Archive for the 'History of science' category

SPSP 2013 Plenary session #3: James Griesemer

SPSP 2013 Plenary session #3: James Griesemer

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 28, 2013.

  1. Getting set for Plenary 3 at #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto which will be James Griesemer, "Model Taxa as Platforms for Biological Research"
  2. That there's a story (and a set of tweets) for Plenary 1 and also for Plenary 3 raises an obvious question:
  3. "Why no tweets for Plenary 2?" you ask? Because my laptop was used by the esteemed Rachel Ankeny for her slides #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  4. Assisting the speaker in achieving the conditions required to project her slides is a good thing, yes?
  5. Have taken notes in the quad-rule notebook for sessions not tweeted. Will try to tweet or blog them when I can #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

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Repost: The solstice (in a two-sphere cosmos).

As I'm still barricaded in the Cave of Grading, and as the Winter Solstice may be upon us before I can emerge, victorious, here's a seasonal post from last December:

Here in the Northern Hemisphere (of Earth), today marks the Winter Solstice. Most people have some understanding that this means today is the day of minimum sunlight, or the longest night of the year. Fewer people, I think, have a good astronomical sense of why that is the case.

So, in honor of the solstice, let's do some old school astronomy. Really old school.

Let's consider the two-sphere cosmos:


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Professionalism, pragmatism, and the Hippocratic Oath.

In a recent post about a study of plagiarism in the personal statements of applicants for medical residency programs, the issue of professionalism reared its head. The authors of that study identified plagiarism in these application essays as a breach of professionalism, and one likely to be a harbinger of more such breaches as the applicant’s medical career progressed. Moreover, the authors noted that:

increasing public scrutiny of physicians’ ethical behavior is likely to put pressure on training programs to enforce strict rules of conduct, beginning with the application process.

I think it’s worth taking a closer look at what “professionalism” encompasses and at why it would be important to a professional community (like the professional community of physicians). To do this, let’s go way back to an era where physicians were working very hard to distinguish themselves from some of the other thinkers and purveyors of services in the public square – the time when the physicians known as the Hippocratics were flourishing in ancient Greece.

These physicians were working to make medicine a more scientific practice. They sought not just ways to heal, but an understanding of why these treatments were effective (and of how the bodies they were treating worked). But another big part of what the Hippocratics were trying to do involved establishing standards to professionalize their healing practices – and trying to establish a public reputation that would leave the public with a good opinion of learned medicine. After all, they weren’t necessarily pursuing medical knowledge for its own sake, but because they wanted to use it to help patients (and to make a living from providing these services). However, getting patients depended on being judged trustworthy by the people who might need treatment.

Professionalism, in other words, had to do not only with the relationship between members of the professional community but also with the relationship between that professional community and the larger society in which it was embedded.

The physicians in this group we’re calling the Hippocratics left a number of writings, including a statement of their responsibilities called “The Oath”. It’s worth noting that the Hippocratic corpus contains a diversity of works that reflect some significant differences of opinion among the physicians in this community – including some works (on abortion and surgery, for example) that seem to contradict some of the specific claims of “The Oath”. Still, “The Oath” gives us pretty good insight into the kind of concerns that would motivate a community of practitioners who were trying to professionalize.

We’re going to look at “The Oath” in its entirety, with my commentary interspersed. I’m using the translation of by J. Chadwick in Hippocratic Writings, edited by G.E.R. Lloyd.

I swear by Apollo the healer, by Aesculapius, by Health and all the powers of healing, and call to witness all the gods and goddesses that I may keep this Oath and Promise to the best of my ability and judgment.

In other words, it’s a serious oath.

I will pay the same respect to my master in the Science as to my parents and share my life with him and pay all my debts to him. I will regard his sons as my brothers and teach them the Science, if they desire to learn it, without fee or contract.

This is a recognition of the physician’s debt to professional community, those who taught him. It’s also a recognition of his duty to educate next generation of the profession.

I will hand on precepts, lectures and all other learning to my sons, to those of my master and to those pupils duly apprenticed and sworn, and to none other.

