Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Women, Explained

As the owner of zero television sets, I miss nearly all of what's going on in the media. Usually this benefits my life. But every once in a long while, I miss something worthwhile on the Idiot Box.

Sarah Haskins' segments on "Infomania" on Current TV haven't been produced since 2009, but don't they still seem current? And very useful for my Women's and Gender Studies course. Many topics, very funny. How many clips can I show in class before I get to the point where time would better be spent talking about Judy Butler?

Friday, December 17, 2010

I'm More Free Than You Are

Everyone thinks everyone else has less free will

"Social psychologist Emily Pronin at Princeton University in New Jersey studies the differences between how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others. According to her research, we tend to view our own judgment as sound but the judgment of others as irrational; recognize the biases in others but not ourselves; and see ourselves as more individualistic and others as more conformist."

Yes, hard to disagree with that...but quantitative evidence is nice to have I guess. Also, the concept of free will in the study seems a little confused. But then, if people are mostly confused about free will in the same way, then it probably doesn't matter in terms of interpreting the results.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harassment and Humor

I'm teaching a course on Feminist Theory, and yesterday we discussed sexual harassment. Entirely by chance, that evening I watched Season 2, Episode 2 of the TV show The Office. The title of the episode is "Sexual Harassment," and it's streamable if you subscribe to Netflix.

First, let me say that I found it hilarious. I was laughing until tears were coming down my face. Part of what makes it so funny is that it works on several levels. If it were just offensive jokes, then it would be, well, just offensive. The humor requires the cognitive dissonance between the guys in the show thinking they're funny, when they're actually more pathetic and unlikable than funny. But everyone knows people who fall just short of their extreme. We can feel superior to them because we can see what they're missing--and the filming, of course, plays that up by showing the guys in the foreground cracking themselves up while the others in the office frown, cringe, and squirm. Those guys should be embarrassed for themselves, but they don't know any better.

However, I do worry about the effectiveness of shows like this for demonstrating the complete social dynamic if the viewer doesn't already get it. That is, I can perfectly well imagine some people I know watching this show alongside me, and laughing when I laugh, but laughing in sympathy with the poor guys who feel constrained by a sexual harassment policy rather than laughing at them in dismay and disgust. For example, a student told me recently that he has a family member who used to admire Stephen Colbert's conservative politics, thinking that Colbert was playing it straight!

Humor is an important tool for coming to terms with social anxieties, and it can be used to show the perspective of the overlooked other. And I'm glad to be living in a time when comedies make such effective use of improv. Still, I think the potential for multiple readings is an inevitable part of this brand of humor.

Here's part of another example (from Berit's blog) of the two (or more) readings that humor can allow:

Why Men Are Never Depressed

The garage is all yours.
Wedding plans take care of themselves.

You can never be pregnant.

Car mechanics tell you the truth.
The world is your urinal.

I have a family member who would routinely send me humor along those lines--but I know from talking to him that he thought this was funny because it is oh-so-true-and-right. Those poor ladies.

One theory of humor is that it works when it makes the hearer feel superior to someone. We tell Aggie jokes or Swedish jokes because we would never fall for the stupid idea that the Aggie or the Swede does. So a joke like this works for me because I interpret it as demonstrating the superiority of my own beliefs about gender difference and what they get me and the rigid, stereotyped beliefs expressed by the male voice here. Still, a certain kind of male can also relate to the joke by interpreting it straight--it shows the superiority of men over women. Am I wrong in imagining that this humor also has that straight reading?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Thought I'd Never Get Around to Posting

In my Intro to Phil class several weeks ago we had a long discussion about rationality, about consistency of belief, and about consistency between belief, intention, and action. It coincided with the day of a campus lecture by Dan Ariely.

A student sent me this link to an article by David McRaney about procrastination and self-control. It took me weeks to get around to reading it. And now that I have, I thought: should I post it now or later?! (So you can see why I've posted so little over the last months. If this one weren't itself on procrastination, chances are slim I would have written it up.)

