Archive for the 'Philosophy' 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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SPSP 2013 Symposium S10: Talking Junk about Transposons: Levels of selection and conceptions of functionality in...

SPSP 2013 Symposium S10: Talking Junk about Transposons: Levels of selection and conceptions of functionality in...

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

  1. As an audience member in this session, I had much less relevant background knowledge than I did in some others.  But I was pretty aware, from goings on in the science blogosphere, that there has been some amount of disagreement about what to say about "junk DNA," the ENCODE project's findings, and the coverage of it all by science journalists.
  2. Waiting for Symposium on "Talking Junk abt Trasposons: Levels of Selection & conceptions of functionality..." #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  3. First up: T. Ryan Gregory, "Junk and the genome" #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

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SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Explanation in the Biological Sciences

Jun 28 2013 Published by under Biology, Conferences, Methodology, Philosophy

SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Explanation in the Biological Sciences

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 27, 2013, during Concurrent Sessions III

  1. Again, I had to make a choice about which of four sessions to attend, and this one drew me in.

    You might ask, "What happened to Concurrent Sessions II?"
  2. I know my multi-tasking limits, yo!
  3. On deck: session of contributed papers on explanation in the biological sciences. #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  4. First up: Ingo Brigandt, "Systems biology & the limits of philosophical accounts of mechanistic explanation" #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

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SPSP 2013 Symposium S1: De-idealization in the Sciences

SPSP 2013 Symposium S1: De-idealization in the Sciences

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 27, 2013, during Concurrent Sessions I

  1. The concurrent sessions required a choice (from five very attractive options).
  2. Just about to start: Symposium on "De-idealization in the Sciences" #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  3. Lots of discussions in literature of idealization, not enough of de-idealization (making models more realistic) #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  4. What are the strategies, processes of de-idealization? The session will look at practices to see ... #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  5. First up: Mieke Boon, "Idealization & de-idealization as an epistemic strategy in experimental practices" #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

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SPSP 2013 Plenary session #1: Ian Hacking

SPSP 2013 Plenary session #1: Ian Hacking

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 27, 2013

  1. Getting ready for 1st plenary session of #SPSP2013 "Some roles of mathematics in some scientific practices" by Ian Hacking
  2. Getting ready for 1st plenary session of #SPSP2013Toronto "Some roles of mathematics in some scientific practices" by Ian Hacking #BetterTag
  3. Actual title of Ian Hacking's talk: "Some roles of some mathematics in some scientific practices" (Maybe some summing?) #SPSP2013Toronto

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Baffling things I have read in blog comments discussing Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami

Baffling things I have read in blog comments discussing Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami

Sure, people are always warned not to read the comments. But in the philosophy blogosphere you might expect more thinking-through of positions, more recognition that what is metaphysically possible is not always plausible, and so forth. Plus empathy and stuff. And yet ...

  1. The baffling things presented here are mostly paraphrases (on account of Twitter's 140-character limit).  The commenters whose comments I'm paraphrasing would undoubtedly say I'm being uncharitable in my paraphrasing. I leave it to the reader to peruse the comments at NewAPPS, Crooker Timber, The Philosophy Smoker, and other fine blogs dealing with philosophy and/or academia that have commented on the McGinn resignation to see how many of these sentiments turn up.
  2. Continue Reading »

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Some modest proposals in the wake of Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami.

More than you could possibly want to read about this case has been posted by the folks you should already be reading to stay up on happenings in the world of academic philosophy: Leiter (here and here), New APPS (here, here, here, and here), Feminist Philosophers (here), The Philosophy Smoker (here).

At issue is whether it is (always) wrong for a professor to send email to his graduate student research associate mentioning that he was thinking about her while masturbating.

I take it as a mark of how deeply messed up the moral compass of professional philosophy is that there are commenters at some of the blogs linked above who seem willing to go to the mat to argue that there may be conditions in which it is acceptable to email your RA you that were thinking about her during your hand-job. Because personal interactions are hard, y'all! And power-gradients in graduate programs that are at once educational environments and workplaces are really very insignificant compared to what the flesh wants! Or something.

