it requires deep understanding of history and science and the boldness to ask questions unique to philosophy.

He writes:
Even philosophers tend not to recognize critical awareness and its productive consequences as contributions to scientific knowledge. Thereby philosophy undersells itself. There is a sense in which we do not truly know anything unless we know how we know it, and on reflection few people would deny that our knowledge is superior when we are also aware of the arguments for and against our beliefs.

[I]t is not the job of the historian to develop scientific ideas actively. But whose job is it? Philosophers have no easy excuse here. It is perfectly understandable that current specialist scientists would not want to be drawn into developing research programs that have been rejected long ago, because from their point of view those old research programs are, quite simply, wrong. This is where complementary science enters. Lacking the obligation to conform to the current orthodoxy, the complementary scientist is free to invest some time and energy in developing unorthodox systems.

One clear step is to extend the experimental knowledge that has been recovered. We can go beyond simply reproducing curious past experiments...In complementary science, if a curious experiment has been recovered from the past, the natural next step is to build on it. This can be done by performing better versions of it using up-to-date technology and the best available materials, and by thinking up variations on the old experiments that would not only confirm but extend the old empirical knowledge.

[P]hilosophy can function as the embodiment of the ideal of openness, or at least a reluctance to place restrictions on the range of valid questions. Professional philosophy exists so that questions, and our capacity to ask questions, are preserved for society. These questions may come to be relevant one day. Philosophy of science exists so that scientific knowledge can be preserved and developed in a broad sense that goes beyond the current paradigms.

The primary aim of complementary science is not to tell specialist science what to do, but to do what specialist science is presently unable to do. It is a shadow discipline, whose boundaries change exactly so as to encompass whatever gets excluded in specialist science.
How can Chang's vision for philosophy of science be extended to our other areas of philosophy?

I would say that, without disagreeing with Hasok, I have a somewhat different vision of philosophy, or at least of the areas of philosophy that I find most interesting. Taking off from his description of philosophy as doing what others are unable or uninterested in doing, I think philosophers are uniquely situated to consider problems that resist disciplinary definition.

If philosophy has reached an identity crisis because over the course of two centuries, it has spun off so many of the other disciplines--the natural sciences, the social sciences, linguistics--then we can reclaim our place before and between these disciplines by taking up lines of inquiry that draw them together again. Chang is right to say that
It is absurd conceit to think that we philosophers can “think” better than anyone, so that we can step in and draw some wise conclusions from the scientific material, which scientists themselves are missing because they are sloppy or limited in their thinking.
But we do have the training in flexible thinking to be sense-makers and connectors for the work that is done inside the other disciplines. An anthropologist may be driven by her tenure expectations, her funding opportunities, and the interior compass of her research interests to pursue fieldwork. We philosophers (in our armchairs, more than likely) can find the connections between that fieldwork, what is going on in the political arena, and theories of social justice--a broader scope than disciplinary workers are free (or willing) to take up. In this way, philosophy can be relevant to concrete problems while maintaining an essential difference from other disciplines.

I should say, too, that I had the delight of meeting Hasok Chang at a conference earlier this summer which I'll plug here: the next meeting of the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice will be in summer 2011.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Animal Rights and Teaching Ethics

In my Introduction to Ethics class last year I taught food ethics, including animal rights, for the first time. I've shied away from the topic in the past, thinking that the students--or, at least, the students at places where I've taught--would consider it too fringe to make a direct connection with the underlying thought patterns.

On the final exam I asked a question, "What is the most memorable, challenging, or thought-provoking idea that was raised in this class?" 

The most popular, though least illuminating, answer was along the lines of "ethical theories." The second most common answer had to do with a film we watched about farm animal rights, called Wegman's Cruelty. I was surprised by this large response, particularly since discussions after the film were short and shallow.

The film documents animal-rights activists, led by Adam Durand, breaking into the Wegman's egg farm to (illegally) investigate whether the farm violates animal cruelty guidelines. It did, and the footage is dramatic. The case occurred in 2004.

I learned yesterday that Adam Durand is one of my neighbors, and that he has a court date for resentencing tomorrow. His original sentence was illegal and was appealed to the state supreme court. Our court system is often described as biased in favor of defendants. While that's true, there is also a clear bias toward entities that have the money and the power to drag court cases out for years and years. How surprising that this case, a minor case of trespassing, has been in the system for 5 years!