The article notes that for those of us with Netflix queues, most lists are very long, and the documentaries and historical dramas tend to build up without getting watched--moreso for those that are available Instantly than those ordered through the mail. Of course, that's because we all want to be good people who watch heavy, enlightening, worthwhile films. But that's in our future, and in our present we're just too tired to watch anything more challenging than Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

[Personal note: I have my own rules about this sort of thing! My queue is short, and the order is more or less strict. Earlier this week I watched a docudrama about conservation in Africa and tonight's show will be a critically-acclaimed war movie. Oh, but that's the point about handling procrastination...]

McRaney writes:
Capable psychonauts who think about thinking, about states of mind, about set and setting, can get things done not because they have more will power, more drive, but because they know productivity is a game of cat and mouse versus a childish primal human predilection for pleasure and novelty which can never be excised from the soul. Your effort is better spent outsmarting yourself than making empty promises through plugging dates into a calendar or setting deadlines for push ups.
The trick to dealing with procrastination, then, is to anticipate when it may strike and to limit in advance your ability to make choices in the present which you would not have set up for your future self. That is, to develop good habits--by hook or by crook.

Here's Roz Chast's take on procrastination.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Am I Worth?

Salary reports for jobs like yours can be found at Payscale.com.

Curious about the answer without looking it up?

Here's what I came up with:

Assistant Professor of Philosophy: average = $57,500; starting salary = $43,700
(This ignores the fact that you really probably started with a stipend for TA'ing and took a lateral move to $3000/course as an adjunct before spending at least a couple of years in a postdoc or visiting position.)

Associate Professor of Philosophy: average = just shy of $60,000; starting salary of $42,000
(Hmmm...that assistant professor starting salary of 43K looks good in comparison. Doesn't much look like tenure is promising immediate fiscal benefits, does it?)

Full Professor of Philosophy: average = $105,500
(The range is from $71,000 to $152,500. Start totting up those merit increases early in a career because percentages will eventually accumulate. Your university still gives raises in these tight times, right?)

Assistant Professor of Economics: average - $73,616; range of $52K to $124K
(Ah...but those poor souls don't get to spend their days talking about trolleys rolling over babies, barn facsimiles, and brains in vats. What is a lifetime of that worth to you?)

Berkeley Begat Heisenberg Begat Wigner

Check out today's XKCD comic.

Need this?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Face of Philosophy

Ordinary life and ordinary academic life have left me this term with little time to dabble or to play. I've been spending my time preparing for class and engaging in the rough politics of transitioning from quarters to semesters. The blogs have been busy, but I haven't been visiting them.

That's why I felt like I had found a lucky penny when I happened across this photo essay on philosophers. I found it a few days late but the sentiments are timeless. It's satisfying to see a representative percentage of women among the photos, as well as portraits of feminist philosophers with the accompanying essay.

My wish is that there will come a time when I won't even notice women philosophers being treated like this--treated equitably and simply as philosophers, with no need to comment on gender.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Check Your Calculations

Can't wait to show this xkcd comic in a philosophy of science course when we talk about inductive risk. Click through and hover over the last panel for more...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Race to the Bottom

My institution is about to convert from a quarter to a semester calendar system. Everything about the curriculum is already up for grabs, and so we're also completely remodeling the requirements for general education. The university-wide committee has submitted a proposal that would make it at least possible, and maybe even easy, for a student to complete a college degree without ever taking a course in the humanities or social sciences.

One other time I taught in a university in which there were suddenly fewer students taking humanities courses than previously, resulting in stiff competition for students. There are two ways to win that competition--by attracting students through word-of-mouth (e.g. by assigning all A's) and by attracting them with catchy course titles.

I have a title for an Intro course (a topical survey) all ready to go:
Philosophy from A to Z: The Unborn to the Undead.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Hooray, I'm not alone

Announcing a blog about What It's Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy.

The blog accepts submissions from you: from any philosopher, teacher or student.

The blog has multiple goals. First, and most obviously, it is comforting to know that you (women with negative experiences) are not alone and that the causes of women-specific experiences are systemic.