Since, apparently, treating graduate students as colleagues in training rather than wank-fodder is very complicated and confusing for people who are purportedly very smart indeed, I'd like to propose ways to make life easier:

1. Let's make it an official rule that professors should NEVER email students, staff, colleagues, supervisors, program officers, et al. ANYTHING mentioning their masturbatory activities or the thoughts that pass through their heads during such activities. I would have thought this is just common sense, but apparently it isn't, so make it a bright line. If you're not able to follow the explicit rule, you probably don't have the chops to handle the more subtly challenging duties of the professoriate.

Anyone who wants to hear about what you're thinking while you're masturbating is either treating you within a therapeutic relationship or someone with whom you're in a position to share a pillow. Just take as given that no one else wants to know.

2. Don't try to date your (department's) students. I don't care if your institution doesn't explicitly forbid it (and honestly, I expect philosophy professors to recognize the difference between "it's not against the rules" and "it's ethical and prudent"). JUST DON'T. It's a risky call, especially for the student. (I have read letters of recommendation for applicants to academic jobs written by the thesis-supervisor-who-dated-the-applicant-until-they-broke-up. In a crowded job market, it's not a good look.)

What about love? If it's real, it will keep until the student is no longer a student. What, you say it's the student pestering you for a relationship? Say no! You can say no to other unreasonable requests from students, can't you? If not, again, maybe the professoriate is not for you.

Really, this should be enough.

And, for the record, having been on the receiving end of unwelcome behavior in philosophy (among other professional communities), I do not for a minute believe that such incidents are a matter of social ineptness or inability to read cues. Rather, a more plausible hypothesis (and one that usually has a great deal of contextual evidence supporting it in particular cases) is that the people dishing out such behavior simply don't care how it makes the targets of the behavior feel -- or worse, that they're intentionally trying to make their targets feel uncomfortable and powerless.

Spending too much time trying to find the possible world in which jerk behavior is OK simply gives the jerks in this world cover to keep operating. We should cut that out.

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Thoughts on the American Philosophical Association Committee on Sexual Harassment.

Pat Campbell asks what I think of the announcement that the American Philosophical Association is putting together a committee on sexual harassment in the discipline.

First, let me point out Rebecca Kukla's excellent interview of the Chair of the APA Committee on Sexual Harassment, Kate Norlock. The interview does a lot to set out what the committee can and can't do, given their charge from the APA.

Second, let me relay an anecdote, in two moments, from the Pacific Division meeting of the APA, which happened in San Francisco last week:

Moment 1, chatting with female philosophers before a session was about to begin.

Me: Well, my harasser is a prominent participant in [session name redacted], so I won't be going to that one.

Female colleague: Huh, my harasser is on the program in [session name redacted]. I'll be skipping it.

* * * * *

Moment 2, chatting with male philosophers before another session was about to begin.

Me: It's a little awkward keeping track of the time and location of a session I'm not planning to go to so I don't run into my harasser.

Male colleagues: Wait, you've been sexually harassed in philosophy? Does that kind of thing actually happen?

The point of the anecdote is that many of us who are women in philosophy have had markedly different experiences of the environment in the discipline -- whether in our workplaces, the departments that trained us, or even professional meetings like those held under the auspices of the APA -- than our male colleagues. Moreover, the differences in what people notice about the professional climate are bound to be amplified by the fact that harassers are often circumspect enough to make sure their harassing activities happen out of sight of others besides those they are harassing.

By the way, What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy has anecdata from many more women in the discipline. Many of them I find painfully unsurprising (given the things I've seen and experienced), but others shock even me.

So, what exactly in the APA Committee on Sexual Harassment going to do about a philosophical community that seems more noticeably sexual harass-y for its female members? From the interview with committee chair Kate Norlock:

Rebecca: Let’s talk about the committee itself. What exactly is its charge? What is it supposed to deliver in the end? 

Kate: Good questions! Let me start by saying what we're not charged with doing: We are not asked to investigate particular allegations of sexual harassment, or resolve pending harassment cases in the profession, or expose scholars whispered to harass. Having said that, our duties DO include developing a protocol to gather anonymous information about sexual harassment in the profession. No one expects us to gather comprehensive data, because this isn't a committee assembled in order to be doing social science either. Instead, we aim to collect accounts of encounters with sexual harassment so that our recommendations are reflective of what actually occurs. It could otherwise be easy to make recommendations from our armchairs about what we imagine to be the case. We aim to avoid that.