Hello Again

A virtual absence of nearly two months ought to have been enough to renew my blogging batteries. I'm ready to show up here again, and I hope there are folks interested in reading. I should thank A Brood Comb's power-blogroll and, of course, a few dedicated RSS-feed users for making it possible to come and go and still have some readers.

A reminder of what I'm about:
-- comments on teaching, on students, on colleagues, and on what these all make me think about
-- cool links someway somehow related to environmental philosophy, feminist philosophy, pragmatism, philosophy of science....or trees.
-- ideas and citations that I want to save for later, for myself, whether any one in the blogosphere finds them interesting or not

And what I don't do:
-- sentimentality
-- analytic arguments (well, not here anyway, but not because I don't enjoy that style of philosophizing)
-- Heideggerian lingo or any other made-up term that proponents claim can't be expressed in ordinary English
-- stories about kids or pets
-- photos of what I'm cooking, eating, making, growing, climbing, or running past; that's a different kind of experience, a different kind of blog.
-- humor. Not because I'm philosophically opposed but because I'm so unfunny that I can't even identify it. Hmmm...and that provides a ready excuse for letting some sneak in, doesn't it--because if I'm so unfunny that I can't tell the difference, then I can't be expected to exclude the world's jokes, can I?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Footprinting and Land Use

One of my students in environmental philosophy (Greg Puleo, a mathematician-to-be) constructed an Internet footprinting quiz worth visiting. The Guilt-o-Vision addresses the problem with other quizzes' hidden and baroque architecture by simplifying land use down to the numbers for crops and livestock.

While other quizzes measure a bounty of factors and crunch them down to one opaque figure (such as this one, which says that I would need 3.2 earths if everyone were to drive, eat, heat their house, pay Terrapass, and throw out their garbage the way I do), Greg's quiz just tells you how many square kilometers of land are required to grow your food. Well, not all your food, but corn, chicken, and beef.

What's astonishing about what it shows, of course, is that if you substitute corn for meat, much less land is used. However, Greg has pointed out that the variables and how they're measured incorporate many assumptions. For instance, there is a difference between corn and other vegetables, between industrial and non-industrial production methods, and between factory-raised chickens and farm-raised chickens. Not to mention that in an efficient agriculture system, animals can be raised on pasture which is too poor for growing crops. But that's not how our animals are raised, are they? They're raised on mid-Western corn.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Making it Political

In my Intro to Ethics class yesterday we watched a video about The idea is that people want to do good, and one source of average people's power is the money they spend. So the company behind Carrotmob does the footwork of organizing ways to help people create good effects by deciding where to spend their money. In the video we watched, one food market agreed to put 22% of their Carrotmob-acquired profits toward increasing their energy efficiency.

I asked for students' critical responses to the video. One was that people might be traveling so far to participate, that it effectively wipes out the environmental good that's created. Another is that it can be inconvenient to participate, taking considerable extra time. And if it does take so much time, one wonders what else could be done with that time instead, such as some kind of service or personal action (don't we all have ways we could make our own lives energy efficient, if that's what we're into?) rather than standing in a checkout line. That is, does it create change in the right proportion to the perception of creating change?

In general, this sort of effort raises some difficult questions. Should there be skepticism about a for-profit company set up to facilitate environmental and social activism? Or is this a case where the people behind Carrotmob should be applauded for finding a way to set up a company that makes profits (well, presumably they will profit if the model works) by encouraging people and businesses to make a better world?

A different video that I've shown in class before--one which is more radical and more thought-provoking about economic and social arrangements--is "The Story of Stuff." Implicitly, this video criticizes the Carrotmob approach by questioning the culture of consumption and showing that it is a historical, intentionally created social arrangement. This gives a political valence to DIYers, MAKErs, and hackers, such as Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair, who visited RIT last month.