Secondly, the blog is not only about negative experiences. It can also be used to highlight how things have changed for the better over time, to share ideas for dealing with unexpected and unhappy encounters, and to create recognition for how small or minor negative experiences accumulate.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Michael Eldridge

Pragmatist philosopher Michael Eldridge died unexpectedly on Sept. 18, sad news indeed.

Talking with Mike has always been a highlight of my attendance at SAAP. Always ready with something interesting to talk about, Mike was one of those philosophers, not as common as you might think, who led his life and interacted with people in a way that was of a piece with his philosophical convictions.

His personal support and his welcoming attitude at SAAP meetings were instrumental in turning me toward pragmatism. In his company, it was obvious that a philosophical attitude which is meliorist--optimistic about human progress--but pragmatic--grounded in factually assessing how to make a difference--is not only well-justified but also a fine way to lead a life.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gender and Skepticism

A colleague told me a disheartening observation/hypothesis concerning the students in his epistemology class.

The class as a whole has generally had a positive reaction to the readings assigned thus far in the course but had a negative, even hostile, reaction toward the latest article they discussed, a marvelous piece by Miranda Fricker called "Scepticism and the Genealogy of Knowledge."

My colleague is a contextualist, a feminist, and a pragmatist anti-skeptic. "I just realized how, if I wanted to, I could once and for all turn the class opinion against the skeptic," he confided. "All I'd have to do is to consistently refer to the skeptic as 'she'."

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Baby Logic and a Question

I've been talking with philosophers in my department about curriculum revisions and our logic course. Right now we only have one logic course. It would be nice to add an advanced course, but I don't particularly want to teach it--or rather, I'd like to teach it, but there are about a dozen courses I'd like to teach more than that one.

Some of us have referred to the course as "baby logic." This is a term I heard a lot in grad school, where there was a 1-quarter baby logic course and 2 further quarters of advanced topics--and none of those even touched on modal logic or many other possible topics in philosophical logic.

My question for you is why it's called baby logic and what baby logic refers to. Is it the content of a standard introductory course (even when "introductory" means "all you can ever get at this institution without taking your pretty self over to the math department")? That is, is baby logic sentential and predicate logic up to (or through) identity? Or is it less? One colleague thinks "baby logic" refers only to the informal logic that is typically taught in critical thinking courses. I could see how it might refer to sentential logic--on the grounds that truth trees are a mindless automatic procedure but models in predicate logic are not.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

CFP: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science


Presented by the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto
and the Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, University of Chicago

13-15 May 2011
University of Toronto

The philosophy of science has an illustrious history of attraction and antipathy towards metaphysics. The latter was famously exemplified in the Logical Positivist contention that metaphysical questions are meaningless, but in the wake of the demise of Positivism, metaphysics has found its way back into the philosophy of science. Increasingly, questions about the nature of natural laws, kinds, dispositions, and so on have taken a metaphysical cast. The metaphysics of science commands significant attention in contemporary philosophy.

While many philosophers embrace the increased contact between metaphysics and the philosophy of science, others are wary. Should science (and its philosophical study) lead us into doing metaphysics? If so, which metaphysical issues are genuine and which are illusory, and how might we tell? Such questions dovetail with similar soul-searching in metaphysics proper (sometimes under the banner of "meta-metaphysics", sometimes simply as methodology).

This conference will examine ground-level debates about metaphysics within the philosophy of physics and the philosophy of biology as well as broader methodological questions about the role of metaphysics in the philosophy of science. Participation is open and welcome from all parties to these questions: from those who hold that metaphysics must have a place within the philosophy of science, to those who hold it should not.

Craig Callender (University of California, San Diego)
Anjan Chakravartty (University of Toronto)
Katherine Hawley (University of St. Andrews)
Jenann Ismael (University of Arizona)
James Ladyman (University of Bristol)
Kyle Stanford (University of California, Irvine)
Michael Strevens (New York University)
Robert Wilson (University of Alberta)
C. Kenneth Waters (Minnesota)


Essays of 4,000-5,000 words (30 minutes allotted for presentations) concerning any aspect of metaphysics and the natural or social sciences will be accepted for review until January 10, 2011. Please include a short abstract (200 words or so), a few keywords, prepare your essayfor blind review (do not include your name or other identifying references in the document), and submit it in PDF format here.