This part is all about keeping trade secrets secret. The assumption was that learned medicine involved knowledge that should not be shared with everyone, especially because a lot of people wouldn’t have the wisdom or intelligence or good character to use it appropriately. Also, given that these physicians wanted to be able to earn a living from their healing practices, they needed to keep something of a monopoly on this knowledge.

I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment; I will abstain from harming or wronging any man by it.

Here’s the recognition of the physician’s duty to his patients, the well-known commitment to do no harm. Obviously, this commitment is in the patients’ interests, but it’s also tied to the reputation of the professional community. Maintaining good stats, as it were, by not doing any harm should be expected to raise the community’s opinion of the profession of learned medicine.

I will not give a fatal draught to anyone if I am asked, nor will I suggest any such thing. Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion.

These two sentences forbid the physician’s participation in euthanasia or abortion. Note, however, that other writings in the Hippocratic corpus indicate that physicians in this tradition did participate in such procedures. Maybe this was a matter of local variations in what the physicians (and the public they served) found acceptable. Maybe there was a healthy debate among the Hippocratics about these practices.

I will be chaste and religious in my life and in my practice.

This part basically calls upon the physician to conduct himself as a good person. After all, the reputation of whole profession would be connected, at least in the public’s view, to the reputation of individual practitioners.

I will not cut, even for the stone, but I will leave such procedures to the practitioners of that craft.

Cutting was the turf of surgeons, not physicians. Here, too, there are other writings in the Hippocratic corpus that indicate that physicians in this tradition did some surgery. However, before the germ theory of disease or the discovery of antibiotics, you might imagine that performing surgery could lead to a lot of complications, running afoul of the precept to do no harm. Again, that was going to hurt the professional community’s stats, so it seemed reasonable just to leave it to the surgeons and let them worry about maintaining their own reputation.

Whenever I go into a house, I will go to help the sick and never with the intention of doing harm or injury.

This reads as an awareness of the physician’s power and of the responsibilities that come with it. If patients are trusting the physician and giving him this privileged access, for the good of the professional community he had better live up to that trust.

I will not abuse my position to indulge in sexual contacts with the bodies of women or men, whether they be freemen or slaves.

This is more of the same. Having privileged access means you have the opportunity to abuse it, but that kind of abuse could tarnish the reputation of the whole profession, even of physicians whose conduct met the highest standards of integrity.

Whatever I see or hear, professionally or privately, which ought not to be divulged, I will keep secret and tell no one.

To modern eyes, this part might suggest a commitment to maintain patient privacy. It’s more likely, however, that this was another admonition to protect the trade secrets of the professional community.

If, therefore, I observe this Oath and do not violate it, may I prosper both in my life and in my profession, earning good repute among all men for all time. If I transgress and forswear this Oath, may my lot be otherwise.

“Swear to God and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye!” Did we mention that it’s a serious oath?

The main thing I think is worth noticing here is the extent to which professionalism is driven by a need for the professional community to build good relations with the larger society – the source of their clients. Pick any modern code of conduct from a professional society and you will see the emphasis on duties to those clients, and to the larger public those clients inhabit, but this emphasis is at least as important for the professional community as for the people their profession is meant to serve. The code describes the conduct that members should exhibit to earn the trust of the public, without which they won’t get to practice their profession – or, at any rate, they might not be viewed as having special skills worth paying for, or as being the kind of people who could be trusted not to use those special skills against you.

Professionalism is not idealistic, then, but extremely pragmatic.

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Book review: The Evolution of Everything.

In The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature, Mark Sumner prefaces his exploration of Darwin’s theory of evolution – and of the power of selection to explain phenomena as diverse as the economic downturn, the “success” of patent medicines that don’t do much to cure what ails you, and the shape of the new TV season – with the reminder that what you think you know could well be wrong. Sumner argues that the set of erroneous beliefs to which most of us cling includes our sense of what Darwin’s own Darwinism actually asserts.

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#scio10 aftermath: some thoughts on "An Open History of Science".