Monday, April 27, 2009

RIT Conference on the Ethics of Sustainability

Friday, May 1st, Carlson Auditorium

8:45-9 Opening Remarks

9-10 Braden Allenby (Lincoln Professor of Engineering & Ethics, Arizona State University)

10-11 Bryan Norton (Distinguished Professor in Public Policy at Georgia Tech)

11-12 David Orr (Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics,
Oberlin College)

1-2 Paul Thompson (W. K. Kellog Chair in Agricultural, Food, & Community Ethics,
Michigan State University)

2-3 William Shutkin (Director, Initiative for Sustainable Development and Chair in
Sustainable Development, University of Colorado at Boulder)

3-4 Panel of Commentators, Moderator: Robert Ulin, Dean, Liberal Arts
Randall Curren (University of Rochester), Sarah Pralle (Syracuse University), and
Erin Taylor (Cornell University)

4-5:30 Panel of Presenters, Moderator, Jeremy Haefner, Provost
Braden Allenby, Bryan Norton, David Orr, Paul Thompson, & William Shutkin

These presentations are free and open to all.
Directors: Ryne Raffaelle, Wade Robison, Evan Selinger
For details go to

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Which Is It? GMO or Organic?

The organic community has soundly rejected the use of genetically modified crops, and current organic standards do not permit genetically modified crops to be marketed as organic, even if they are grown without harmful pesticides or artificial fertilizers.

The reasons include the fact that genetic modification can come with unknown risks to the environment and that genetic modification alters plants in ways that many people feel are more extreme or unnatural than alterations that are brought about through selective breeding. I would put this in terms of "purity," a concept like "natural" or "disgusting" which seems to relate entirely to the eye of the beholder.

In addition, genetically modified crops are tied to patents and commercialization which threatens the economic well-being and independence of subsistence farmers.

However, genetic modification also opens up opportunities which can contribute to long-term sustainable agriculture, according to the authors of Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. For instance, if a variety of rice were genetically modified to make it flood tolerant, then instead of using herbicides that might have negative health consequences, farmers could flood fields to kill weeds. There might also be the possibility of genetically modifying crops so that they are tolerant of marginal growing conditions, permitting them to be grown without the use of high levels of artificial fertilizers.

My inclination is to be open-minded and even enthusiastic about the possibilities of genetic engineering, and I would argue that skepticism about the technology should be based in empirical arguments. If it provides a solution that solves a real problem, then I don't think the argument from purity is strong enough to give us reason to put on the brakes. Likewise, from a biological standpoint, genetic engineering seems to be different in kind but not degree from conventional breeding (even when genes from vastly different species are intermingled). Therefore, it extends problems that we already have without introducing new problems.

However, the gravity of those problems should not be underestimated, and neither should their nature as social and legal, rather than technical, problems. The problem is not how to physically grow enough nutrients for poor populations, but how to introduce stability and universal access into their food system. This is a problem that genetic engineering of crops will probably exacerbate rather than solve, as long as our patent system discourages creativity and as long as markets control the options of poor farmers.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Locavores are Everywhere

The LOCAVORE movement has become so popular that there is even an iPhone app to support locavores in their search for farmer's markets and in-season produce.

The reasons that people support growing and buying food locally include a desire to build strong communities, accountability, support for small and sustainable farming, reduction of dependence on fossil fuels for transportation, and aesthetic enjoyment. Some people feel that it is a way of putting down roots (so to speak) and finding what is special about the unique place where they live. It is a way of reclaiming regional flavors in a mass-market mass-media world.

It fits in well with my own life-style: my parents were some sort of urban homesteaders, with a significant-sized vegetable garden in the alley of our small-town backyard. We canned tomatoes, made dill pickles, put away plums and pears. Now, I belong to a CSA and complain about coming up with creative ways to fit a half dozen red peppers into every week's meals for months on end.


But let's take a look at this again....
Is locavory elitist?
And are we pinning too much on a symbolic back-to-the-land movement?

The transportation of food accounts for 11% of food-related greenhouse-gas emissions. So, while all that transportation does add up, it's not the fastest route to cutting greenhouse gases.

What's faster? Cutting out meat, especially red meat. 18% of all greenhouse gases are produced by livestock, and 30% of the earth's land surface is devoted to raising livestock or the grain and grass they eat. If you replaced beef with beans one day a week, it would reduce your carbon footprint more than becoming a locavore.