Science and Policy: Deforestation

Regular readers of this blog know that I do this more for myself than for you. Is there any handier, searchable, linkable way to keep track of the things I come across which might someday make useful handouts, references or exercises to use in my teaching?

Using the blog in this way is an idea I got from Rob Loftis, whose blog also files away his teaching ideas and notes from the AAPT conferences. I think I'll modify this one to use in my Intro to Philosophy class this fall, and I've thought about--but never actually stolen--his exercises on Twelve Angry Men.


Last time I taught Environmental Philosophy, we spent a week talking about deforestation at the end of the course. It's a messy environmental/economic issue that offered an opportunity to review and integrate a number of the theoretical topics from earlier in the course. To provide background, I assigned this New Yorker article about illegal logging. Now, a news story that gives a swift update.

In essence, illegal logging may have decreased in the past decade (by 22% globally). That would be good news. But, then again, if no one has any idea how much timber is passing from the tropics and Siberia into China, then how can this report be accurate?

Science and Policy: Climate

Sometimes when teaching about the ethics of climate change, I hope to find a really short but authoritative newspaper article to give students. I like them to see some figures about the magnitude of climate change and to get an idea about the effects of global warming in terms that are easy to understand.

Here is a one-page news article from the AAAS, describing the contents of the latest NRC report.

The closest the committee comes to a policy recommendation is to point out the magnitude of the challenge. "Emissions reductions larger than about 80%, relative to whatever peak global emissions rate may be reached, are required to approximately stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations," it observes.

The paragraph sounds critical. Is such restraint from recommending specific policy choices required by objectivity, professional respect for policy-makers, common sense, or good taste?

On the one hand, a report focused on science should not make recommendations that can't be justified within the space given. So a recommendation for a cap-and-trade policy, or a rejection of a tax on emissions, or an expressed preference for investing more heavily in the development of tidal power, would certainly be beyond the scope of the report. On the other hand, reports, like journal articles, are rhetorical devices and are structured so that it is clear which parts are descriptive and which prescriptive. Other NRC reports have not shied away from offering prescriptions for change in education, in medical practice, and in other policy areas. There is no good reason the NRC couldn't maintain neutrality with regard to specific alternative energy development policies and conservation policies without offering much stronger verbal support that more needs to be done. Much, much more.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

David Hull

I'll remember David Hull for the support he showed to young philosophers and for the fierce and unwavering loyalty he had for his friends, who were many. Talking to David allowed one to make a molehill out of any mountain. Problems could be figured out, deconstructed, detoured around, or walked right over. The size of a problem did not discourage him from taking it on, even when doing so required 600 pages or decades of activism.

John Wilkins, at Evolving Thoughts, has posted a memorial note and a description of David's philosophical work and its impact.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Scientific Communities and Equality of Authority

Philosophers theorize, and too often we're undisturbed by the tremendous gap that can appear between the ideal theories we develop and the practices that could actualize those theories.

In her study of the ideal structure and function of scientific communities, Helen Longino argued in favor of applying the Habermasian ideal democratic speech conditions to scientific communities. Thus, well-structured scientific communities would (should) be structured so that members:
a. are willing to genuinely engage with each other;
b. treat each other as moral, political, social, and intellectual equals; and
c. are willing to modify their beliefs in response to criticism and evidence.

Item c is actually not so hard. Peer review of published work and peer pressure in general exert some force. But how in the world can item b be accomplished?

Though many philosophers of science have written on and built on Longino's work, not much has been done to identify how to nudge real scientific (or our own academic) communities in directions that would meet these ideal conditions.

Atul Gawande suggests that one thing that can improve the communicative equality of communities of professionals working together is to use checklists. Huh? So simple? The bridge between theory and practice is constructed of little practical steps.

