Archive for August, 2011

Does philosophy matter?

August 30, 2011 2 comments

Stanley Fish questions the usefulness of philosophy outside the academy:

Now it could be said (and some philosophers will say it) that the person who deliberates without self-conscious recourse to deep philosophical views is nevertheless relying on or resting in such views even though he is not aware of doing so. To say this is to assert that doing philosophy is an activity that underlies our thinking at every point, and to imply that if we want to think clearly about anything we should either become philosophers or sit at the feet of philosophers. But  philosophy is not the name of, or the site of, thought  generally; it is a special, insular form of thought and  its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game. Points are awarded in that game to the player who has the best argument going (“best” is a disciplinary judgment) for moral relativism or its opposite or some other position considered “major.” When it’s not the game of philosophy that is being played, but some other — energy policy, trade policy, debt reduction, military strategy, domestic life — grand philosophical theses like “there are no moral absolutes” or “yes there are” will at best be rhetorical flourishes; they will not be genuine currency  or do any decisive work.  Believing or disbelieving in moral absolutes is a philosophical position, not a recipe for living.

In short, the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical (as seminars, academic journals, and conferences are), and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them. The fact that you might give one set of answers rather than another to standard philosophical questions will say nothing about how you will behave when something other than a point of philosophy is in dispute.

In a follow-up, Fish approvingly observes the irrelevance of philosophy to the Supreme Court’s ruling on assisted suicide:

The editors of a leading jurisprudence casebook observe that “The Philosophers’ Brief arguments about autonomy seem not to have influenced the Supreme Court at all” (Jurisprudence Classic and Contemporary, 2002). Why should it have? The Court isn’t doing philosophy, it is doing law. Grand philosophical statements may turn up in a Supreme Court opinion, but they are not doing the real work.

Fish may have overstated his case, and the chosen title (his, not mine) is at least partially designed to inflame. Nevertheless, this account deserves greater consideration from us intellectuals. Outside of the academy, grand philosophies matter only to the extent they help us reason through individual circumstances. I suspect that once we immerse ourselves in the details of a particular question, and equip ourselves with the relevant history and facts, we can debate and reason without considering deeper philosophical issues. As with demarcation, philosophical appeals may simply be a lazy substitute for hard work.

Categories: Philosophy

Women’s quest for romance and their scientific pursuits

August 30, 2011 2 comments

UPDATE: In the comments, Marci send this link that goes into some detail on the flaws in the study. It’s a bit long, but well worth the read if you have time. Thanks Marci!

The girlfriend sent me this link and demanded a hat-tip (hot-tip?) for being a woman and in science:

The studies, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, were undertaken to determine why women, who have made tremendous progress in education and the workplace over the past few decades, continue to be underrepresented at the highest levels of STEM.

The research is described in the article, “Effects of Everyday Romantic Goal Pursuit on Women’s Attitudes toward Math and Science,” to be published in the September issue of .

Lead author Lora E. Park, PhD, UB associate professor of psychology and her co-authors, found converging support for the idea that when romantic goals are activated, either by environmental cues or personal choice, women — but not men — show less interest in STEM and more interest in feminine fields, such as the arts, languages and English.

Two quick points. First, the myriad studies I’ve seen along these lines rarely offer constructive suggestions on what I should do to change things. It is clearly a problem that women are often socialized away from science…but how should I change my behavior? And will it make a difference?

Second, such work should be complemented with deeper reporting and in-depth case studies. Numbers are important, but they don’t tell everything. Individuals don’t exist in general trends, and the girls who end up turning to arts and English made (at least partially) a conscious decision to do so. I’d like to hear from some of them and in their own words why they turned away from science. I suspect that that they don’t perceive their decision to be the tragedy that we do.

As TNC has argued repeatedly in the context of black Americans, it’s easy to look at this type of research, combine it with a few armchair statistics on women in science, and conclude that women turning away from science is nothing but a problem to be fixed. While on one level I agree with the characterization, it’s important not to rob people of agency and the capacity to decide for themselves.

Categories: Misc

The Scientific Sensibility

August 30, 2011 1 comment

On a blog I’ve just started reading ardently, Venkat Rao explains why he doesn’t like the scientific method:

I don’t like or use the term scientific method. Instead, I prefer the phrase scientific sensibility. The idea of a “scientific method” suggests that a certain subtle approach to engaging the world can be reduced to a codified behavior. It confuses a model of justification for a model of discovery. It attempts to locate the reliability of a certain subjective approach to discovery in a specific technique…

…The scientific method is a sensibility crammed into the mold of a system. It is a an attempt to externalize something subtle and internal into something legible and external. The only reason to do this is to scale it into an industrial mode of knowledge production, which can be powered by participants who actually lack the sensibility entirely. Such knowledge production has been characteristic of the bulk of twentieth century science (in terms of number of practitioners, not in terms of value). Hence the Hollywood stereotype of the scientist as a methodological bureaucrat; someone who worships at the altar of a specific method. Sadly, Hollywood gets it right. The typical scientist is a caricature of a human.

Though I’m nothing if not an opponent of vague terms like TSM, we need to be careful here. I’ve had countless discussions on this, and Venkat makes TSM seem more rigid and emotionless than its adherents intend it to be. More often than not, TSM is simply a synonym for the notion that problems should be studied rigorously and with care. It’s the recognition that there are better and worse ways to study certain questions even if we allow that there is no step-by-step blueprint. I can agree with Feyeraband’s methodological anarchy, disdain Hollywood’s mechanized portrayal of scientists, while also believing that the phrase TSM is useful.

Personally I would be happy to get rid of the term. But we must wrestle with how scientists actually think of and use TSM rather than its public caricature (which I feel most scientists disagree with already). We’re trying to have a semantic argument without engaging in the boring, messy work of semantics. I suspect that if we did so, there’d be much common ground between the scientific method and the scientific sensibility.

This is not a real blog

August 5, 2011 1 comment

According to Andrew Sullivan (video below), you must post at least twice a day to be considered a real blog (h/t Nisbet). Since I rarely post twice a week, I’m really in trouble. Apparently I’m not blogging and “just putting stuff up online.”

With that, here is some more stuff I’ve decided to just put online:

1. Gary Gutting in the Times on experts and global warming.

2. William Pannapacker in Slate on fixing higher education. He basically trashes getting a PhD in the humanities.

3. The response from several graduate students, and his response to the response.

4. An allegedly great podcast on patent trolling from This American Life. Allegedly because people who’ve actually listened to it seem to like it.

5. Bruggeman and Pielke on the passing of John Marburger (George W. Bush’s science advisor). Notable for me because he played a big role in forming this group that I’ve worked with.

6. Given how much I write about science and sports, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight this excellent Freddie DeBoer analogy between baseball and high-quality teachers.

7. Along those lines, Roger Pielke Jr’s new blog The Least Thing focuses entirely on the role of sport in society. Yeah!

That is all. You may continue.


Categories: Blog Dump