Monday, March 29, 2010

Local Event: Lecture on Science and Religion

Are some readers of this blog local to western New York?

PZ Meyers of the liberal, godless, and hilarious Pharyngula blog is speaking on the RIT campus this Thursday, April 1 at 8:30 pm in the Webb Auditorium. The topic is "The Irreconcilability of Science and Religion."

And the very next day at 3pm the philosophy department is sponsoring a philosophy of science lecture on quantum mechanics by Steve Weinstein of the University of Waterloo--should be a thought-provoking accompaniment to the seminar I'm teaching on "Physics and Metaphysics."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Feminist Theory and Analytic Sentences

I just came across a discussion of the analytic/synthetic distinction in a philosophy of science textbook (one that's still in print and available through Wadsworth).

As the only example of an analytic sentence, the (male) author gives

"All women are female"

with the further explanation that it's analytic because the "meaning of the words determines its truth and because nothing that has happened in the world, can happen, or will happen, can change its truth status."

This seems like a good time to bring up the sex/gender distinction, something that is taught in introductory women's studies classes. We may go on to question and trouble the distinction itself, but a good place to start is to note:
1. sex (female) is biological and gender (woman) is social
2. the male-female sex dichotomy does not hold perfectly in humans. Indeed, for about 1% of the human population one or more sexual features are out of step with the others--chromosomal abnormalities, hormonal abnormalities, anatomical abnormalities. Some argue that to call these "abnormalities" is itself ignorant of how common they are. Moreover, in the US, about .25% of the population has changed gender.

And yes, the beautiful woman in that image is not female.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Philosophy of Science? Get Over It!

Jon Butterworth of high-energy physics addresses philosopher of science Nick Maxwell in the pages of the Guardian:
"Come on philosophers of science: you must do better than this!"

The play:
Act I--Writer and political activist George Monbiot, in his Guardian column, contemplates why so many people are so slow to believe in and act on climate change, despite the massive amounts of data that have been available for years.
"The trouble with trusting complex science: There is no simple way to battle public hostility to climate change research. As the psychologists show, facts barely sway us anyway."
Act II--Philosopher of science Nick Maxwell interprets the problem that Monbiot is getting at as being that we can't trust scientists about climate change data because they deceive us even about the nature of what they're up to.
"Scientists should stop deceiving us: In holding that the aim of science is truth alone, they misrepresent its real aims."
Act III--Particle physicist Jon Butterworth calls Maxwell out with "Come on, philosophers of science, you must do better than this."

I have to say, I really do like Butterworth's piece, from its start:

I strive to retain respect for philosophy and philosophers, really I do. Some of my best friends are philosophers. I would hate to dismiss a whole area of intellectual endeavour as a sterile playground for clever people creating and demolishing pointless academic fashions.

To its finish:

Science often falls short of its ideals, and the climate debate has exposed some shortcomings. Science is done by people, who need grants, who have professional rivalries, limited time, and passionately held beliefs. All these things can prevent us from finding out what works. This is why the empiricism and pragmatism of science are vital, and why when scientific results affect us all, and speak against powerful political and financial interests, the openness and rigour of the process become ever more important.

All three of these have something right--and righteous--to say.
  1. Monbiot is here repeating a thought that gets passed around from scientist to philosopher to political activist like a lucky coin. Namely, the science of climate change has been certain enough for a decade to justify strong political action. What has been needed is not more science (not that more science hasn't been worth doing!), but rather, more insight into motivating people and politicians and economic systems to do the compassionate and rational thing. If the problem is that anxiety causes selective disbelief, then only treating the anxiety will lead to rational action.
  2. So I'm not sure why Nick Maxwell takes this as an opening to point out that there is a distinct difference between how science actually operates and the popular mythology of scientific method. Perhaps his idea is that if folks saw science as being driven by values but nonetheless a rational and trustworthy enterprise, then seeing a relation between scientists' results and their values wouldn't lead to distrust. Surely Maxwell is right that values do play a role in science--and thank goodness for that, because it is the guidance of social values that leads scientists to investigate questions like whether climate conditions could make life hard on many people rather than questions like how many grains of sand there are on the beach at Cape Cod.
  3. At any rate, it's clear that there are times to do philosophy of science and other times to fight the fight. Butterworth is right: "Science is a form of systemized pragmatism." The irony here is that one need not disagree with the general thrust of Maxwell's argument to agree with Butterworth that the point misses the point. This is certainly not the only time I've seen philosophers of science think that scientists have failed to examine their own assumptions and methodologies.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Feminist Fantasies

An XKCD comic that is too raunchy to embed here but worth a visit:

Conference Announcement: IAPh

The conference program for the International Association of Women Philosophers has been posted. The theme this year is Feminism, Science, and Values. Though saying that I'd like to go to London for a weekend in June can lead to misunderstandings--I've found that London, Ontario is a lovely, relaxed conference site.