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that stayed with me from this session. (Here are my tweets from the session and the session's wiki page.)
The session was led by John McKay and Eric Michael Johnson. John posted the text of his presentation and Eric posted his presentation a la YouTube. I'm going to take this as permission to skip doing a proper recap here. Instead, I'm going to write about the big ideas this session raised for me.
First, I'm struck by how easy it is for those of us who were trained to do science to know very little about where scientific practices come from -- especially practices around communicating results and methods to other scientists. Somehow, we either assume it's always been this way (where "this way" is often the way we were taught to do it), or that the practices were put in place in plenty of time for the scientists of earlier eras who might have needed them, or that the practices that were established as the right ones were so obvious that their adoption was inevitable.
What I've gleaned from my coursework and reading in the history of science is that the inevitable usually takes a lot of work (plus some luck).

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The solstice (in a two-sphere cosmos).

Here in the Northern Hemisphere (of Earth), today marks the Winter Solstice. Most people have some understanding that this means today is the day of minimum sunlight, or the longest night of the year. Fewer people, I think, have a good astronomical sense of why that is the case.

So, in honor of the solstice, let's do some old school astronomy. Really old school.

Let's consider the two-sphere cosmos:


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Bay Area Darwin fans: hear The Origin Cycle at Stanford this Thursday evening.

Oct 06 2009 Published by under Biology, History of science

Thursday, October 8, at 8 pm, the Firebird Ensemble will be performing The Origin Cycle, eight selections from Charles Darwin's work Origin of Species set to music. The performance will be at Stanford University's Campbell Recital Hall, and tickets are free, but you'll want to reserve your seats online ahead of the performance.
Here's a bit of information on The Origin Cycle:

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Great moments in scientific reasoning.

In my philosophy of science class yesterday, we talked about Semmelweis and his efforts to figure out how to cut the rates of childbed fever in Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s. Before we dug into the details, I mentioned that Semmelweis is a historical figure who easily makes the Top Ten list of Great Moments in Scientific Reasoning. (At the very least, Semmelweis is discussed in no fewer than three of the readings, by three separate authors, assigned for the course.)
But this raises the question: what else belongs on the Top Ten list of Great Moments in Scientific Reasoning?

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Book review: Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science.

Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer among the American Romantics
by Renée Bergland
Boston: Beacon Press

What is it like to be a woman scientist? In a society where being a woman is somehow a distinct experience from being an ordinary human being, the answer to this question can be complicated. And, in a time and place where being a scientist, being a professional -- indeed, even being American -- was still being worked out, the complexities of the answer can add up to a biography of that time, that place, that swirl of intellectual and cultural ferment, as well as of that woman scientist.
The astronomer Maria Mitchell was not only a pioneering woman scientist in the early history of the United States, but she was one of the nation's first professional scientists. Renée Bergland's biography of Mitchell illuminates a confluence of circumstances that made it possible for Mitchell to make her scientific contributions -- to be a scientist at all. At the same time, it tracks a retrograde cultural swing of which Mitchell herself was aware: a loss, during Mitchell's lifetime, of educational and career opportunities for women in the sciences.

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A tremendous Luddite celebrates Ada Lovelace Day.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day.
Regular readers of this blog may recall that I am a tremendous Luddite. Obviously, this should not be taken to mean I am against all technological advances across the board (as here I am, typing on a computer, preparing a post that will be published using blogging software on the internet). Rather, I am suspicious of technological advances that seem to arise without much thought about how they influence the experience of the humans interacting with them, and of "improvements" that would require me to sink a bunch of time into learning new commands or operating instructions while producing at best a marginal improvement over the outcome I get from the technology I already know.
That is to say, my own inclination is to view technologies not as ends in themselves but as tools which, depending on how they are deployed, can enhance our lives or can make them harder.
The original Luddites were part of a workers' movement in England in the early 19th century. The technologies these Luddites were against included the mechanical knitting machines and looms that shifted textile production from the hands of skilled knitters and weavers to a relatively unskilled labor force tending to the machines. In the current economic climate, it's not too hard to see what the Luddites were worried about: even if the Industrial Revolution technologies didn't result in an overall decrease in jobs (since you'd need workers to tend the machines), there would be no reason to assume that the owners of textile factories would be interested in retraining the skilled knitters and weavers already in existence to be the machine-tenders. And net stability (even increase) in the number of jobs can be cold comfort when your job goes away.

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