From Michael Goldman's review of Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto:
The safe surgery checklist that Gawande helped develop instructs the entire [surgery] team to introduce themselves by name and role and to discuss the unusual aspects of the case and potential problems. The checklist distributes power, so that a nurse reading a checklist acquires the authority, as a member of of the team, to stop the surgeon from omitting a critical step or making a stupid mistake.

Scientific communities do not usually work under the constraints and risk of crisis that surgery teams do, but the larger point is that formalizing working methods and instituting time for face-to-face communication between team members can change the social and power dynamic of collaborative teams.

Monday, August 09, 2010

You Must Read Heidegger!

I don't read Leiter but someone who loves me does and passed along the link below. I am entitled to repost it, snickering all the while, because I did read Sein und Zeit in the original German, while tramping in the Schwarzwald and snacking on Spaetzle. Lucky for me, I took that lesson before even starting grad school.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Women in Politics: Not Even in Fantasyland

I just received a brochure from my county elections board about the newly required Sequoia "Imagecast" electronic voting machine. It will replace the mechanical devices that many counties in New York state have used for decades. Those old-fashioned lever machines have the drawback that they don't record individual votes for recounts, but they also have distinct advantages, such as their simplicity of use, not permitting overvoting, and having some of the lowest error rates of any voting method.

Oh, but that rant was off-topic!

On said brochure, there is an illustration of how to fill in a circle next to a candidate's name. The imaginary candidates are:
  • Neil Diamond
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Kenny Rogers
  • Luther Vandros [sic!]
  • Pink Floyd
  • Toby Keith
The hidden message? Women are as unlikely to succeed in politics as in the music industry.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Maternity and Job Markets

In academia, but not only in academia, maternity costs women job opportunities and advancement.

David Leonhart writes in the NYTimes that:
"[O]utright sexism is no longer the main barrier to gender equality. The main barrier is the harsh price most workers pay for pursuing anything other than the old-fashioned career path."
"Last year, 40.2 percent of married women with children under 3 years old were outside the labor force, up from a low of 38.6 percent in 1998. The increase, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis, “occurred across all educational levels and, for most groups, by about the same magnitude.” By contrast, women without children at home have continued to join the work force in growing numbers."
His proposed solution is the right one, which is not an easy one:

"The best hope for making progress against today’s gender inequality probably involves some combination of legal and cultural changes, which happens to be the same combination that beat back the old sexism. We’ll have to get beyond the Mommy Wars and instead create rewarding career paths even for parents — fathers, too — who take months or years off. We’ll have to get more creative about part-time and flexible work, too."

Thanks Alexandra!

Philosophy Listens

The radio program Philosophy Talks has podcasts (to stream for free and to purchase for downloads) to help pass the time and keep sharp during the summer. I've taken them on long runs...but that's just me--I don't run fast enough to need a strong beat to keep me going!

This week's prize is John Searle on Social Reality. The upcoming schedule contains repeats well worth hearing if you missed them the first time. (Unlike the world of politics, philosophy definitely doesn't age quickly!) The week of August 8 we get a program on William James and the following week is feminist ethicist Debra Satz on commodifying body parts. These aren't just monologues--they have all the elements of Car Talk but with arguments instead of gears.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Covering Laws and Background Assumptions

In the debate over burka bans, there is a background assumption which makes all the difference.

Either burkas and full-face veils are essentially (and only) expressions of religious piety, or they essentially differ from other religious head coverings by symbolically (or actually) removing women from public life.

Martha Nussbaum adopts the first assumption; in a response to her piece, Feisal Mohamed defends the latter.

The adoption of burka bans in European cities and countries is a new development, but the essentials of this debate are not. Susan Moller Okin's excellent "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?," though 10 years old, is still relevant. Her title essay is followed by a number of responses, including one by Nussbaum broadly defending expression of religious freedom.

As Mohamed points out in his commentary, the key issue is not whether to support religious freedom (there is broad agreement--outside of the French public schools anyway--that religious dress is not in itself at odds with multicultural, liberal society). The key issue is how to assess conflicts between religious demands and individual and group rights to autonomy.