International Association for Women Philosophers
XIV IAPh Symposium 2010

Feminism, Science and Values

June 25-28, 2010
The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada
co-hosted by the Dept. of Philosophy and the Rotman Institute of Science & Values

Featuring keynote addresses by Barbara Duden (Leibniz Universit├Ąt Hannover),
Lisa Gannett (St. Mary's University), Sarah Richardson (University of Massachusetts, Amherst),
Vandana Shiva
(Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology)

and Nancy Tuana (Penn State University)

Registration and full program information can be found at:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Beyond the Gene

Although I finished teaching my seminar on philosophy and genetics (and am now teaching on physics and metaphysics), my attention continues to be drawn to examples of how medical outcomes and behavioral tendencies are reported as being determined by genetics even when environmental influences are obvious and even predominant.

Presumptions of singular causation are so deeply engrained in our habits of thought, that I found that even after several discussions and relevant readings, students would easily fall back on talking about nature vs. nurture. In response to a direct question, they would be able to describe that environment and genetics interact in such complex ways that it doesn't make sense to attribute some aspects of behavior to one and some aspects to another. And yet...just minutes later the same old, engrained, dichotomy would reappear.

Evelyn Fox Keller, in some of her recent work (book and video), has argued that we need new language to express interactions, and in particular, interactions between genes and the intracellular environment. Though this is true, I think we also just need practice. We need to hear more complex descriptions, and we need exposure to these ideas so that they can work their way into our culture.

To that end, I'm looking forward to reading David Shenk's new book, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told about Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong.

More here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Motivating Concern for Natural Places

A post that I wrote a few weeks ago on a project to restore an urban old-growth forest in my neighborhood continues to receive some hits and comments, so I think I'll give an update.

Margaret just asked if I could say more about nature and vulnerability to decline.

My sense is that there are several ways of looking at nature--both here, in this Grove, and elsewhere. In one story, nature is a magnificent force who looks after herself. Although we humans can do things to harm natural settings, in time they eventually recover. Damage is not permanent. And at the same time, if we try to tame nature, she will reassert herself. In the case of this very old and very tall piece of forest, the forces of nature seem strong and our influence seems weak. The trees are tall and old. When they fall, that's just nature's development. The vegetation is at times dense and healthy. There are many chipmunks and squirrels and insects and birds. In this story, as long as there is no asphalt, there is nature, and she is looking after herself.

But another way of looking at this same forest pays attention to some details: the young trees are mostly escapees from garden plantings, as are many of the shrubs and herbs. Besides the mature trees, the plants that looks so vigorous and dense are Norway maples and black swallowwort and English ivy. The trillium are gone, the mayapples are mostly gone. In this story, there is greenery, and in one sense it is natural--and vigorous! But in another sense, it is the result of human culture, and these are the same plants that grow everywhere else--in my yard and in the drainage ditches. And we see that even things that seem permanent--the dirt we walk on--winds up in the storm sewers as erosion takes over when the roots of growing things are not holding it stable.

Margaret, I like your idea about focusing on wildflowers. I've seen that be a successful strategy both where I grew up, in Texas, and also where I now work in western New York. In the 1980's a campus group planted trillium and some other spring ephemerals and now they are naturalized.

In the last few weeks the city foresters have proposed a plan to run a trial of removing the invasive Norway maple saplings in some constrained areas. This sounds like a good plan to me. It proceeds decisively but also slowly enough to find out if the intervention will have the desired effect in terms of achieving some control but also not impacting the aesthetics of the grove. My concern is just that the saplings are ID'd properly since there is a mix of the native sugar maples and the invasive Norway maples. These two kinds of trees can be hard to distinguish even though they aren't closely related--especially in early spring.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Women in Science and Society

I've read oodles of articles on women in science and women in academia, but this latest one in the International Herald Tribune stands out as one of the best in terms of being realistic but positive.

Risk and Opportunity for Women in 21st Century


PARIS — Daniel Louvard does not believe in affirmative action. Time and again, the scientists in his Left Bank cancer laboratory have urged him to recruit with gender diversity in mind. But Mr. Louvard, research director at the Institut Curie and one of France’s top biochemists, just keeps hiring more women.

“I take the best candidates, period,” Mr. Louvard said. There are 21 women and 4 men on his team.

The quiet revolution that has seen women across the developed world catch up with men in the work force and in education has also touched science, that most stubbornly male bastion.

Well, perhaps not as stubborn as philosophy, sometimes called the mother of all disciplines.

One of the points in the article is that institutional structures are not constructed to recognize women's roles in their families:
Ms. Rosser noted that at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she served as dean until a year ago, women had to take sick leave to give birth, like all state employees.
True at my university still: childbirth is considered a "disability," but since the academic year is split into large chunks, it's inevitable that having a baby means having to take unpaid leave.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Trees and More Trees

An oasis I like to visit: Festival of the Trees.
45th version now up at The Voltage Gate.
Something I learned: the word 'book' comes from 'beech.'