The goal of the committee, ultimately, is to formulate a statement of best practices in the philosophy profession in higher education. I joke to people I know that the best practices could be summarized, "Don't do that." More seriously, though, we are also tasked with researching what other fields do to prevent it, to diminish its occurrence, and to make it clearer what options exist for those who experience harassment.  Our official "deliverables" are as follows: "The Committee will produce a report recommending best practices regarding sexual harassment in the discipline be implemented by the APA, philosophy departments in which APA members are employed, and conferences and other professional events hosted by either."

In other words, the committee is going to get information about some of the sexual harassment people have encountered in the discipline and use that as a starting point develop recommendations for how to address sexual harassment as it happen and (as I read it) how to keep sexual harassment from happening in the first place.

The committee is not conducting a full-scale empirical study of the prevalence of sexual harassment in the discipline of philosophy. It will not be delivering results that let us say whether philosophy is better or worse on the harassment front (or by how much) than other academic disciplines or professional communities. It is not finding redress for people who have been harassed, nor imposing punishment or remedial measures on people who have been harassing.

I think it's a good thing for the APA to start trying to get its arms around the problem, to get some sense of its size and shape. I also think that using actual, rather than hypothetical, cases to develop best practices is a really good idea. For whatever reason, philosophy seems to lag other academic disciplines in formulating such best practices. Again, from the interview:

Rebecca: In your view, why it important that we, as a discipline, address sexual harassment?

Kate: I think the effects of harassment piggyback on the effects of a lot of other marginalizations that are evident in philosophy. The experiences of minorities in a field that is predominantly white, predominantly male, and predominantly middle- and upper-class can be discouraging, and perpetuate imbalances in the demographics of our profession. I think harassment amplifies that discouragement.

Other fields make it clearer in policy and organizational statements that harassment of some sorts is a crime - that it's not just not-acceptable but illegal. We're a bit behind in that respect. Some of the APA's more recent documents discourage interviews in private hotel rooms and so forth, with the implication that past practices are regrettable. But this runs the risk of making it seem as though the culture of bad practices is a norm that we disparage, not an unacceptable arrangement.

Rebecca: I agree that we are behind! My sense is that philosophers are especially bad at acknowledging that we need institutional guidelines for both preventing and coping with harassment. Do you think that's partly because philosophers think of themselves as 'above' cut and dried institutional rules? It seems to me that so many philosophers think, hey, we are so cool and enlightened and informal in this field, we can manage to deal with these issues without all that petty bureaucracy.

Kate: I think we often try to reject the errors of the past by just not talking about them much at all. When I was a student we learned to ignore the sexist things that past great figures said because it was not relevant or didn't matter. By the same token, it's attractive to say we're past sexually harassing, so why do we need a statement of best practices? Let's just look away, look away! Unfortunately, that approach does not seem to help those who continue to encounter harassment in the profession.

Philosophers, like lots of other smart people in thinky professions, need to be careful not to assume that their own individual intuitions, or that their own Bayesian prior probabilities (updated to accord with their own individual experiences), capture the entire objective reality of the climate in the discipline. They need to recognize that the individual intentions they have (or think they have), and those that they assume their colleagues to have, are not always enough to prevent harassment, or to produce an adequate response to harassment when it happens.

They need to recognize that what they hope is the case (about their discipline, and their friends and colleagues within it) sometimes departs dramatically from what is actually the case.

And, there may be discipline-specific habits with which philosophers tend to make the situation worse. In the comments on the interview with Kate Norlock, Anon E. Mous notes:

More often than not, when I have raised concerns with colleagues, I'm met with a response of trying to do philosophy on the behavior or incident itself (i.e., trying to formulate plausible explanations of intentions or misunderstanding, etc.) and this is incredibly frustrating. It is not easy to bring concerns to light, and it is made that much less easier by having my ability to understand my own experience questioned. I understand that we'd all like to think the best of others, but this has happened not just with one-off sexist comments, or a particular ambiguous action, but in the face of persistent patterns of behavior that multiple women are concerned by, and even when its known that the person being complained about has a history.