This reduces a theoretical question to a practical one: for women who are covered to a point that participation in civic life as individuals becomes difficult or impossible (or as a symbol of their non-participation in public life), what policy is most likely to reduce oppression? As a matter of practical results, it's not clear to me that a burka ban would actually result in those women being fully engaged in public, educational, and civic life. Instead, they might become even more cloistered than before.

This has been a fruitful topic for discussion in my feminist theory course, and now that it's prominent in the news, I would consider integrating it into a topically oriented intro to philosophy course. Comments welcome on how you think this topic would be received by a lower-level audience.

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 criticize...it'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 reification 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 Ratemyprofessors.com 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.”

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Freudian slip?

Freudian psychoanalysis may be passé in the early 21st century (especially among empiricists!), but who can resist a Freudian explanation for slips of the tongue?

In a conference presentation discussing the causes of environmental harms, the female (and feminist) speaker unwittingly referred to androgenic causes rather than anthropogenic causes. Need I mention that the social context of the conference was far from friendly to women (see post below)?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What are teaching evaluations good for?

Over at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Dr. Freeride evaluates a recent study of how student academic performance is correlated with teaching evaluations.

The study is Carrell, S., & West, J. (2010). Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random Assignment of Students to Professors Journal of Political Economy, 118 (3), 409-432

Like other studies of the effectiveness of teaching evaluations, it shows that high evaluations of teachers are correlated with grades (good grades match with good evaluations). But it also yields some surprises, such as that the students of more experienced instructors in the first of several calculus courses had lower performance in that first course but better performance in subsequent courses (no matter who taught the later courses). One possibility is that inexperienced teachers are more focused on getting students through the course at hand but less skilled at (or less focused on) teaching higher-level, critical skills.

Here is part of Dr. Freeride's analysis:
To my mind, this is a more complicated situation than students picking up inadequate study skills or teachers just teaching to the tests. Students are often surprised that learning a subject requires learning a sequence of increasingly more sophisticated models, or increasingly more sophisticated analytical techniques or methods of approximation, or what have you. Learning the next chunk of knowledge in the line is not just a matter of adding more on, but also of recognizing the problems with the chunk of knowledge you learned before. This is a surprise to many students...
One conclusion of this study, that student evaluations of faculty performance don't indicate that the students have learned all that we want them to, is no surprise at all. This is part of why institutions that care about teaching hardly ever rely on student evaluations of teaching as the only source of data to evaluate faculty teaching. (At my university, for example, there is regular peer reviewing of teaching, and these peer reviews are important in retention, tenure, and promotion decisions.)
But can even peer review yield insight into how to teach in a way that sticks? At first, I was skeptical that a study of calculus teaching can show much about evaluations and philosophy teaching. But in one respect, we do have this same issue of continuity. Many of my students think that what they are supposed to learn is the course content. Well, sometimes it is... But for the most part, I hope they're noticing the moves I make, and the moves that the various authors make, the writing skills and the argument analysis skills. Our courses aren't sequenced because learning in one class about what Theodor Adorno had to say about pseudo-individualization will not be helpful in another class on internalism about justification in contemporary epistemology. Nonetheless, a student can learn to do things in the first course that will help her excel in the second course. I'm just not sure that those things (and how well they are taught) are what wind up getting evaluated.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Life of a Female Philosopher

Most of the time, the life of a female philosopher at a philosophy conference is the same as a male philosopher’s. Schmoozing, rehashing the last talk over coffee, last-minute work on your paper.

So, how can you tell that you’re a female philosopher at a conference?

1. At the Eastern APA, do you get on the elevator and realize the other philosophers are silently staring at your chest?

2. When discussing your talk with the commentator before your presentation, does a friend of the commentator walk up ask you “Who are you here with?”, meaning “Which male participant are you an appendage of?”

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Interdisciplinary Science

I've been thinking about interdisciplinarity lately. What it is, what sorts of problems of inquiry it's good for, what the obstacles to interdisciplinary research are, and how interdisciplinarity differs from other options such as multi-disciplinarity. This seems like a job for: social epistemologists!