Taking it as an intellectual exercise to spell out (almost always from first principles) what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for "real harassment" (and then, exploring the extent to which it is really culpable or mitigated by factors like implicit biases or ignorance of legal definitions or what have you) does not help -- at least, not if your goal is to recognize actual behaviors that cause real harm to actual members of the philosophical community and to do something about those behaviors to avoid perpetuating these harms.

All of which is to say, I view the formation of the APA Committee on Sexual Harassment as a good first step. But, if the discipline of philosophy is serious about dealing with sexual harassment and improving the climate for women and other underrepresented group, there will be a lot of work to do after this first step.

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Ponderable: disciplinary specific data about questions at professional conferences.

This week I'm attending the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in San Francisco. There are lots of interesting talks on the program, but I find myself noticing some of the habits of philosophers that are on display in the question-and-answer periods at the end of the talks.

For example, philosophers seem to have a hard time asking a concise question. It's not obvious that this is always a problem -- providing a bit of context with the question can make it easier to get an answer to the question one is trying to ask -- but sometimes the queries come with so much background that it's hard to identify the actual question. And sometimes it's just that the questioners are just trying to ask too many things at once. (To be fair, some philosophers recognize this, including one this morning who started, "I have two questions, but I'll try to reduce them to a single one ...") Then too there are the questioners disinclined to yield the floor, persisting with follow-up queries even as the session chair is indicating that they should shut up so other people can get their questions answered.

My impression is that some of these behaviors are generational (or maybe related to status within the professional community), but others strike me as behaviors characteristic of philosophers.

Are there patterns of engagement in professional meeting Q&A that you take to be distinctive of your discipline? Any behaviors you think are dying out, or surging forth? And, if you're one of those interdisciplinary creatures, are there exotic Q&A behaviors you notice when you go to professional meetings with folks from the other side of a disciplinary fence?

(I'm now thinking I might start collecting some more precise data on questions for the remainder of the meeting, to see how measurements square with my impressions.)

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Ponderable: Academic hiring and interviewing.

It has been eleven years since I was last on the market for an academic job, and about six years (if I'm remembering correctly) since I was last on a search committee working to fill a tenure-track position in my department. Among other things, this means that I can consider the recent discussion of "conference interviews" at The Philosophy Smoker with something approaching "distance".

However, as I'm well aware, distance is not the same as objectivity, and anyway objectivity is not the kind of thing you can achieve solo, so I'm going to do a little thinking out loud on the screen in the hopes that you all may chime in.

The nub of the issue is how search committees in philosophy (and in at least some other academic disciplines) use preliminary interviews (typically 30 to 60 minutes in length) to winnow their "best" applicants for a position (as judged on the basis of writing samples, publication records, letters of recommendation, transcripts, teaching evaluations, and other written materials) down to the finalists, the number of which must be small enough that you can reasonably afford to bring them out for campus interviews.

The winnowing down is crucial. From more than a hundred applications, a search committee can usually reach some substantial agreement on maybe twenty candidates whose application materials suggest the right combination of skills (in teaching and research, and maybe also skills that will be helpful in "service" to the department, the institution, and the academic discipline) and "fit" with the needs of the department (as far as teaching, advising students, and also creating a vibrant community in which colleagues have the potential for fruitful collaborations close at hand).

But even if we could afford to fly out 15 or 20 candidates for campus interviews (which typically run a day or two, which means we'd also be paying for food and lodging for the candidates), it would literally break our semester to interview so many. These interviews, after all, include seminars in which the candidates make a research presentation, teaching demonstrations (hosted in one of our existing classes, with actual students in attendance as well as search committee members observing), meetings with individual faculty members, meetings with deans, and a long interview with the whole search committee. This is hard enough to squeeze into your semester with only five candidates.

So, the standard procedure has been to conduct preliminary interviews of shorter duration with the 20 or so candidates who make the first cut at the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association. For departments like mine, these interviews happen at a table in a ballroom designated for this purpose. Departments that have a bit more money will rent a suite at the conference hotel and conduct the interviews there, with a bit less background noise.