The NSF has released a study on US doctoral dissertations that can be identified as conducting interdisciplinary (science?) research. (NSF results here.) On the survey of earned doctorates, doctoral candidates were asked to identify their primary and secondary field of research. In 2008, 27% of respondents indicated that their research was interdisciplinary.

From Science magazine's report on the study:
It's an article of faith among science policymakers that interdisciplinary research is essential to address society's most pressing technological challenges, from energy independence to improved health care. But don't ask them to measure it. The National Academies' upcoming assessment of doctoral research programs, for example, asked departments what percentage of their faculty members were associated with other programs. But the data "aren't very satisfactory," says Charlotte Kuh, study director. Part of the problem is the fuzzy definition of an interdisciplinary program, she adds.
The standard for what counts as interdisciplinary is not set very high, since the fields are cut fairly finely and research that straddles closely related fields is counted as interdisciplinary. Thus, a research project in ecology and plant pathology counts as interdisciplinary. So does endocrinology and environmental toxicology. Thus, 81% of respondents in the biological sciences who considered their research to be interdisciplinary listed a secondary discipline in the same broad field as their primary discipline.

In other words, how much does the survey depend on students' perception of what counts as interdisciplinary? And what sort of meaning does it give to interdisciplinarity to count closely related fields as meeting a standard of interdisciplinarity. It seems to me that if there are obstacles to interdisciplinary research (and I think there are), these are less likely to make a difference when the fields in question are agricultural science and plant pathology than when they are atmospheric science and sociology. Yet, when we hear proclamations of the tough problems that interdisciplinarity will solve, they are more often like the latter than the former.

Again, from the Science News report:
NSF officials say the survey doesn't address the larger question of how difficult or easy it is for students to pursue interdisciplinary degrees, nor the extent to which senior faculty engage in interdisciplinary research themselves. An ongoing NSF survey of academic research piloted a question about how much is being spent on such activities, and where on campus the research takes place. But that proved to be a tough question for research administrators to answer, says one program manager, and the results may not be usable.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Mountain Gorillas in the Congo

Posted with a CSMonitor article titled "Want to save Congo's endangered mountain gorillas? There an app for that" and an earlier article "Standing up for Congo's rare mountain gorillas."

In Virunga National Park,
More than 120 rangers have been killed in recent years for trying to stop the trade in exotic animals, gold, and charcoal from the park.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Philosophy Careers, Autonomy, and Self-direction

My university now offers a bachelor's degree in philosophy, and the degree program has been more successful in its first couple of years than anyone initially expected. Students are transferring in from other programs within the university, students are double-majoring (even with their other degree being in engineering!), and we've recruited students who are willing to enter from Day 1 as philosophy majors. (This is the only university I know of which makes it all but impossible to enter as an undecided major.)

But I have to admit that I have concerns when it comes to recruiting students to the philosophy major in the context of a career-oriented university. I do believe that philosophy prepares people to excel in law, law enforcement, criminal investigation, business, journalism, the clergy, politics, civil service and international development, education, market and policy research, and so many other fields. Yet, in a university where majors are seen as preparatory for disciplinary careers, the philosophy majors I know all expect to become professional philosophers.

I make no judgments about who would be a "good" future professional--there's far, far too much diversity in our profession to play that game. The problem, instead, is my suspicion that the chances of successfully navigating the route to professional philosopher are rather less probable than that of successfully becoming a lawyer, businessperson, journalist, editor, or whatever, while being more vested with mythology and no more dependent on merit. I worry about their future happiness.

So as I say farewell to students on their way to graduate school, I'll be sure to plant the idea in their heads that there are many good and fulfilling careers. And I hope that all our philosophical discussions of virtuosity, of autonomy, and of authenticity will head them down interesting and unexpected paths.

Should the path of professional philosophers seem too flat and narrow, I have two excellent examples of people who trekked off it to find their own:

Martin Noval, who was a visiting professor in my department in the 1980's (before my time here) leads treks in the Himalayas and trips through India.

Jack Turner, formerly a professor at Univ. of Illinois, Chicago is now the president of Exum Mountain Guides.