Job candidates pretty much hate this set up. The conference falls during winter holidays (December 26-30 or so), which means travel is more expensive than it might be some other time of year. Search committees sometimes don't decide who they want to interview at the convention until quite late in the game, which means candidates may not hear that a department would like to interview them until maybe a week before the conference starts (boosting the price of those plane tickets even more, or making you gamble by buying a plane ticket in advance of having any interviews scheduled). Even at conference rates, the hotel rooms are expensive. Occasionally, winter storms create problems for candidates and search committee members try to get to, or to flee from, the conference. Flu season piles on.

Search committee members are not wild about the logistics of traveling to the convention for the interviews, either. However, they feel like the conference interviews provide vital information in working out which of the top 20 or so candidates are the most likely to "fit" what the department wants and needs.

But this impression is precisely what is in question.

It has been pointed out (e.g., by Gilbert Harman, referencing research in social psychology) that interviews of the sort philosophy search committees use to winnow down the field add noise to the decision process rather than introducing reliable information beyond what is available in other application materials. This is not to say that search committees don't believe that their 30 or 60 minutes talking with candidates tells them something useful. But this belief, however strong, is unwarranted. The search committee might as well push itself to identify the top five candidates on the basis of the application materials alone, or, if that's not possible, randomly pick five of the top twenty for campus interviews.*

Of course, search committees seem not to be in a great hurry to abandon conference interviews, at least in philosophy. My (brief) experience on the scientific job market didn't include conference job interviews per se, but I did have preliminary interviews of very much the same nature and duration with some private sector companies and national labs -- which is to say, I don't think it's just philosophers who are making hiring decisions that are at least partially grounded on a type of information we have reason to believe could be misleading.

The question, of course, is what to do about all this.

Search committees could abandon these preliminary interviews altogether. That would surely put more pressure on the written components of the applications, some of which might themselves be misleading in interesting ways. I'm guessing search committees would resist this, since they believe (although mistakenly, if the research is right) that they really are learning something important from them. It's not obvious to me that job candidates would unanimously endorse this either (since some see the interview as a chance to make their case more vividly -- but again, maybe what they're making is pseudo-evidence for their case).

Search committees could work to structure preliminary interviews so that they provide more reliable information (as the research suggests properly structured interviews actually do).** This would require search committee members to learn how properly to conduct such interviews (and how properly to record them for later examination and evaluation). Moreover, it would require that search committee members do something like acknowledging that their instincts about how to conduct free-flowing, open-ended preliminary interviews that are also informative are probably just wrong. This is a task with a difficulty level that's probably right around what it takes to get science faculty to acknowledge that having learned a lot about their field might not be sufficient to be able to teach it effectively, and that science education research might be a useful source of empirically grounded pedagogical insight. In other words, I think it would be really hard.

Search committees could keep conducting preliminary interviews as they always have. Inertia can be powerful, as can the feeling that you really are learning something from the interviews. However, it seems like a search committee would have to take into account the claim that, empirically, interviews are misleading when drawing conclusions on the basis of preliminary interviews. (Of course this is a normative claim -- the search committees ought to take this worry into account -- rather than a claim that mere exposure to a research finding would be enough to remove the search committee's collective powers of self-delusion.)

Or ... search committees could do something else?

What else could they do here? How do those of you in scientific fields handle the role of interviewing in hiring? Specifically, do you take concrete measures to ensure that interviews don't introduce noise into hiring decisions? Or do you feel that the hiring decisions you need to make admit of sufficiently objective information that this just isn't a problem for you?

If you prefer to comment pseudonymously for this discussion, feel free, but one pseudonym to a customer please.

* For all I know, campus interviews may introduce some of the same kinds of noise to the decision-making process as conference interviews do. However, many include teaching demonstrations with a sample from the actual student population the candidate would be asked to teach if hired, a formal presentation of the candidate's research (including responding to questions about it), and ample opportunity for members of the hiring department to get a sense of whether the candidate is someone with whom one could interact productively or instead someone who might drive one up a wall.

** It is worth noting that some search committees, even in philosophy departments, actually do conduct structured interviews.

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